Born: c. 272
Ordained Bishop: c. 292
Died: c. 305
Patronage: blood banks, volcanic eruptions, City of Naples
Prior to leading a group of young adult pilgrims to the 31st International World Youth Day in Krakow, Poland, we had the privilege to spend two weeks on pilgrimage throughout Italy. Our travels took us to Rome and numerous other outlying areas of local, popular piety, including the ancient city of Naples. What drew us there in the planning of the pilgrimage was the opportunity to visit the magnificent and very old Cathedral which house the relics of St. Januarius, or San Gennaro, in Italian. Part of the allure of venerating his relics was that the life of this ancient bishop definitely fit the bill of a site of more local than universally renowned devotion. Secondly, the situation of his relics are very unique in themselves which, in large part, tales about them comprise more of the modern story of his life than any biographical details we know about him. We shall consider his miraculous relics after briefly treating what little information we have regarding his life and ministry.
Certain sources purport Januarius to have been born around the year 272 in the city of Benevento to a wealthy family whose origins are contested. Some say they were local nobles and others a family of Roman nobility who moved to the Campania region of Italy as rulers of it. Furthermore, it is unclear whether the family name was Janus, in honour of the Roman god, in which case, their son may actually have been named Proclus; or, if Januarius is actually this saint’s proper first name. For many centuries now, the tradition of Januarius being his first name has been maintained. Again, some reports indicate he was an only child while others maintain he had a younger sister, Agatha.
It is unclear when the family became baptized Christians and whether all of them did or only Januarius. One pious account of his life suggests that at the early age of 15, Januarius was ordained a priest in order to serve in the local parish of Benevento. While this would be considered a dangerously young age by modern standards to be ordained, at the time, Januarius would have been dealing largely with a pagan population and relatively small parish community. Nonetheless, his maturity and competency must have been pronounced.
The most ancient sources indicate that at the age of 20, Januarius was ordained bishop of that diocese of the same name while still others maintain he had become bishop of Naples. However, the longest standing tradition suggests he exercised his entire episcopal ministry in Benevento and only later were his relics transferred to Naples. It is believed that at the turn of the fourth century, the Christian persecutions of the emperor Diocletian were in full force. As a steadfast shepherd of his flock, the Bishop Januarius gave himself over to hiding and protecting his fellow Christians from arrest and execution.
Once, while visiting his deacon-friend from the neighbouring diocese who had been imprisoned, Januarius, too, was taken captive and charged with not only being a Christian but in interfering with the rightful executions of many others. He, along with a number of the other clergy of Benevento, were sentenced to death. Some early accounts suggest that they were simply beheaded. Others maintain that they had been fed to wild bears in a local amphitheater. The account of his death from an ancient roman breviary, however, combines these two accounts in a most dramatic fashion. It is purported that having thrown Januarius and his companions into a furnace whose flames would not burn them, they were taken from the furnace and then thrown to the bears. Yet again, when the wild beasts refused to harm them, the executioner was finally called to dispatch them.
The body and head of Januarius were supposedly then taken to Naples by locals of that town who sought his protection and intercession from the eruption of the nearby and violent volcano of Mount Vesuvius. Also collected as relics from the saintly bishop were vials of his blood. As grotesque as this may sound, in the early Church of constant persecutions, devotion to the blood of the martyrs was very revered. The faithful would often gather around the site of execution of their brothers and sisters in Christ in order to mop up their blood with cloths and to collect portions of it in glass vials. These vials were taken home for their personal devotion as well as to bury with their bodies in the catacombs as a sign that they had been martyred.
In the case of St. Januarius, devotion to the two reliquaries of his blood which were collected and also brought to Naples has brought both them and him great renown. A unique miracle is attached to these relics wherein, each year, these vials which have naturally, completely dried out undergo an inexplicable process of liquefacation. Three times a year, on the Saturday before the first Sunday of May, on his feast day of 19 September and every 16 December, the vials are removed from their enclosure in the chapel of the relics in the Cathedral of Naples and are placed on the altar next to the bust of St. Januarius which contains his skull. Within moments of this happening, the blood liquefies and at times has even begun to froth and bubble much more voluminously than the mere fragments of dust which remain throughout the rest of the year should be able to produce.
At the moment of liquefacation, the Cardinal Archbishop holds up the vial for the faithful, so many of whom are gathered, to behold and he says, il miracolo è fato– the miracle has happened- and the choir begins to chant the triumphant hymn, Te Deum. With very few exceptions throughout the many centuries’ history of gathering to witness this miracle, the blood has always liquefied. Outside of the assigned dates, on a number of other occasions during the visit of a Pope to the Cathedral, during his personal veneration of the relics, the blood has liquefied. Oddly, this did not happen on the visits of St. John Paul II in 1979 nor Pope Emeritus, Benedict XVI in 2007.
Most amusingly, during the visit of Pope Francis in 2015, he held the vials of blood while reciting the Lord’s Prayer, at the conclusion of which he kissed the relics. At that moment, Cardinal Sepe, standing with him, declared to the assembly that one of the two vials had liquefied, a sign that St. Januarius loves Pope Francis and blesses his visit to Naples. Instantly, the Holy Father rebutted that, in only one of the two vials liquefying, it was actually a sign that St. Januarius only loved him half as much and therefore we must all pray that he would love us more!
In this miracle, as bizarre as it may seem, one discovers the richness of the many expressions of devotion found within our Catholic faith. More importantly, in these times when the blood of martyrs continues to be shed the whole world over, our reverence for the blood of this early martyr who has gone before us reminds us that there is no greater gift which can be offered in our Church than our very own blood which has been purchased by the Precious Blood of Christ.
St. Januarius, pray for us!