Recently, Pope Francis was in Naples, Italy for a public ceremony. During his appearance, he held a relic connected to the patron saint of Naples, Saint Januarius. The relic, a glass vial, contains the dried blood of the saint, and, after being kissed by the pope, the blood was shown to have liquefied—half way.The Archbishop of Naples, Crescenzio Sepe, proudly displayed the relic to the crowd and proclaimed:
“The blood has half liquefied, which shows that Saint Januarius loves our pope and Naples.”
Pope Francis, well known for his quips, responded:“The bishop just announced that the blood half-liquified. We can see the saint only half loves us.”
Recent headlines about this incident imply that it’s something new, possibly connected to the current pope, but this is actually an old story. In fact, the liquefaction of the saint’s blood has been going on for six centuries.The saint was a Roman bishop, decapitated during the persecution of Christians under the emperor Diocletian in 305 AD.
Ceremonies to display the saint Januarius relic are held on a regular basis, with throngs of worshipers praying and waiting for the liquefaction of the blood. Legend says that on the occasions that the blood remains solid, disaster soon follows. The faithful point to examples of this from the past, including widespread famine in 1559, the cholera outbreak of 1833 and bombing raids by allied aircraft in 1944, all of which occurred after the saint’s blood remained solid.
The collection of blood was a common practice during periods of the persecution of Christians. Believers would soak cloths or articles of clothing in the blood of martyrs, or if possible, gather the blood in vials that would later be buried with the martyr’s body. When later Christians discovered these items, they would give them special recognition as powerful relics.Once removed from the body, blood soon coagulates, spoils and dries. When the liquefaction of the blood of saint Januarius occurs, the vial of coagulated blood is seen to liquefy and often, bubble and froth, at which point the cardinal announces:
“The miracle has happened.”The church is usually packed beyond capacity for these events.
In the past, the ceremony was held up to 18 times a year, but in more recent times, that number has been reduced down to 3 times per year, including the saint’s feast day.Skeptics often proclaim that the blood simply liquefies due to the heat from nearby candles, or possibly the hands of the priest but the event has occurred in a wide range of temperatures and each time, the speed of the liquefaction is different. There have also been times when the blood remained solid under identical conditions.
Further adding to the mystery of the blood, it seems to change in volume. At times, it fills only half of the vial, while on other occasions, it completely fills the container. Additionally, both its color and viscosity have been known to vary during the ceremonies. Then there’s the issue of the blood’s weight. In experiments conducted in 1902 and 1904, the blood was found to vary in weight, increasing as much as 25 grams defying the laws of nature. The 1902 experiments were also used to confirm that the substance in the vial is indeed blood.The relic of saint Januarius is not completely unique. In Italy alone, there are almost 200 blood samples from various saints. Many of these sample are said to liquefy on religious holidays and during times of veneration.
One theory claims that they blood relics respond to vibration form movement and the attention of the priest continually checking on the liquefaction process. However, some blood relics are locked in cases and merely observed as the process unfolds.
One interesting theory posed to explain the varied reactions of the blood is that the human substance responds to the focus, prayers and willpower of the gathered worshipers, an act of mind affecting matter.Over the years, countless scientist have attempted to reproduce or explain the reaction of blood relics, but so far, no “rational” explanation has been presented. Religious believers could care less about the science, as long as the blood continues to give the all clear and not indicate pending disaster.
It should be noted that, despite his humorous comment, by the end of the current pope’s visit, the saint’s blood was said to have completely liquefied.