Not since Christ’s foreskin disappeared from a priest’s safekeeping in the village of Calcata in the Roman foothills in 1983 has a religious relic theft garnered so much suspicion. But when a tiny tuft of material from Pope John Paul II’s blood-stained vestments disappeared from a church in Abruzzo this week, the religious rumor mill started churning at full speed. Was it Satanists or an obsessed worshiper? Was it a commissioned hit from an underworld relic collector? Or, like the assumed culprit in the 1983 theft of the holy prepuce, is the Vatican itself involved?
The most likely scenario, according to investigators who have launched a relic hunt, is that the theft was commissioned by a collector who is banking that the bloody material will increase in value when John Paul II is canonized into sainthood this spring. The fabric, which comes from the vestments that John Paul II was wearing when he was shot by Mehmet Ali Agca in St. Peter’s Square in 1981, was donated to the tiny church of San Pietro della Ienca in 2011. The church was a favorite resting place used by the late pontiff, who liked to hike the mountain trails in Abruzzo during his papacy. The church was closed due to bad weather when the relic, along with a golden cross, was taken.
“Whoever broke in had their eyes only on the relics,” Pasquale Corridori, the president of the church association told The Daily Beast. “They left everything else, including the collection box that was full of change.”
The stolen relic is the second time John Paul II’s blood has gone missing. In 2012, a backpack containing a vial of the late pope’s blood inlaid in a religious tome was stolen from a priest traveling by train to deliver the relic to a church north of Rome. The priest reported the theft and a manhunt ensued. The backpack was later recovered in a field and returned to the priest, complete with the pontiff’s blood.
Relic theft is a common problem in Italy’s churches, especially those that are unattended in the outlying regions where surveillance cameras and guards are too costly. And all of Italy’s churches are required to have at least one holy relic, as decreed in the Middle Ages. Among the most famous is the Shroud of Turin, which is thought to be a burial cloth placed over the face of Jesus, which is kept under guard at St. John the Baptist church in Turin. Among the strangest is the mummified right hand and forearm of St. Francis Xavier, which is kept at the Gesu cathedral in central Rome. Other churches in Italy have fingers, feet and even hearts, like that of St. Camillus de Lellis, which is kept in a glass box in the church of Mary Magdalene in Rome when it is not being carted around the world for pilgrims to pray to.
The foreskin of Christ is perhaps the most controversial missing relic after it disappeared in 1983 under mysterious circumstances. Until then, it had been encased in a gilded box and paraded through the village of Calcata, north of Rome, in an annual procession marking the annual day of circumcision. It was purported to be the only piece of Christ’s body on earth. Those who made a pilgrimage to pray to the relic were given a 10-year indulgence. The practice was altered in 1900 when anyone who dared mention the holy foreskin—except during the feast day on which it was honored and put on display—was subject to excommunication. The practice of parading the prepuce once a year continued until it disappeared in 1983. Conventional wisdom was that the foreskin found its way to the Vatican, either taken there by the priest of Calcata or snatched in secret. The fear, according to David Farley, who wrote the book An Irreverent Curiosity: In Search of the Church’s Strangest Relic in Italy’s Oldest Town, was that scientists might attempt to clone Christ from the tiny flap of flesh.
John Paul II’s bloodied vestments will undoubtedly never be quite that controversial, but detectives on the trail are focused on whether or not the relic was stolen for a Satanic ceremony or whether it will show up on Italy’s ebay site, which has a whole section dedicated to religious relics for sale by their owners. There is also ample reason to believe the holy relic will be returned one day. In 1991, the chin of Saint Antonio that had been stolen from a church in Padova by a known crime boss was recovered by police and returned to the church. “I can only hope that the precious relic will be returned to the devoted followers and pilgrims who come here to pray to John Paul II,” Father Giuseppe Petrocchi, the archbishop of L’Aquila in Abruzzo, said in a plea to the thieves. He added that they would be forgiven if they return the relic unharmed.