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The Mystery Of A Vanishing Relic - Did The Vatican Steal The Holy Foreskin?

Article illustrative image Partner logo Calcata in the Tuscan countryside, the former home to the most valuable relic of all?

CALCATA – Alessandro Falconi had promised he would pick up his guests by car, but he is an hour late. Luckily, the 30-kilometer drive to Calcata, where Falconi runs a small Bed & Breakfast, more than made up for the long wait.

The roads in this countryside north of Rome are narrow and winding. Falconi’s car is a sun-faded Fiat Panda that would not pass a vehicle inspection in Germany. The door on the passenger side only opens from the inside. Foam oozes from the dusty seats. To get the engine started, Falconi fiddled with two wires under the steering wheel.

The 50-year-old, who sports a reddish stubble, stops to buy five euros worth of fuel at a gas station. He doesn’t bother to hide the fact that cash is tight: In Calcata, most people earn a modest living doing something linked to the business of culture.

The picturesque village on top of a hill is the “old” Calcata. Former residents of the old village built a Calcata Nuova on flatland nearby -- in the 1930s, they were forced out by law, because of the danger posed by erosion.

[Photo: carlo andreucci]

The spectacular aerie on the hill, about 50 kilometers north of Rome, was deserted and going to pot when it was discovered decades later by artists and esoteric folks who favored an alternative lifestyle.

At the time, Calcata was still known as home to a very special religious relic indeed: Christ’s Holy Foreskin.

Legend has it that after the Sack of Rome by Charles V’s troops in 1527, the Sanctum Praeputium ended up in Calcata. It was placed in a shrine above the main altar of the Santissimo Nome di Gesù church. Located on the village’s main piazza, the church became a destination for pilgrims. In 1584, under Pope Sixtus V, pilgrims who came to worship the Sanctum Praeputium in Calcata were awarded an indulgence.

In the Middle Ages, relics, the physical remains of saints – from toes to teeth, hair to fingernails – and things that they had touched and thus charged with their powers represented a link with the hereafter. Wars were fought over relics, and pious people turned to theft just to obtain these miraculous objects. The most valuable relic of all was the Holy Foreskin, since there is only one.

"I remember how they used to parade it through the village streets," says Marijke van der Maden. The Dutchwoman, who sells crèche figures she makes, raves about Calcata’s “energy.” She has been living here since the late 1970s. Back then, the relic was kept at the village church and paraded every year on January 1.

Then in the 1980s, the Sanctum Praeputium suddenly disappeared – and rumors are rife in the village and beyond as to who is responsible for its disappearance and where the relic might be now.

A Vatican conspiracy?

Don Enrico has been the parish priest at the Santissimo Nome di Gesù village church – where the relic was kept until its mysterious disappearance in 1983 – for four years. Head thrown back, his gaze on the ceiling above the altar, he shows visitors a fresco depicting the circumcision of the eight-day-old Infant Jesus.

Since the early Middle Ages, Don Enrico says, the Church has celebrated the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ on January 1. Looking grim, Don Enrico then points out the empty tabernacle where the Holy Foreskin used to sit. “They even stole the door of the tabernacle, set with precious stones,” he says somberly. Like his predecessor, Don Dario, Don Enrico ascribes the theft to sheer greed.

But most local residents believe another version of events, says Giancarlo Croce: “They suspect the Vatican.” The artist’s studio is in a former forge just behind the church. Here, he paints brightly colored mandalas, makes finely chiseled marble reliefs – and sells postcards depicting the Sanctum Praeputium. When he restored the relic in 1982 he took pictures of it. "I was one of the last people here to see it. Not long afterwards, on the day before the annual procession, the priest discovered that the relic was gone."

What Croce finds very interesting is that nobody ever reported the theft officially. He believes that powers-that-be had the relic whisked away because to the late 20th century Church “with its fixation on things sexual,” the worship of a foreskin had become something of an embarrassment." To Croce, a former communist and pacifist who does not earn much from his art, the disappearance of the relic also had personal consequences: Fewer pilgrims to Calcata meant fewer sales of his artwork and postcards.

And indeed – with its priceless relic gone, there’s not much happening in Calcata. On normal weekdays there isn’t a single restaurant open for lunch, although the Ristorante I Tre Monti down on the road toward Calcata Nuova serves strozzapreti (“priest strangler”), short curly pasta sprinkled with goat’s cheese and freshly ground pepper, and wild boar cutlets. 

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