VATICAN CITY -
When freelance writer David Farley first visited Calcata, Italy, five years ago, he figured it would make for a colorful article for a travel magazine.
The picturesque hill town 30 miles north of Rome featured a medieval castle and narrow cobblestone streets, as well as an international population of artists and ex-hippies who had saved the abandoned village from demolition.
Locals called it the "paese di fricchettoni" ("village of freaks"), and on an ordinary Sunday afternoon, one could find residents dressed in Indian saris strolling across the historic main square.
But Calcata's most remarkable attraction -- and the subject of a book that Farley is now writing -- turned out to be something no longer there: the supposed foreskin of Jesus Christ.
For more than four centuries, the "Holy Prepuce" had been the city's treasure, kept behind bronze doors over the altar in the Church of the Most Holy Name of Jesus. It was displayed every year on Jan. 1, the Feast of the Holy Circumcision. At one time, pilgrims who came to venerate it were rewarded with an indulgence that cut 10 years from their time in purgatory.
To believers in Jesus' Resurrection, Farley notes, the foreskin is "one of the only conceivable parts of his body that he could have left on Earth."
Legend holds that the Emperor Charlemagne received the object from an angel, then gave it to Pope Leo III in the year 800. It supposedly remained in the papal collection until the early 16th century, when a looting German soldier brought it to Calcata.
At one point in the Middle Ages, Farley says, there were as many as 18 putative Holy Foreskins in various monasteries and towns in Europe, most of them in France. By the 20th century, all but one had disappeared.
The specimen in Calcata finally vanished in 1983, an event the church's pastor blamed on "sacrilegious thieves."
Farley set out to tell the story of the relic's history and, he hoped, solve the mystery of its disappearance. From the start, one of his biggest challenges was getting taken seriously.
When the New York-based writer spoke to an employee at the Holy See's mission to the United Nations, the reaction was not encouraging.
"He said, 'What? The Holy Foreskin? You want me to hook you up with someone at the Vatican to talk about the Holy Foreskin? No way! That's ridiculous.'"
The priest in Calcata on whose watch the foreskin went missing was also unwilling to discuss it with Farley.
Silence is in fact the church's official policy on the subject, Farley says. He speaks of Vatican decrees from 1900 and 1954 that he says threaten excommunication of anyone who writes or speaks the relic's name, in order to discourage "irreverent curiosity."
Yet that threat has not inhibited many residents of Calcata, who gladly told Farley their various theories of the foreskin's fate.
Some say the priest sold it to a relic dealer in Turin. Others claim it was stolen by a local group of Satanists for use in their occult rites. Still others blame Neo-Nazis. The most popular explanations, though, point to the Vatican.
Farley is not saying which, if any, of these scenarios he finds most credible, but promises he will offer an explanation of his own when his book comes out in the spring of 2009.
In the meantime, he shares his thoughts on the foreskin's significance, as "not only a holy relic but a relic of a past time," which survived as long as it did only thanks to Calcata's remote location.
"I just find it really fascinating that this thing stuck around for so long, because it represents a way of thinking that we lost, that we evolved away from," he said.
Even the Catholic Church, Farley notes, has in recent years deemphasized the ancient tradition of venerating physical remains of holy persons and the relics associated with them.
But even if the Holy Prepuce is not gone for good, Farley thinks it's unlikely to be held up again as an object of veneration.
"I think most people would agree that it won't do the church any good to get publicity" of that kind, he said. "Most people still snicker about it."