St. Januarius of the Miracle

(Martyred c., A.D. 305)

Naples, Italy, venerates as a protector the martyr Januarius, a native of the vicinity, who was bishop, it is said, of Benevento. There is a portrait of him, wearing a halo, in the ancient Neapolitan Catacomb of St. Januarius.

Very little is known of the life and death of this churchman. The fullest lives, of a later period and of small historical value, represent him as a victim, with several other clergy and two laymen, of the persecution of Roman Emperor Diocletian. Cast to the wild beasts, they escaped death in the arena because the animals refused to attack them. They were then beheaded. Their relics now repose in the cathedral of Naples, which bears the name of Januarius: “San Gennaro”. Neapolitans revere him especially as a protector against eruptions of Mount Vesuvius.

Far more is known about the alleged blood of St. Januarius than about the martyr himself. Since at least A.D. 1389, this small mass of dark stuff in a transparent glass vial liquefies several days each year. It is indeed a puzzling phenomenon.

The liquefaction takes place on the feast of San Gennaro (September 19) and during the eight succeeding days; also on the feast of the transfer of the saint’s relics (Saturday before the first Sunday of May) and during its octave; and on December 16, the anniversary of Naples’ escape from the eruption of Vesuvius in 1631. Often, however, nothing happens on December 16.

The days of liquefaction are exciting ones in Naples. The faithful jam the cathedral, where they are led in prayer by fifteen aged poor women called the “Aunts of San Gennaro”. A priest sets forth the skull of the saint enshrined in a silver bust, and brings the vial of the blood, sealed in a glass-windowed reliquary, close to the skull. Although the moments that follow can be dramatic, the action of the priest is very simple. He merely turns the vial several times until its dark contents become liquid–usually bright, and even bubbly. The change happens quickly on some days, slowly on others, but temperature has nothing to do with it. Especially remarkable is the fact that when liquefied, the blood increases in volume and weight, counter to the laws of physics. All this occurs in the sight of the spectators. (I myself witnessed it clearly many years ago,) Furthermore, at the same time this is going on in the cathedral, the “blood stains” on a block of basalt near the site of the saint’s martyrdom grow vividly red.

One of the difficulties raised against the miraculous nature of the phenomenon is that the blood of several other saints, most of them in this same part of Italy, are known to undergo the same type of change. But there is more than one indication that we are not dealing here with a natural happening. In the first place, there is absolutely no evidence of deceit on the part of those in charge. Secondly, a number of scientists, skeptics as well as believers, have failed after many experiments to discover a scientific explanation.

As recently as 1988 a team of scientists was called in by Cardinal Michael Giordano, the archbishop of Naples, to have another go at it. In publishing the conclusions of its experiments, the chairman, Professor Pierluigi Bollone (who is also president of the International Center for study of the Shroud of Turin), declared that spectographic photos of the whole process proved definitely that the liquid was arterial human blood. “It’s a real miracle,” he said.

Cardinal Giordano’s announcement of the team’s consensus was more cautionary. “The official church allows the veneration of relics, but it has never issued a judgment–and never will–on the miraculous character of the liquefaction. The only miracles on which our faith is based are those of the Gospel.”

Yes, miracles are basically for the unbelieving. Those who believe can welcome them as confirmations of faith, but they do not need them.

--Father Robert F. McNamara