St. Januarius: The Miracle of His Blood Liquefaction
September 19th is the feast of St. Januarius, bishop and martyr. He is the patron saint of Naples, where Catholics assemble three times a year in the Naples Cathedral to witness the liquefaction of a small sample of his his blood which is kept in a sealed vial.
St. Januarius was born in Naples and served as bishop of Beneventum (just east of Naples). He and his companions suffered martyrdom during the Diocletian persecution at Naples in 303. They were first thrown to the lions in the arena, but none of the beasts would attack them, so they were beheaded. The Christian women collected the blood of St. Januarius in a vial and placed it in his tomb.
St. Januarius has been invoked against volcanic blasts since 1631, when a violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius threatened Naples. The people of the city prayed to him to help them, and the flow of lava stopped. But the enduring fervor for this saint of the volcanoes is rooted in an inexplicable event known as “the miracle of the liquefaction.”
St. Januarius is celebrated in Naples on three feast days each year: on the first Saturday before the first Sunday of May, on his Feast, and on December 16. The blood is made to “work” six times on each of these three days. It consists of a dark solid mass and is held in a sealed vial kept in the treasury chapel of Naples cathedral. The vial is brought out with a reliquary said to contain the saint’s skull. It is then held and turned by a priest as the people pray. After a period of anything from two minutes to an hour, it appears to become red and to bubble – or not. At the moment the solid mass becomes liquid, the priest holds up the relic, turning it this way and that so the crowd can see the liquid sloshing around inside the vial. With the cry, “The miracle has happened!” everyone in the church surges forward to kiss the relic and all sing the “Te Deum” in thanksgiving.
Attempts have been made to find a scientific explanation why something solid should suddenly liquefy, but none of them have been satisfactory. There have been times when the blood did not liquefy, which the people take as a warning from the saint or a sign of his displeasure. The relic remained solid the year Naples elected a Communist mayor, but liquefied spontaneously when the late Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York visited the shrine of St. Januarius in 1978. The National Catholic Register reported that the blood liquified in March 2015, when Pope Francis visited Naples — the first time the blood had liquefied in the presence of a pope in over 150 years.
“The Neapolitans honor this saint as the principal patron of their city and nation, and the Lord himself has continued to honor him, by allowing many miracles to be wrought through his intercession, particularly when the frightful eruptions of Mount Vesuvius have threatened the city of Naples with utter destruction. While the relics of St. Januarius were being brought in procession towards this terrific volcano, the torrents of lava and liquid fire which it emitted have ceased, or turned their course from the city. But the most stupendous miracle, and that which is greatly celebrated in the church, is the liquefying and boiling up of this blessed martyr’s blood whenever the vials are brought in sight of his head. This miracle is renewed many times in the year, in presence of all who desire to witness it; yet some heretics have endeavored to throw a doubt upon its genuineness, by frivolous and incoherent explanations; but no one can deny the effect to be miraculous, unless he be prepared to question the evidence of his senses.” — St. Alphonsus Liguori in Victories of the Martyr