So let's talk about the theft of that relic containing the blood of the Blessed Pope John Paul II.
For starters, I admit that this whole subject is a little strange for people who are not members of the ancient Christian churches of the East and the West.
Also, there appears to be some confusion about what, precisely, was stolen. Some reports say that robbers stole a vial of the pope's blood, while others -- BBC for example -- report that the object stolen was a "piece of gauze once soaked in the blood of the late pope."
Either way, journalists trying to cover this story face the challenge of answering one crucial question: Why would someone want a vial of the blood of someone such as this beloved pope, who will be proclaimed a Catholic saint in April?
This Religion News Service report contains several logical answers to that question. For example:
The thief or thieves made off with a large crucifix and a gold reliquary containing the vial of the blood of John Paul, who will be proclaimed a saint in April.
Once John Paul is elevated to sainthood, artifacts from his life will increase in value.
It was not immediately clear whether the intentions are to ransom the vial, sell it, or keep it for religious purposes.
Yes, there is the chance that the thieves could hold this relic for ransom. Several news reports have, thus, noted that this crime feels more like a kidnapping than an ordinary robbery.
Of course, using that same logic, the relic could also be sold as a treasure and the market price would rise with the upcoming rites to declare the Blessed John Paul II a saint.
But that only begs the ultimate question, which is suggested in the RNS report's statement that someone may want to "keep it for religious purposes."
So what, precisely, does "religious purposes" mean? Is the suggestion here that the goal is to sell this to a traditional Catholic, the kind of person who believes that such relics are signs of God's power in the material world, a power that is somehow displayed in the bodies and lives of the saints? Really?
Let me make a comparison. Years ago, I had a chance to interview the Rev. Billy Graham about the process he goes through when preparing to preach. I asked him if he had a special Bible that he used in the pulpit. He laughed and said, no, he kept a stack of new Bibles for that purpose. Why? He said people often stole his Bible when he went out in public.
Stop and think about this for a minute: If you stole Billy Graham's Bible, to whom would you show it off? Who would be impressed, as opposed to appalled? Does a devout person steal that Bible?
The bottom line: Do you sell a stolen vial of a John Paul II blood to the kind of doctrinally conservative Catholic who would want to venerate it?
Thus, some news outlets are turning that "religious purposes" answer on its head.
Consider this slice of an NBC News report, which picks up on a theme being discussed more often on the other side of the Atlantic:
Italian authorities said they believe the theft was commissioned, as thieves stole only the relic and left many other valuables behind at the church.
Only three of John Paul II's relics contain his blood and they are all considered of great religious value.
As the late pontiff's blood would be difficult to sell, Italian police said it is possible the thieves may plan to use it for satanic rites.
Several news organizations have made similar references to police statements. It appears, however, that asking factual, logical, journalistic questions about this possibility pushes people over the line into "conservative" journalism.
Vatican Radio denounced the “sacrilegious theft” of a framed cloth from the San Pietro della Ienca church in the Abruzzo region. The cloth was one of three known blood-soaked pieces of the robe the beloved pontiff was wearing when he was shot in an assassination attempted in St. Peter’s Square in 1981.
Since such a revered relic would be almost impossible to sell, speculation focused on the theft being carried off by a satanic cult. Satanists celebrate their “new year” on Feb. 1 and are believed to celebrate “black masses” using Catholic symbols to mock observant Christians.
“It’s possible that there could be satanic sects behind the theft of the reliquary, Giovanni Panunzio, national coordinator of an Italian anti-occult group called Osservatorio Antiplagio, told Britain’s Daily Telegraph. “This sort of sacrilege often takes place at this time of year.”
But you see the problem, right?
This alleged connection to Feb. 1 is sourced by an anti-occult leader -- period -- as opposed to a scholar who has studied the issue or even a leader in an open, public pagan network. In fact, if you do an online search for "Feb. 1" and "Satanic New Year" and you get, for the most part, stories about the theft of the John Paul II relic. In other words, you get people going in circles, repeating the same sources with the same info.
For me, I think it is valid for journalists to ask questions about a link between this theft and Satanic rites. But at some point, don't journalists need to talk to people who have studied the the ever-changing world of pagan and occult rites in this day and age? Why settle for speculation about Feb. 1 or whatever? Why leave this at the wink-wink level?
Ask some questions. Quote some logical, informed people. Print the results.