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 youths 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.

Over 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 press reported 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.