ROME -- Thieves broke into a small church in the mountains east of Rome over the weekend and stole a reliquary with the blood of the late Pope John Paul II, a custodian said on Monday.
Franca Corrieri said she had discovered a broken window early on Sunday morning and had called the police. When they entered the small stone church they found the gold reliquary and a crucifix missing.
John Paul, who died in 2005, loved the mountains in the Abruzzo region east of Rome. He would sometimes slip away from the Vatican secretly to hike or ski there and pray in the church.
Polish-born John Paul, who reigned for 27 years, is due to be made a saint of the Roman Catholic Church in May, meaning the relic will become more noteworthy and valuable.
In 2011, John Paul's former private secretary, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, gave the local Abruzzo community some of the late pontiff's blood as a token of the love he had felt for the mountainous area.
It was put in a gold and glass circular case and kept in a niche of the small mountain church of San Pietro della Ienca, near the city of L'Aquila.
Corrieri told Reuters the incident felt more like a “kidnapping” than a theft. “In a sense, a person has been stolen,” she said by telephone.
She said she could not say if the intention of the thieves may have been to seek a ransom for the blood.
Some of John Paul's blood was saved after an assassination attempt that nearly killed him in St. Peter's Square on May 13, 1981.
Pasquale Corriere, head of a cultural organization trying to increase tourism to the region based on interest in Pope John Paul II’s life and the father of the woman who discovered the theft, told Italian newspaper La Repubblica that the stolen relic containing the late pontiff’s blood was one of just "three in the world.”
According to La Repubblica, some Italian Christian groups from the region have raised the prospect that the blood could have been stolen by Satanists, for ritual or as a symbolic gesture, as the date of the theft coincides with the beginning of the new year on the satanic calendar.
Apart from the reliquary and a crucifix, nothing else was stolen from the isolated church, even though Franca Corrieri said the thieves would probably have had time to take other objects during the night-time theft.