The Washington Post

Wondering why someone would steal a vial of papal blood? Here’s the answer.

Perhaps you’ve heard a vial of Pope John Paul II’s blood was stolen from a small Italian village church, and your first thought may have been: Oh my gosh! And then: What the heck were they doing with a vial of papal blood?

Well, as Catholic University theologian Monsignor Kevin Irwin told the Post Monday: “Bodies matter in the Catholic Church.”

In fact, body parts of saints, or near-saints -- like John Paul II, who will be formally made a saint in March — are frequently venerated, or prayed at. Their bodies, or body parts - -including blood — or even clothing, are considered “the closest you can get to the real McCoy,” said Irwin.

This practice comes from basic Catholic theology. “Ever since God sent his own flesh, human flesh has mattered,” he said.

Those of you in the Washington region can experience this locally.

Two white doves intended to symbolize peace were attacked by a crow and a seagull as they flew outside the Vatican. (

The Blessed John Paul II Shrine, a museum and chapel in Northeast Washington, has a “relic” — a piece of a blood-stained cassock from the 1981 assassination attempt on John Paul II. The shrine had to extend its hours at the cassock fragment in the fall, when the date was set for John Paul’s canonization.

But what would someone do with the stolen relic? Irwin said in centuries past, relics were regularly stolen to give influence to a community. But in today’s globally flat world, could a town, no matter how remote, keep secret such an item?

“Who is going to ‘fess up to stealing this?” Irwin said. “My hope upon hope is it’s being used to venerate.”

Michelle Boorstein is the Post’s religion reporter, where she reports on the busy marketplace of American religion.

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