As the beatification of Pope John Paul II grows closer, fragments of the white cassocks he wore when alive are being offered as relics over the internet.
On the Diocese of Rome website dedicated to the campaign to canonise the late pope, the diocese offers santini, a prayer card with a photograph of John Paul and a window containing a tiny fragment of his clothing. On the back is a prayer "imploring grace by the intercession of God's servant John Paul II." The prayer is available in many different languages. Stefano Chiodo, who runs the site, said "thousands and thousands" of the relics have already been dispatched.
The site stresses that the cards are completely free – though a contribution is solicited (the amount is not specified) from "whoever can afford it" to cover the cost of postage and packing. In the past, the sale of relics was a common and efficient way for popes to raise funds, but today it is frowned on.
"Relics (of any sort) may absolutely be neither sold nor purchased," declares Monsignor Marco Frisinia, in charge of the Liturginal Office of the Vicariate of Rome, "because, being a sacred object, it is beyond price. The problem of the sale of relics over the internet is very common, and allow me to say that it is a sacrilege."
The website also says the relic can only be used "in a private manner, in the silence of our hearts, until the day the Church declares him a saint".
"People like to have relics and they like to use them," commented Gerard O'Connell, a Vatican expert. "Some people use them in the hope of a miracle – if they have a sick child, for example, in the hope of obtaining recovery." He cited the example of a glove belonging to the Maltese priest George Preca (died 1962) who was canonised in May by Pope Benedict. The glove was laid on a newborn baby suffering from severe liver problems, and, four days later, the baby began to recover. The parents attributed the miraculous recovery to the glove.
The funeral of John Paul II in 2005 was punctuated by demands from the crowd that he be declared santo subito, "a saint right away". That hasn't happened but the Polish pope is on the fastest of fast tracks and may well gain the status within two years.