It’s time for another edition of “Here’s your sign” where an unusual event is used to explain either what just happened or what is about to happen. While this is often a pareidolia incident, like seeing the face of a religious figure in clouds or on burnt toast, today’s is a triannual affair when thousands gather in a church in Naples (this year many more watched online) to witness whether a vial of dried blood allegedly from St. Januarius liquefies, sparing the world from problems for another four months. What’s the verdict on May-September 2020? What do skeptics say?
For those who need a brief intro to the liquification event, Januarius or Gennaro was martyred in the year 305 and legend says a small amount of his blood was saved by a woman named Eusebia. The first account of its liquefaction was made in 1382 and its status was eventually checked three times every year on significant anniversaries of St. Januarius … on September 19, the Saturday before the first Sunday of May and on December 16. As you may have guessed, liquification is the preferred occurrence – legend says failures to liquefy on one of those days preceded 22 epidemics, 11 revolutions, three droughts, 14 archbishops death (within a 30-day period), nine dead popes (within a few weeks), four wars, 19 earthquakes, and three religious persecutions. The last time it failed to liquefy was on December 16, 2016. Hmm … wasn’t there a U.S. election just prior to that date?
Of course, quite a bit can happen in the four months between these check-ins with St. Januarius’ dried blood and events can be selected to support either the liquification or lack of it. The alleged blood is stored in two hermetically sealed small vials held between two round glass plates. Only the larger has enough for the test – about 60 ml – and the display is kept in a bank vault except for the designated days. According to the history of the event, the liquefication can happen immediately or over a few days and if and when it finally happens, there’s a 21-gun salute to announce it. And when it doesn’t? Believers start looking for things to blame on it. The Catholic Church is neutral on the whole thing, although it supports the celebration.
Has the liquefication ever been checked scientifically? Yes … in a way. As expected, the keepers of the vials will not let them be opened, but a spectroscopic analysis performed in 1989 concluded that the spectrum was consistent with hemoglobin. In 2010, Giuseppe Geraci, a professor in the Department of Molecular Biology at Naples's Frederick II University, showed that a similar vial containing old blood dating back to the 18th century could change to liquid by shaking the vial. This has also been shown to happen with a vial containing an identical dried blood-like substance – rust-colored wax.
Despite all of that, human nature wants to believe and this is not an attempt to disparage or ridicule the psychological benefits of religious faith or traditions. Here we are in the midst of a worldwide pandemic which has had a severe impact on Italy. If the government can’t help, maybe St. Januarius can.
“Dear friends, I have a big announcement to make: even in this time of coronavirus, the Lord through the intercession of St. Januarius has liquified the blood!"
Cue the 21-gun salute -- Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe held the vial and it liquefied – this time. Of course, it also liquefied on December 16, 2019, when it could have warned Italians about what was coming, so this whole prediction business has to be taken with a shaker of salt. The cardinal sees it as a sign that Naples is fighting back against the pandemic, but warned that Italians shouldn’t get complacent. Good advice from both Crescenzio and Januarius.
Like clockwork, St. Januarius’ blood will be consulted again in September.