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ROME, May 20. /TASS/. Preparations have completed in the Italian city of Bari for a unique operation to transport a fragment of relics of St Nicholas the Wonderworker, who passed away more than 1,700 years ago, to Russia for veneration by the believers, Dr. Francesco Introna, the director of the Institute of Forensic and Insurance Medicine at Bari University told TASS.
He was in charge of retrieving the fragment from the crypt where St Nicholas’s relics rest permanently and prepared it for the trip, the first one after more than 900 years since ‘translation’ of the relics to Bari from Asia Minor in the 11th century.
More precisely, the translation of the relics from Myra in Lycia took place in 1087 at the instruction of Pope Urban II. St Nicholas (d. either in 345 or 352), who was the Bishop of Myra, earned the fame of a wonderworker already during his lifetime.
Dr. Introna said the previous and only time that scientists saw the relics of the universally revered saint was in 1953 during a restoration. The relics appeared to be in a fair condition.
The expert said that about 80% of the skeleton and the skull of St Nicholas has reached our days intact.
"In 1953, reconstruction works embraced the whole crypt in the Pontifical Basilica built in Pope Urban’s time," Dr. Introna said. "And only then the experts saw all the relics. Before 1953, no one knew exactly what had been kept over there in the crypt."
The way to reach the relics is highly complicated and the fact makes the retrieval of the fragment a really unique operation.
"The crypt is located below sea level and the relics brought to Bari in the 11th century rest under three stone slabs installed back at the time of deposition of the saint there," Dr. Introna said. "Piercing the slabs are several small holes that make it possible to collect the holy moisture the relics exude. The rite of collecting it takes place annually on May 9 (the day on which the Italian merchants brought the relics to Bari in 1087 - TASS)."
"The slabs were removed only on one occasion, in 1953, but were then put back to their original places," the expert said. "The fragment that will be taken to Russia was retrieved exactly through the holes in the slabs."
Sources say the fragment is the ninth left rib. Many point out the highly emblematic character of his choice because of the rib’s close location to the region of the heart.
Dr. Introna said, however, the decision on what fragment to retrieve was taken right on the spot during the works.
"We didn’t know what specifically we could take out of there," he said. "We made the decision right on the spot. The holes 6 centimeters in diameter provide the only access to the relics. We needed laparoscopic equipment that is used in healthcare now for this job."
The team in charge of the operation invited a professional surgeon to help them.
"Along with it, we had to reach down to the depth of almost one meter - something that never happens during regular laparoscopic surgical procedures," Dr. Introna said. "First we examined the bones with the aid of a microscopic video camera and then selected the rib in a hope it would get through the hole and wouldn’t be damaged along the way."
"This is the biggest relic that we could retrieve," he said.
Dr. Introna, who for ten years was a guest physician at the Vatican studying the bodies of saints at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints as a forensic pathologist, said the very moment of retrieval was really emotional.
"We analyzed the rib very thoroughly to understand if it required additional treatment," he said. "The thing is human bones are like stones in some sense. If you cover them with special glue, you make them stronger, on the one hand, and deprive them of ventilation, on the other, while ventilation is needed for preserving them."
As a result a decision was taken to refrain from any chemical treatment of the fragment.
"In spite of fragility, our fragment is in a good condition," Dr. Introna said.
At the next stage, the rib will be placed into a special reliquary delivered from Russia, in which will be put up for veneration by the believers in the Cathedral of the Savior in Moscow as of May 22.
On May 22, the Russian Orthodox Church marks the Spring Day of St Nicholas. It also has a winter day of veneration of the saint, which falls on December 19.
Dr. Introna mentioned a curious find the experts made during the operation - they found on the floor of the crypt a 5-ruble Russian gold coin minted in 1888.
"The coin is valuable in itself and it obviously turned up there by chance," he said. "It might have been dropped by a Russian pilgrim when he or she was kneeling but this happened after the restoration of the crypt in 1953."
When TASS asked him if there was a scientific explanation for the fact St Nicholas’s relics exude myrrh, Dr. Introna said he personally was not religious and he handled the tasks entrusted to him by virtue of his profession, "assessing the situation exclusively from the standpoint of science."
"Is the secretion of myrrh by St Nicholas’s relics a miracle?" he asked. "Well, that saint worked a lot of miracles."
Along with it, Dr. Introna admitted that the people of Bari quite like Russians often turn to St Nicholas for assistance when they run into problems.