St. Januarius’ Blood—A Miracle, or What?

The month of September contains the feast day of a saint that is associated with one of the strangest occurrences in all of Catholicism, and the crazy thing is that the event happens with great regularity.

September 19 is the feast day of an obscure, yet celebrated saint by the name of Saint Januarius, famously known as Saint Gennaro in Italy.  What we know about the historical details of Saint Januarius is next to nothing; most of what was written about him was written centuries after his martyrdom.

What we think we know is that he was a bishop who was martyred for the faith somewhere around Naples, Italy, at the beginning of the fourth century and that he has been venerated from the earliest of times.  According to ancient tradition Januarius and some companions were thrown to wild beasts, but none of the animals would touch them, so they were beheaded instead.

Now at this point you may be asking yourself: How do they have a phial of blood from a saint who died around the year 300 A.D.?  The fact is, there are records of the early Christians saving the blood of martyrs as relics whenever it was possible, so the idea that some of these blood relics could still exist is indeed realistic.

Six times on each of his three feast days, a priest or bishop from the Cathedral in Naples brings out in public a reliquary containing the phial of what appears to be a dark, solid, opaque mass.  Prayers are said while the priest turns the relic.  After several minutes, the solid mass may liquefy and actually increase in volume, becoming red in color.  It does not always liquefy, but when it does there are great celebrations and the relic is venerated by the faithful.

According to Butler’s “Lives of the Saints,” this is one of the most thoroughly investigated alleged miracles of all time. “At the very least it can be said that the extraordinary thing that is said to take place does take place” (Volume 9, p. 180). 

There have been countless attempts to explain this “miracle” away by natural causes.  Many have claimed that it has to do with wax put into the blood, or that it is not blood at all, or that it has to do with the temperature, but none of these have been satisfactory in discounting what takes place.

A component that complicates the matter is that the liquefaction does not always happen in the same ways.  Sometimes the blood appears to quickly boil, while there are other times when it is slow to liquefy and has a dull brownish color rather than blood red.  As Butler’s goes on to say, “None of this has any known natural explanation.”

Thanks to modern technology, watching this event is just a few clicks away.  YouTube has several videos that are easily accessible.

So what are we to make of this odd phenomenon?  Is it a miracle?  Well, even though the liquefaction has happened in the presence of popes and has been happening for many centuries, the Catholic Church has never made a formal statement on the matter.  In part, this may be due to the fact that the phenomenon seems to have very little purpose, if any at all.  Many of the faithful of Naples believe that if the blood does not liquefy it will be a bad year, and that if it does, the saint will bless the population, but this tends to resemble superstition more that it does a genuine faith.

Whatever our takeaway from this strange occurrence, we should all be able to agree due to the clear evidence that it does, indeed happen.  Is it a miracle?  It seems to me that the entire purpose of a miracle is to enrich and enkindle the faith, so if there are people who truly grow in faith because of the liquefaction of the saint’s blood, then it can loosely be described as a miracle, because it seems the laws of nature are suspended.  But if the phenomenon is nothing more than a point of curiosity, then it loses all purpose.

At the very least we can surmise that there was once a holy man named Januarius who became bishop near the area of Naples and was killed for his Christian faith.  This is more important than his relics, because he gives us a model of faith we should all strive for.

Saint Januarius, pray for us!