The day I saw a saint’s blood become liquid

The waving of the handkerchief is the traditional sign the liquefaction has happened (Photo: PA)

Monday was the feast of St Januarius, one of the three occasions in the year when the blood of the saint is supposed to liquefy. It does not do so every year, and some years it liquefies after a delay, but this year, most unusually, when the Cardinal Archbishop of Naples went to unlock the ampoule that contains the blood from the safe in which it is kept, he found that it had already liquefied. This can be taken to be an excellent sign. You can read about it here and here.

Both accounts are in Italian, for the marvel (the Church calls it “il prodigio” and is careful not to call it “il miracolo”) never seems to attract much attention outside Italy, indeed outside Naples. For an English account of the saint and his miracle, see Wikipedia or the Catholic Encyclopaedia.

It is interesting to note that the Mayor of Naples, Luigi de Magistris, was present to witness the marvel and was one of the first to kiss the sacred relic after the marvel had taken place.

I too have seen the marvel, and I too have kissed the glass ampoule. Ten years ago, a resident in Rome, I decided, along with some friends, to take the train down to Naples for the feast of St Januarius. And so we went. The Mass happens in the evening, and after an agreeable day’s sightseeing, we were in the cathedral in good time, first to visit the side chapel where the relic is kept in some splendour, and then to stand as close to the sanctuary as possible. The Mass was very long, and the cardinal’s sermon very dull indeed, but the congregation sat or stood throughout with great patience.

Then the tension rose visibly at the end of the Mass when the cardinal took the relic from its place and held it up; he turned it one way and then the other; it was clear for all to see that the contents of the glass ampoule were solid and blackish in colour. Several times the cardinal did this, each time with a look of disappointment on his face; and several times the congregation renewed its prayers to the saint. The ampoule was suspended round the cardinal’s neck by a cord, to prevent it being dropped.

Eventually the cardinal said: “Shall we come back tomorrow, or shall we pray some more?” “Let us pray!” shouted a voice from the congregation. And pray we did. Once more the cardinal twiddled the ampoule, then let it rest from its cord. He announced in a sad voice that clearly the marvel was not going to happen this evening; perhaps tomorrow, perhaps next week; but people should not be disappointed, we could all come back another day…

At this moment I despaired. I had come all the way from Rome; I would not be able to be there tomorrow. So at that moment, I prayed. I prayed as I had never done before in my life, or perhaps since. The cardinal’s voice droned on… Then suddenly there was a cry “E fatto!” (It’s happened!”) followed by a huge shout from the congregation which numbered several thousand. The cardinal, his face lit up by surprise and joy, now turned the ampoule round again and again, showing off the silky red liquid that had replaced the black gum of a moment before. The little man in a tailcoat waved his handkerchief ecstatically, the traditional signal that the marvel had happened. For about a quarter of an hour the cathedral was a seething mass of shouting and applauding people. When we had all calmed down somewhat the cardinal spoke again. The marvel of the liquefaction of St Januarius, he said, proved that we were all equal: then the line formed to kiss the relic – first the mayor and the political figures, then the various sprigs of Naples’ now defunct reigning house, the Bourbons of the Two Sicilies, then the rest of us.

Afterwards, our train to Rome was delayed by several hours (this sometimes happens in Italy, whatever they say about trains running on time). But nothing could dampen our spirits. Ten years have passed, but St Januarius remains one of my favourite saints, and Naples remains my favourite Italian city.