Rome - In a surprise announcement Pope Benedict XVI has said scientific tests carried out on an ancient Roman tomb confirm the long-held Roman Catholic belief that it contains the remains of Saint Paul. Benedict on Sunday evening told the faithful gathered at the Basilica of St Paul Outside-the-Wall, that a white marble sarcophagus which has never been opened in centuries has yielded bone fragments believed to be Saint Paul's.
Paul a one-time persecutor of Christians who famously converted after seeing Jesus in a vision while on the road to Damascus, became, together with Saint Peter, one of the greatest of the early Christian missionaries.
He is believed to have been beheaded in the year 67 in Rome after years of travel around the Mediterranean, spreading the word of Jesus and making new converts.
Carbon dating showed they belonged to someone who lived between the first and the second century AD, the pontiff said.
"This seems to confirm the unanimous and uncontested tradition that they are the mortal remains of the Apostle Paul," Benedict said while presiding over a service in the basilica to mark the end of the Vatican's Pauline year in honor of the saint.
Archaeologists collected the bone fragments using a probe introduced through a tiny hole made in the tomb which is situated under the basilica's main altar.
They also discovered some grains of incense, and pieces of purple linen with gold sequins and blue linen textiles, Benedict said.
The Vatican had known the results of the scientific tests for over a year, the basilica's chief priest, Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanza di Montezemolo, said in an interview published by Rome-daily La Repubblica on Monday.
"But we said nothing because it was announcement that had to be made by the Holy Father," Montezemolo said.
Benedict is expected to eventually authorize more testing, including the opening of the tomb - a "delicate task" because every care will have to be taken not to damage the marble of the sarcophagus, Montezemolo said.
Since late 2006, visitors to the basilica have been able to see the coffin through an opening made in the main altar.
The basilica was founded in the 4th century by Rome's first Christian emperor, Constantine I, to mark the spot - then outside Rome's city walls - of Saint Paul's burial place.
Prayer of the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 3: 14 - 19)
I kneel before the Father, from Whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that He may grant you in accord with the riches of His glory to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner self, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; that you, rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the holy ones what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.