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The day I saw a saint’s blood become liquid

Ten years ago in Naples on the feast of St Januarius I prayed as I had never done before

By on Wednesday, 21 September 2011

The waving of the handkerchief is the traditional sign the liquefaction has happened (Photo: PA)

The waving of the handkerchief is the traditional sign the liquefaction has happened (Photo: PA)

Monday was the feast of St Januarius, one of the three occasions in the year when the blood of the saint is supposed to liquefy. It does not do so every year, and some years it liquefies after a delay, but this year, most unusually, when the Cardinal Archbishop of Naples went to unlock the ampoule that contains the blood from the safe in which it is kept, he found that it had already liquefied. This can be taken to be an excellent sign. You can read about it here and here.

Both accounts are in Italian, for the marvel (the Church calls it “il prodigio” and is careful not to call it “il miracolo”) never seems to attract much attention outside Italy, indeed outside Naples. For an English account of the saint and his miracle, see Wikipedia or the Catholic Encyclopaedia.

It is interesting to note that the Mayor of Naples, Luigi de Magistris, was present to witness the marvel and was one of the first to kiss the sacred relic after the marvel had taken place.

I too have seen the marvel, and I too have kissed the glass ampoule. Ten years ago, a resident in Rome, I decided, along with some friends, to take the train down to Naples for the feast of St Januarius. And so we went. The Mass happens in the evening, and after an agreeable day’s sightseeing, we were in the cathedral in good time, first to visit the side chapel where the relic is kept in some splendour, and then to stand as close to the sanctuary as possible. The Mass was very long, and the cardinal’s sermon very dull indeed, but the congregation sat or stood throughout with great patience.

Then the tension rose visibly at the end of the Mass when the cardinal took the relic from its place and held it up; he turned it one way and then the other; it was clear for all to see that the contents of the glass ampoule were solid and blackish in colour. Several times the cardinal did this, each time with a look of disappointment on his face; and several times the congregation renewed its prayers to the saint. The ampoule was suspended round the cardinal’s neck by a cord, to prevent it being dropped.

Eventually the cardinal said: “Shall we come back tomorrow, or shall we pray some more?” “Let us pray!” shouted a voice from the congregation. And pray we did. Once more the cardinal twiddled the ampoule, then let it rest from its cord. He announced in a sad voice that clearly the marvel was not going to happen this evening; perhaps tomorrow, perhaps next week; but people should not be disappointed, we could all come back another day…

At this moment I despaired. I had come all the way from Rome; I would not be able to be there tomorrow. So at that moment, I prayed. I prayed as I had never done before in my life, or perhaps since. The cardinal’s voice droned on… Then suddenly there was a cry “E fatto!” (It’s happened!”) followed by a huge shout from the congregation which numbered several thousand. The cardinal, his face lit up by surprise and joy, now turned the ampoule round again and again, showing off the silky red liquid that had replaced the black gum of a moment before. The little man in a tailcoat waved his handkerchief ecstatically, the traditional signal that the marvel had happened. For about a quarter of an hour the cathedral was a seething mass of shouting and applauding people. When we had all calmed down somewhat the cardinal spoke again. The marvel of the liquefaction of St Januarius, he said, proved that we were all equal: then the line formed to kiss the relic – first the mayor and the political figures, then the various sprigs of Naples’ now defunct reigning house, the Bourbons of the Two Sicilies, then the rest of us.

Afterwards, our train to Rome was delayed by several hours (this sometimes happens in Italy, whatever they say about trains running on time). But nothing could dampen our spirits. Ten years have passed, but St Januarius remains one of my favourite saints, and Naples remains my favourite Italian city.

  • Anonymous

    Stories such as this just exacerbate the distrust of the Church.  Whether the Church declares such thing to be a miracle or not, the religious at the Mass offer authenticity to observers and readers.  Believe what you will:  The whole thing is just nonsense to me.

  • Yawn

    Never mind, we all should relish a bit of ‘nonsense’ now and again, helps to take us out of our mundane world!!

  • Jamesmatamoros2009

    I don’t know if you happen to know, but there are other annual blood prodigies of saints around Naples, as well as St Pantaleo’s annual blood prodigy in Madrid, Spain.

  • Michael Seaman

    Thanks for this update. I try to follow this saint and found it interesting to learn that the blood liquified early this year. Not to take anything away from the good mayor of Naples, about whom I know nothing, but it is common practice for Italian city officials to be present in church, in regalia, for all important feast days. That goes for the atheists and those who have shacked up with girlfriends, etc. We need not consider the pathetic state of the church and the faith in Italy these days. In the typical northern Italian town where I live, which has about 10,000 inhabitants, hardly any youth attend mass or even get married any more, and they are not having children. There is now only one elementary school in town (the other one closed about 15 years ago and another that was under construction was deemed unnecessary and converted to a museum) and it has only one first grade class. This is the first year there is no soccer team for middle-schoolers. Sorry to ramble. I love St. Januarius and the many religious traditions in Italy.

  • Michael Seaman

    Why don’t you offer a rational explanation for the sudden liquifying of a solid mass on the saint’s feast day? I’ve heard it hypothesized that the warm hands touching the reliquary can affect the solidity. Even if you accept that (and I don’t), it does not account for the “early” change this year.

  • Parasum

    I thought the liquefaction of the blood of Saint Januarius had been explained, quite recently. It is also rather curious that between the alleged date of the death of the Saint in 304 or so, and the first record of the liquefaction in 1389, there is an interval of over a thousad years. That does not encourage belief in the historical truthfulness of the alleged events.

    Besides, how is this a miracle, and not a mere wonder ? Biblical miracles have an ethical purpose – they are often signs worked by holy men such as prophets; in the Gospels, the miracles of Jesus (if they were miracles, by the standards of Catholic theology) are signs,showing that Kingship of God is present. What Satan tempts Jesus to do, are mere wonders, exhibitions of power that do not revreal God but glorify the doer instead (as in Rev.13).

    So how does this alleged liquefaction fit into the Biblical picture of what miracles (so to call them) are ?   Are there real miracles ? Quite likely - & that is why they must not be crowded out by miracles that are not miracles; they are too valuable to be debased by being overshadowed by mere wonders. Maybe the concept of miracle needs to be looked at… 

  • Andr3w Swan

    You may be right but if you (and perhaps others) are to be consistent in your distrust of stories coming from a long way away then you will have to question a sun-centred solar system and evolution until you have seen, first hand, compelling evidence that they are true.

  • Andr3w Swan

    You may be right but if you (and perhaps others) are to be consistent in your distrust of stories coming from a long way away then you will have to question a sun-centred solar system and evolution until you have seen, first hand, compelling evidence that they are true.

  • Dms

    I know little about this event but according to the article, “the Church calls it ‘il prodigio’ and is careful not to call it ‘il miracolo.’”

  • Inquisator

    No matter what they call it, the whole concept is appalling and a disgrace.  Veneration of a vial containing some of JP II’s blood; liquefaction of the blood of St Janarius – what in the name of the good God is all this about.  And we wonder why the reformers arose to ‘clean out’ the Church of all this rubbish centuries ago. As a practicing Catholic, I find this to be a constant embarrassment.

  • JMC

    I agree. This makes me ashamed of being Catholic.