St. Blaise has achieved perennial popularity in both the East of his origin (he was bishop of Sebastea in Armenia) and in the West. However, like many another favored saint, we know little about his life.
His (undependable) medieval legend gives the following biography.
Blaise was a boy of high intelligence, so his parents gave him a good Catholic education. He went on, then, to the priesthood. While still a young man, he was chosen bishop of Sebastea, Armenia.
In 316, the Roman Emperor Licinius withdrew from his position of tolerating Christians, and started again to persecute them. Blaise, counseled by God, went into hiding in a woodland cave. There his only company was the wild animals; but the gentle bishop soon made friends with them, healed their wounds, and blessed them.
One day, however, some hunters invaded his wilderness in search of wild animals that could be used in the stadiums to fight gladiators and devour Christians. They were surprised to find the bishop, and, of course, brought him back for trial. On the trip, says the legend, the party came upon a poor woman whose pig had been carried off by a wolf. Bishop Blaise commanded the robbing animal to return the pig, and so he did, safe and sound. On arrival at the court, the future martyr was imprisoned in a dark jail without food to eat or light to see by. Out of gratitude, the woman whose pig he had restored managed to get him food and provide him with candles. Another woman brought to the saint her little boy, who had caught a fishbone in his throat and was on the point of strangulation. Blaise miraculously got rid of the bone.
But Governor Agricolaus treated this merciful man unmercifully. Before imprisoning him, he had him scourged. In due time Emperor Licinius himself arrived, tried to “convert” the bishop to paganism by tearing his body with iron wool-combs, and finally sentencing him to beheading.
Blaise’s subsequent popularity stemmed particularly from his repute as a miracle worker. Three classes of devotees arose: those associated with wild animals; professional wool-combers (with whose tools he had been tortured); and people who wanted to heal or avoid a throat illness. In Germany, St. Blaise came to be honored as one of the cluster of “handy” saints called the “Fourteen Holy Helpers”.
Blaise is best known to us as an intercessor against throat diseases. In our Latin-Rite churches the blessing of throats is still performed on this feastday, February 3. For this rite blessed candles are most widely used, commemorating, it is said, the candles that the saint’s benefactress brought to him in jail. In blessing throats, the priest holds two of these candles, crossed in “X”-form either over the head or touching the throat of the petitioner and recites: “Through the intercession of St. Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you from every disease of the throat and from every other illness, in the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” In the Armenian Rite, the priest dips the wick of a candle in holy oil and with it anoints the throats of the faithful.
The blessing of throats on or near Saint Blaise’s day, like the reception of ashes on Ash Wednesday, and palms on Palm Sunday, is a “sacramental”. Sacramentals are, of course, far less important than the sacraments, like baptism, confession, Holy Communion, anointing of the sick, etc.; yet even many Catholics who are not regular at Mass or confession, still look forward to receiving these lesser rites. May they continue to do so, and to instruct their children in the significance of such sacramentals. As long as these little ceremonies are practiced, the hearts of those who receive them show they are still bound lovingly to the Catholic Faith.
--Father Robert R McNamara