Impressions of Italy: Saint Januarius

An important “Italian connection” from my Catholic grade school years, from 1959 to 1967, comes from the third grade, when we were studying the lives of the saints. I was either assigned or chose to explore the famous Italian saint, Januarius, a major patron of the city of Naples and generally a well known saint in Italy. I was to give a written or spoken presentation about the saint some weeks in the future.

Neither I nor my mother, to whom I took my project from school, had any real knowledge of Saint Januarius, apart from the short description given in the religion book we youngsters had for class. It was mentioned there that the saintly bishop was highly venerated in the city of Naples, Italy, particularly at the Roman Catholic cathedral there, dedicated to his memory.

With that in mind, I decided, or maybe my mother or my older brother suggested the idea, that I should go straight to the source and write to the Naples cathedral for more information about Saint Januarius. Keep in mind this was decades before the appearance of the internet and Wikipedia, where today an infinity of information is available at the tap of a computer key.

I wrote my letter in English, mailed it to Italy, like Charlie Brown did to the Great Pumpkin, and patiently, though not confidently awaited a reply. Lo and behold, it eventually came, with a short handwritten letter in Italian from the Rector of the Naples cathedral. Included in the envelope was several holy cards of Saint Januarius, or as he is known in Italian, “San Gennaro.”

What would we do with the letter in Italian, we all pondered? My mom and her younger sister had studied Latin in high school and were able to decipher most of its content, which included words of thanks for writing, hoping I would pray to Saint Januarius, and a little about the regular liquefaction of the saint’s blood. There is more about that phenomenon below.

Not completely satisfied with the translation, my mom suggested I see if one of my classmates, the illusive Deborah Phillips, whose father was first generation Italian, might be able to do better.

Next day I gathered up my courage, approached the very popular Deborah Phillips at school and asked if she might enlist her father to help with the project. She obliged and we ultimately got a refined translation of the letter that became part of my presentation on the bishop, martyr and popular Italian saint, Januarius or Gennaro of Naples.

That is about as much as I recall of the event, though I remember it was an enviable thing to have items directly from the source, so to speak, and my overly shy personality suffered some from being a momentary center of attention at religion class on presentation day, grade three, Saint Charles Borromeo School, Portland, Oregon. This would have been in the year of our Lord 1961 or 1962.

Saint Januarius, often referred to as “Januarius the First of Benevento,” was bishop of that city and a martyr. No contemporary sources of his life are preserved, though by tradition he is believed to have died in the Great Persecution under the Emperor Diocletian at the end of the 200s or in the early 300s, A.D.

A popular Italian saint through the ages, his major shrine was eventually set up at the cathedral in Naples (Napoli). That cathedral is dedicated to his memory and Saint Januarius is buried beneath the church building.

The feast day of the bishop and martyr Januarius is September 19th. Besides his body, the Naples cathedral contains another relic, believed to be the blood of the holy bishop, that is kept in two hermetically sealed glass containers or vials, normally locked in a bank vault apart from the cathedral of Naples itself. These reliquaries are the chief objects of veneration of Saint Januarius.

On three separate dates each year, clergy and faithful gather in Naples to witness the liquefaction of the coagulated blood of Saint Januarius. When the blood liquefies, it is considered a good sign for the people. When it doesn’t liquefy, there is fear of one kind of calamity or another, such as an earthquake or the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, the great volcano not far from Naples.

The three occasions when thousands assemble to witness the liquefaction of Saint Januaruis’ blood each year are September 19th, the saint’s feast day; December 16th, which celebrates his patronage of the city of Naples and the archdiocese; and the first Sunday in May, when his relics were brought together to the Naples cathedral in 1497.

The blood of Saint Januarius is also said to liquefy at other times, as when a pope visits the Naples cathedral. During a visit to Naples on March 21, 2015, Pope Francis venerated the relic of the blood of Saint Januarius. The pope prayed the Our Father over the relic and kissed it. The blood half liquefied and Archbishop Crescenzio Sepe of Naples declared that, “The blood has half liquefied, which shows that Saint Januarius loves our pope and Naples.” Pope Francis replied, “We can see the saint only half loves us. We must all spread the Word (of Christ), so that he loves us more.” People laughed and cheered at the pope’s words.

The Catholic Church has never formulated an official statement on the phenomenon of the blood of Saint Januarius. Nor has it ever been permitted that the vials be opened for scientific investigation. There is fear that if the sealed vials are opened, irreparable damage is likely to occur. Not a matter of doctrine or divine revelation, the blood of Saint Januarius is clearly a matter of “popular piety,” which the faithful are free to partake in or not. As already noted, Italians in droves partake of this devotion.

The museum dedicated to Saint Januarius and access to the chapel where relics of his body are preserved, are located on the right side of the Naples cathedral, under the arcades. They are also accessible from the upper church.

As a student in Rome some thirty years ago I was able to visit the cathedral of Saint Januarius in Naples after having studied his life all those decades earlier. It was a brief but memorable visit, one of the highlights of my Italian sojourn. I was able to visit the cathedral again this spring as well as in September this year. I would say that since my childhood Saint Januarius had been a special patron of mine. May he intercede for all of us!