Pope Francis was in Naples Cathedral over the weekend, and took a shot liquefying the blood of the city’s patron saint, Januarius. It is said that upon his martyrdom in the early fourth century, some of his blood was placed in an ampule. That container is typically removed from storage three times a year and displayed in front of prayerful crowds eager to bear witness to the blood’s liquefaction. Although this weekend was not one of these three scheduled occasions, when the pontiff kissed the ampule half the blood inside turned to liquid, according to the National Catholic Register.
In any other context, the aforementioned spectacle would be regarded as a morbid display, if not a distasteful gimmick. Imagine how we would react if we discovered that someone we know keeps a vial of his late friend’s blood for such a purpose. The answer, “with concern,” is unavoidable here. Yet in the context of religion, the bizarre act becomes a perfectly acceptable “ritual.”
It was the first time since 1848 during the reign of Pius IX that Januarius’ blood had liquefied in a pope’s presence. The archbishop of Naples called it a “half-miracle.” While many of the faithful are quite happy to call it this or even a full miracle, there’s likely a perfectly natural explanation for this phenomenon, which truth be told is actually quite banal. In fact, Januarius isn’t even the only saint in Naples whose blood performs this “miracle,” as St. Patricia’s is said to undergo a similar transformation, as does St. Pantaleon’s blood in Ravello.
If you’re wondering just why exactly the alleged blood of these saints was kept by the church, it may surprise you to know that a multitude of parishes preserve morbid relics as charms of a sort. The paganism of the Catholic Church still runs deep, and its admixture of the spiritual and the bodily is a recurring theme in its teachings and practices. For example, “It is still earnestly recommended that every altar possess a relic of one of the saints.” And a “relic” is defined as a piece of a saint’s body or something that has touched a piece of a saint’s body. A relic may also be something a saint wore or used, but wherever possible it’s preferable to possess a “first class relic,” such as a finger or a tongue.
While it’s advisable to remain skeptical of the so-called blood miracle, if Pope Francis does somehow manage to get St. Catherine of Siena’s mummified head to talk, it might be time to rethink that skepticism.