Among Catholics, John “Don” Bosco is revered as the patron saint of editors and publishers, schoolchildren, magicians and troubled youth.
But in Castelnuova Don Bosco, a municipality in northwest Italy, he’s revered as a native son and spiritual hero whose 19th century ministry to children and disadvantaged youth was so well-regarded that Pope Pius XI canonized him in 1934.
On a regular basis, pilgrims flock to the massive Don Bosco Basilica, which overlooks the municipality renamed for the saint. It’s where a glass covered reliquary — a container for relics — was said to contain a tiny brain fragment of the beloved spiritual figure, according to the Italian news agency ANSA and Crux, an independent Catholic publication.
Pilgrims have long viewed the reliquary site as a sacred space and place of prayer.
But now it’s a crime scene, and they are no longer allowed near the area.
During the weekend, after a group of pilgrims had left the area, a thief stole the reliquary, church officials said. Police set up roadblocks and quickly tried to analyze video in hopes of nabbing the robber, but to no avail.
Now pilgrims are praying for the relic’s return.
“Shock and outrage surround theft of St. John’s Bosco’s brain,” blared a headline on Crux, a popular Catholic online publication in the United States.
Monsignor Cesare Nosiglia, archbishop of nearby Turin, said in a statement that the theft of the relic was news “that you would never want to hear.
“It makes us think of a profound moral misery of one who would take away a ‘sign’ that has been left and preserved for the devotion and the faith of everyone.”
The Catholic news media reported that the church fears the thief will demand a ransom for the relic or, worse yet, use it in a satanic ritual. But the Associated Press noted that relic thefts are hardly uncommon in Italy.
“In 2014, thieves stole a relic containing St. John Paul II’s blood from a church in central Abruzzo, but threw it away as they fled thinking it worthless,” the Associated Press reported. “Police later recovered it.”
The archbishop of Turin appealed to the thief to return the relic “immediately, and without conditions: so that this painful page can be turned, and we can duly continue to honor Don Bosco’s memory in his rightful birthplace.”
Bosco, an educator who founded the Salesian religious order, was born in 1815. Many Salesian-run Catholic schools around the world bear his name. The basilica named for Bosco — and where the relic was housed — was consecrated in 1984.
Bosco is so well-regarded that in the months after being elected pontiff, Pope Francis traveled to nearby Turin to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the saint’s birth.
“Don Bosco fulfilled his priestly mission until his last breath, sustained by an unshakable trust in God,” the pope said. Highlighting the priest’s service to young people, he added that Bosco’s ministry was accomplished “with determination and steadfastness, amid obstacles and struggles, with the sensitivity of a generous heart.”
Relics play an important part in Catholic history, but were not without controversy.
“Once, the Western world was full of relics,” Jonathan Jones wrote in the Guardian. The bones and skin, fingernails and even heads of saints were preserved, bought and sold, stolen and cherished.
“Today many relics have been discredited.”
While paramount in the medieval Christianity, they became a point of division during the Protestant Reformation. Their popularity represented “a desire to be near holiness,” Philip Freeman, a classics professor of classics at Iowa’s Luther College, told The Washington Post.
The Salesian Congregation information service posted a report about the theft on Saturday, hours after the relic went missing:
Along with many devotees who will come to know about the happenings, we are grieving very much. We believe that Don Bosco can touch the hearts of those who have done that act and make it return to his footsteps as he had the capacity to transform the lives of young people whom he used to meet.
“We are also confident that one may steal a relic of Don Bosco, but one cannot steal Don Bosco,” said the Rev. Don Ezio Orsini, rector of the basilica, after the theft.
More from Morning Mix