The liquefaction (becoming liquid) of the blood of St Januarius (Gennaro) is an extraordinary miracle of the Church that has been occurring up to 18 times each year for the past 600 years. It is only one of a number of blood miracles that have taken place, and in the case of St Januarius-Gennaro and others, are still taking place with blood that was collected soon after the death of certain martyrs. There is a well-documented history of these samples of blood liquefying at various times of the year, especially on the Saints’ feast days.
This practice of gathering blood for relics, admittedly a somewhat surprising religious practice, nevertheless was a common practice beginning in the days of persecution when the early Christians soaked cloths in the blood shed by martyrs or, if possible, actually collected the liquid in flasks to keep as devotional items. In the catacombs these flasks were buried with the dead, their discovery indicating that the person had died a martyr. Throughout the centuries, blood has been collected from holy persons recently deceased, especially martyrs for the faith, with the specimens being carefully kept with devotion and veneration. These samples have been known to liquefy under various circumstances, at different seasons of the year, in various countries and in varied ways. Many samples still display wonderful reactions in our day, one of which, that of St Januarius we will here consider.
While it is scientifically known that blood once removed from the body soon coagulates and eventually spoils, and since this natural reaction was common knowledge among the medical faculty of the Middle Ages, a claim made by them of remarkable liquefactions can hardly be ignored and would seem to indicate a transcendence of their experience. And In our own day, the specimens that are still active are no less scientifically inexplicable than they were centuries ago, even amidst intense scientific investigation.
The best known and most intensely studied is the yearly blood miracle of St. Januarius (St. Gennaro) that occurs is Naples each year. The recurring miracle of the liquefaction of his blood 18 times a year is often reported in the secular as well as the religious press, and is the occasion of great gatherings in the Cathedral of Naples. Here the people pray fervently while the resident cardinal, who usually presides over the ceremony, holds the vials of blood. The miracle occurs when the bust reliquary containing the head of the saint is brought near. When the liquefaction is accomplished in full view of the spectators, the cardinal announces, “The miracle has happened,” words that cause great rejoicing and the chanting of the Te Deum.
The saint’s history begins with the Roman Emperor Diocletian whose persecution during the dawning years of the fourth century made martyrs of innumerable Christians. Among his victims was counted St. [Januarius, who was serving as bishop of Benevento. The imprisonment of the bishop occurred in A.D. 305 when he journeyed to Pozzuoli to offer encouragement to Sossius, a deacon who had been imprisoned. The bishop was soon arrested together with several ministers who had labored beside the saint in the service of the Church. After their decapitation the bodies were removed to various cities. St. Januarius’ body was taken to Benevento, then to Monte Vergine and lastly to Naples where it was entombed in the main church of the city, with two vials of his blood that had been collected by devout followers. Around this tomb the great ca¬thedral was constructed. Here Januarius was honorably remembered by the faithful of the city.
In the 14th century there occurred a phenomenon that was to attract curiosity throughout the centuries until even today the happenings pro¬voke worldwide interest:
The year was 1389. A procession was making its way about the ca¬thedral when the priest holding the flasks containing the saint’s coagulated blood noticed that the contents began to liquefy and bubble. Since then the blood has repeated this phenomenon 18 times each year: on the Saturday before the first Sunday in May and the eight days fol¬lowing; on the feast of the saint, September 19, and during the octave, and on December 16.
In more recent years the liquefactions and viewings have taken place three times a year: on September 19, the feastday of the Saint; on December 16, which is the anniversary of the eruption of Vesu¬vius in 1631; and on the first Sunday in May, which commemorates the translation of the relics to Naples. The blood has failed to liquefy several times, each time coinciding with the outbreak of disease, famine, war or political suppression. It is for this reason that Neapolitans rejoice at each liquefaction.
There are actually four divisions of the saint’s relics. The bones are kept separately while the head is enclosed in a magnificent silver bust that is enshrined a distance from the relics of blood. The liquefaction takes place when the vials are brought in close proximity to the silver bust containing the head. The blood is kept in two vials. The smaller contains only a trace of blood, but the larger measures four inches in height and about two and a quarter inches in diameter and is usually a little more than half filled with coagulated blood that appears as a hard dark mass. The flasks are hermetically sealed and are solidly fixed side by side within a ring of silver and crystal sides that has a sticklike handle at the bottom. The crystals on either side of the ring protect the vials and permit their viewing. This is kept in the main altar of the Chapel of the treasury in the Cathedral of Naples.
On the feast days of the saint the silver bust that contains the head is exposed upon the altar or taken in procession. Prayers are recited while the priest or cardinal holds the reliquary of blood by its handle in full view of the assembly while making certain that the glass is not touched. .After an interval of a few minutes or perhaps even an hour, the mass is seen to gradually detach itself from the walls of the flasks and to liquefy, frequently bubbling and frothing. The vials are then brought to the faithful for their veneration. The cathedral is always filled to capacity when the resident car¬dinal or a priest holds the reliquary for all to see, being careful not to touch the crystal sides. The cardinal then announces, “The miracle has happened,” words that cause great joy and the chanting of the ‘Te Deum’.
When the liquefactions occur, these dreaded occurrences are not expected to take place, and this gives vent to great rejoicing and notices in many secular presses throughout the world. In the evening the reliquary is put into a silver case and placed inside the altar where the next day the blood might be found coagulated or it may be found in a liquid state and might retain so for days or months.
Every possible argument has been presented by skeptics, but all have been dismissed in view of the contrary reactions of the blood whose liquefaction occurs under the most diverse circumstances and physical conditions, The phenomenon has no need of special conditions to verify itself. For example, the liquefactions occur at different temperatures as indicated by the records kept for more than a century, and by the studies of Professors Pergola, Punzo and Sperindeo who concluded that there is o direct relation between the temperature and the time and manner of liquefaction. The blood may liquefy at temperatures of 77 degrees or higher with the phenomenon taking as much as 20 to 40 minutes, while smaller amount of time may be required when the temperature is 15 or o degrees or less.
Those reluctant to admit the supernatural quality of the happening have argued that the press of the spectators, the lights and candles on the altar or the warmth of the priest’s hands have helped in producing re heat that encourages liquefaction. Since the miracle occurs several times each year in various seasons, and since the blood is protected by NO layers of glass and since there is no constant point at which the liquefaction takes place, the miracle is contrary to every physical law that exists regarding the temperature needed to liquefy a substance. Likewise there have been occasions when the blood has failed to liquefy under app¬arently ideal circumstances. The theory of heat or the lack of it affords o adequate explanation of the phenomenon observed.
After the liquefaction the blood frequently presents a variation in volume since at times it decreased while at other times it almost doubles s size, nor does it necessarily return to its original volume. Sometimes the coagulated blood occupies half the vial while at other times it occupies almost the entire space. A truly mystifying condition exists with regard to its weight. In experiments conducted in 1902 and 1904 the reliquary was weighed in a delicate balance. It was discovered that its weight was no more constant than its bulk, that is, its weight might increase as much as 25 grams, thereby defying physical laws. The strangest element is that there is often an increase in weight when the mass actually decreases, and a decrease in weight when the volume increases – this in direct opposition to the laws that dictate an increase in weight with a corresponding increase in mass.
The color of the coagulated blood changes from dark rouge, almost black, to a bright vermillion that appears opaque when held to a light. Its viscosity changes as well. Sometimes the mass is almost gummy, at other times fluid, and it is independent of any movement that occurs to the reliquary.
At other times the blood does not entirely liquefy and maintains a hard globule in the middle of the liquefied part, this condition lasting a day, weeks or sometimes months with no explanation being formulated by scientists for this behavior.
The impossibility of a natural explanation increases by the fact that the substance contained in the vials is true blood. This has been confirmed by the constant tradition and by the documents that are im¬possible to refute. It is likewise confirmed by scientific research, especially that of 1902 when Professor Sperindeo was permitted to pass spec¬troscopic beams of light through the liquefied material. This test yielded the distinctive lines of the spectrum of blood with definite characteristics of hemoglobin.
Some of the truly remarkable conditions that scientists could not explain was why the blood sometimes forms tiny bubbles that rise to the surface and collect into a foam, nor why, when it bubbles, it becomes a crimson color while at other times the color of the liquefied material is dull and its movements sluggish.
Skeptical scientists from time to time have attempted to reproduce a liquid with similar characteristics by the mixture of various chemicals, but they have consistently failed to produce something that not only changes from a solid to a liquid form, but also changes its weight, volume and color.
Unable to disqualify the miracle with arguments of a scientific nature, some have grasped elsewhere, even offering the improbable explanation that the blood is affected by some form of psychic force, that concentration and will of the expectant crowd are held responsible producing the physical action that their minds and wills demands is dismissed since the liquefaction has often happened unexpected and in the presence of only a few spectators.
While scientists have been unable to explain how the phenomenon can be accounted for, the mysterious liquefaction of the blood of St. Januarius that has occurred for almost 600 years remains a challenge to the skeptic, a mystery to the scientific, and a truly inspiring miracle to the believer.
On the St Januarius’ feast day in 2011 (September 19), the blood again liquified, but this time before the phial was even removed from the reliquary safe where it is kept. After the usual Mass in honor of Saint Januarius on his feastday, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe of Naples removed the phial of the saint’s blood from the safe, and to his surprise he discovered that the blood had already liquified, and he immediately announced to the congregation “Saint Januarius has listened to our prayers," which drew a sustained applause from the crowd gathered in the cathedral.