September 18, 2016

Saint Januarius, Bishop and Martyr, and the Miracle of His Blood

Martyrdom of Saint Januarius, Girolamo Pesce, 1727.
Martyrdom of Saint Januarius
September 19th, the Church celebrates the optional memorial of Saint Januarius, (Italian: San Gennaro) the 4th century bishop of Beneventum, who, together with his companions, (his deacons Socius and Festus, and his lector Desiderius) was martyred in the persecution of Diocletian at Naples in c. 305.

Little is known about Januarius before his episcopate. Later accounts contend he was born in Benevento. The earliest mention of him is found in a 432 letter by Uranius, bishop of Nola, concerning the death of Saint Paulinus. It asserts that the ghosts of Januarius and Saint Martin appeared to Paulinus three days before the later's death. Uranius states that Januarius was a "bishop as well as martyr, an illustrious member of the Neapolitan church."

Tradition records his martyrdom as follows: First, he was placed into a fiery furnace, but remained unscathed. Then, he was thrown to the lions, but they refused to attack him. Finally, he was beheaded. His blood was collected in a glass vial and placed in his tomb. He is said to have protected Naples from a violent eruption of Mt. Vesuvius after its inhabitants prayed for his intercession.

The Miraculous Liquefaction of St. Januarius’ Blood

St. Januarius is known for the miracle of the liquefaction of his blood, which, according to popular piety, was saved by a woman named Eusebia just after the saint’s martyrdom. At least three times a year, on September 19, (St. Januarius’ feast day) December 16, (The celebration of his patronage of the city and the archdiocese) and the Saturday before the first Sunday of May, (the memorial of the reunification of his relics) thousands gather in Naples Cathedral in hopes of witnessing St. Januarius’ congealed blood liquefy and appear to boil.

The dried blood is stored in two hermetically sealed ampoules, held since the 17th century in a silver reliquary between round glass plates about 12 cm wide. The smaller ampoule contains only a few reddish specks on its walls. The larger ampoule, with a capacity of 60 ml, is about 60% filled with a reddish substance.

When the Bishop takes the vial containing the saint’s head to the Altar, the assembled congregation prays that the blood becomes liquid. If the miracle takes place, the officiant proclaims, "Il miracolo é fatto!" (The miracle is accomplished!) and waves a white handkerchief. The Te Deum is recited and the reliquary taken to the altar rail so that the faithful may venerate the vial.

The first recorded liquefaction of St Januarius’ blood was in 1389. The blood can be fickle and sometimes remains congealed. Liquefaction is considered a sign that the year will be free from disasters. Conversely, the absence of a miracle may portend difficulty. (On the eve of World War II, the blood did not bubble up.)

Intercession and Veneration

In 1631, an impending eruption on Mt. Vesuvius threatened the city of Naples. The people prayed to St Januarius to spare them. The flow of lava ceased and the city was saved. Ever since, St Januarius has been invoked against volcanic eruptions. He is also the patron saint of Naples, Italy and blood banks. The San Gennaro festival in Little Italy, New York City celebrating St. Januarius’s feast is the longest continuously running public religious festival in the United States. O God, who grant us to venerate the memory of the Martyr Saint Januarius, give us, we pray, the joy of his company in blessed happiness for all eternity.

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