02/25/2011 02:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Relishing Relics: Will John Paul Go to Pieces?

The remains of Pope John Paul II surely seem secure. They rest in a cypress case that's nestled inside a soldered, zinc casket that's, in turn, cocooned in a walnut box. Almost six years ago, that walnut box was pounded shut with nails of pure gold.

When Church officials soon hoist that triple coffin from a Vatican grotto up to St. Peter's Basilica for the late pontiff's May 1 beatification, they vow "the transportation" will not include "exhumation." His body, they say, "will not be exposed."

Yet throughout the annals of Catholicism, the corpses of would-be saints have routinely been unearthed, after which, their bones, hair or other surviving morsels have been plucked, parsed and passed around.

These shreds of the revered dead are known as relics -- an ancient concept spanning Christianity, Buddhism and other faiths. Roman Catholics rank them in three tiers: first-class relics are actual pieces of a saintly contender; second-class relics are possessions of the person (a spoon, a book); third-class relics are often swatches of cloth placed against first-class relics.

According to Catholic doctrine, such sacred scraps contain no magic, no inherent healing powers; they are merely mementos meant for veneration. And they are never supposed to be sold. But when it comes to John Paul's existing trove of relics, many Catholic faithful don't exactly follow that doctrine to the letter.

Tangible traces of John Paul -- along with his trappings, toys and fragments of his robe -- have been in rabid demand since his April 2005 death, often sought by folks aching for medical miracles.

Case in point: race driver Robert Kubica, who nearly lost his right hand during a Feb. 6 crash in Italy. Kubica will receive a drop of John Paul's blood, a gift straight from the Vatican. The Catholic News Service reports that Church officials hope to "hasten the 26-year-old Formula One star's recovery."

Weeks before John Paul succumbed to Parkinson's disease, medics at Rome's Gemelli Polyclinic drew some of his blood for testing. That specimen was saved, refrigerated and wound up in the custody of Polish Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, a friend and secretary to John Paul.

Kubica, who is Polish and Catholic, embossed John Paul's name on his racing helmet. And the late pope, Dziwisz explained in offering the blood, "loved sport as a young man."

Does this liquid gift smack of alchemy and ancient superstitions?

Polish Jesuit priest, the Rev. Krzysztof Madel, cringes at anointing a dead pope's blood as a relic. "The tradition of relics comes from medieval practices of teaching the Bible through images and symbols," he said recently. (Madel also questions a separate plan by Dziwisz to insert a vial of John Paul's blood into the altar of a Catholic church opening this May in Krakow, Poland, John Paul's home city). "In today's rationalized world, the message should rather come through teaching about someone's life."

Turns out, though, the quest to squeeze miracles from relics is very much alive among many Catholics.

In December, an exhibition of John Paul's personal effects -- including his kayak, his bike and a pair of his sunglasses -- drew hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to Monterrey, Mexico.

Many were ill, some deathly so. A few visitors, however, claimed that standing near the spread of relics cured them, according to Guillermo MacLean, head of Villacero Foundation, the group behind the 150-piece display. He cited one woman with debilitating arm pain who pressed her body against a bronze replica of the late pope's hands, praying for the ache to vanish. It did, MacLean told journalists.

Early in the push for John Paul's sanctification, the campaign's Roman headquarters was swamped with global requests for prayer cards embedded with threads of the white cassock once worn by the late pontiff. Franciscan brother Chris Gaffrey (who has devoted time to the cause) told the Catholic News Service in 2007 that without an increase in donations to John Paul's campaign, the office could not afford to pay for the mailing costs. Media observers immediately accused the people behind the sainthood cause of selling relics. The Diocese of Rome abruptly issued statements reassuring all Catholics that the prayer cards were "completely free" and that "relics absolutely cannot be bought or sold because they are sacred objects."

In my new nonfiction book, The Third Miracle, I also recount how 104 years ago, some Indiana nuns quietly retrieved the brain of their dead founder, Mother Théodore Guérin, for a hopeful bit of miracle work.

When Mother Théodore's corpse was exhumed in 1907 in preparation for her sainthood campaign, several sisters, plus three doctors from nearby Terre Haute, were stunned to see that the woman's brain was still in tact a half century after her death.

Before Mother Théodore's body was resealed in a new coffin and placed in a convent shrine, the sisters borrowed the brain. They then touched it to the burned foot of a nun whose severe injury had left her immobile. According to records at the convent -- St. Mary-of-the-Woods -- after the brain was "applied" to the nun's foot, she was able to walk again with the help of a special shoe and crutches. (This alleged healing never was submitted to the Vatican as a claimed miracle).

In 2006, Mother Théodore was canonized as the eighth American saint. During that ceremony in St. Peter's Square, a nun from St. Mary-of-the-Woods handed Pope Benedict XVI a gift: several of Mother Théodore's hand bones.

Following John Paul's May 1 beatification Mass in St. Peter's Square, Vatican workers will remove his triple coffin from a grotto tomb and place it before the main altar in St. Peter's Basilica. It will stay there for viewing and veneration until all who want to see it have done so, the Vatican said.

L'Osservatore Romano, which bills itself as the Vatican's "semi-official" newspaper, has reported that John Paul's corpse will remain "enclosed."

But as the appetite among the faithful surges for papal relics, will the Vatican truly keep a lid on John Paul's body?