A grand Italian basilica devoted to John Bosco, a 19th-century saint, has become an active crime scene. Police are dusting the church for fingerprints and poring through security footage, hoping to track down the person or people who made off with one of the church’s precious relics: a tiny fragment of Saint Bosco’s brain.
As Susan Hogan of the Washington Post reports, the sacred item was stolen over the weekend after a group of pilgrims visited the Don Bosco Basilica, which is located in the municipality of Castelnuovo Don Bosco near Turin. The brain fragment was stored in a glass-covered reliquary, a type of container for the storage and display of relics. According to the Catholic publication Crux, the reliquary containing the fragment was also stolen.
Rumors have swirled in the Italian media that the relic was stolen for use in Satanic rituals, Josephine McKenna of Religious News Service reports. But police and church officials are more concerned that those responsible will try to seek a ransom for its return.
“I invite whoever took it to give it back immediately, without any conditions so we can close this painful page and continue to honor the memory of Don Bosco worthily in his birthplace,” Archbishop Cesare Nosiglia of Turin said, according to McKenna.
Relics are items associated with holy figures—they can be body parts of a saint, an item owned or used by a saint, or an item touched by a saint, explains the Catholic Education Resource Center. The veneration of sacred relics has deep roots within the church. The practice may have occurred as early as 155 A.D., when Christians are said to have gathered the bones of the martyred Saint Polycarp for purposes of veneration.
John Bosco, also known as Don Bosco, is so highly-regarded among Catholics that Pope Francis traveled to Turin in 2015 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the saint’s birth. According to Catholic Online, Don Bosco is the patron saint of “apprentices, editors and publishers, schoolchildren, magicians, and juvenile delinquents.”
Bosco was born in 1815, in the district that now bears his name. When he was a young priest, Saint Bosco worked in Turin. The city had been swept up in industrialization, which plunged many of its residents into poverty. Saint Bosco worked in Turin’s slums, ministering to disadvantaged children. He later founded the Salesian religious order, according to Hogan of the Washington Post, and was canonized in 1934.
Catholic worshippers are hoping that the relic of this beloved saint will be found. Prior to the theft, people flocked to the Don Bosco Basilica to pray in front of its reliquary, McKenna reports. This past Sunday, however, devotees gathered at the basilica to pray for the relic’s safe return.