Monsignor Aldo Rosati has always had a weakness for relics of the Virgin Mary. That certainly explains why he was in Civitavecchia at the weekend, together with a 50-strong group of pilgrims from Bologna, to venerate the plaster statue of the Madonna that hit the headlines last year after it was seen weeping tears of human blood.
And maybe it also explains why, on seeing a copy of the statue in a shrine in the owners' garden, the good Monsignor simply picked it up, put an imitation in its place and walked off with it stashed away in a bag.
Yesterday the city of Civitavecchia, along with the Catholic hierarchy in Bologna, was squirming with embarrassment at the news that a 73-year- old cleric had apparently committed an act of larceny in the name of religious veneration.
Admittedly, Monsignor Rosati did not filch the original weeping Madonna, which sits in a special chapel in the local church behind a screen of bullet-proof glass. But he took the next best thing, a copy blessed by the Pope's special adviser on miracles, Cardinal Andrzej Deskur, from the garden of the Gregori family which first reported the miraculous weeping. To compound the crime, he also took a stone out of the homemade shrine in which the statue stood.
It didn't take long for the Gregori family to spot the theft since the replacement statue, was badly chipped. The police soon linked the incident to the Bolognese pilgrims, and within hours a highway patrol - lights flashing and sirens blazing - had pulled their coach over on the main Rome-Milan motorway near Arezzo.
One by one the passengers were asked to open their bags, until eventually Father Aldo produced the statue of his own accord saying he had taken it with the assent of the Gregori family - a story the Gregoris vigorously deny.
Theft has been a failing of Italian Catholics ever since the city of Venice stole the body of St Mark from Alexandria in the 8th century. Yesterday, the Bologna Curia did its best to defend Monsignor Rosati, saying he had acted in "absolute good faith" and blaming the media for giving him sleepless nights.