The Holy Blood and the Holy Pope

One of the things about the Roman Catholic faith that has always seemed absurd and somewhat disturbing is the practice of including relics of saints in their churches. These relics can range from a small vial of blood to a full skeleton.

Catacomb Saint, Melk Abbey, Austria. photo by me.

The most well known recent saint in the Catholic pantheon is Karol Józef Wojtyła (Pope John Paul II) who was beatified on May 1, 2011.  Given his prominence in the the hierarchy and his recent death (2005) relics are quite common. One of these, a vial of blood, was recently stolen and recovered in Italy.

The relic consisted of an open book with gilded pages in which was embedded a tiny glass vial containing the blood, which was taken from John Paul following the attempt on his life in St Peter’s Square by a Turkish gunman in 1981.

“One of the thieves distracted me, telling me I was on the wrong train,” Father Baldini said. “I turned round to look, and it was then that his accomplices stole my backpack.” He was travelling to a sanctuary near the port of Civitavecchia, where the relic was supposed to go on display.

The blood was later recovered when the backpack was found close to the railway station. Perhaps the thieves didn’t appreciate the magical talisman they had in their hands. or perhaps they feared the type of retribution that faced the Nazis in “Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark”. Who knows.

The use of blood as a relic is not something unique to the 21st century, nor is it rare.

In Italy alone there are 190 blood samples of various saints that are venerated by the faithful as important religious relics. In a number of cases, these vials of clotted blood become liquefied in a paranormal manner, especially during religious ceremonies, thus exalting the sample from relic to a supernatural miracle.

One of the most commonly demonstrated example of such liquefaction is the blood of St. Januarius. Januarius was the Bishop of Beneventum until his death in 305 when he was beheaded, after some other attempts to end his life failed.

“Timotheus, President of Campania,” was the official who condemned the martyrs, that Januarius was thrown into a fiery furnace, but that the flames would not touch him, and that the saint and his companions were afterwards exposed in the amphitheatre to wild beasts without any effect. Timotheus declaring that this was due to magic, and ordering the martyrs to be beheaded, the persecutor was smitten with blindness, but Januarius cured him, and five thousand persons were converted to Christ before the martyrs were decapitated.

After his death, followers supposedly gathered a vial of his blood and moved it to its current location in the Cathedral of Naples. The liquefaction of this blood has been observed at frequent intervals over the past 400 years. From the Catholic Enclycopedia entry on the Januarius.

What actually takes place may be thus briefly described: in a silver reliquary, which in form and size somewhat suggests a small carriage lamp, two phials are enclosed. The lesser of these contains only traces of blood and need not concern us here. The larger, which is a little flagon-shaped flask four inches in height and about two and a quarter inches in diameter, is normally rather more than half full of a dark and solid mass, absolutely opaque when held up to the light, and showing no displacement when the reliquary is turned upside down. Both flasks seem to be so fixed in the lantern cavity of the reliquary by means of some hard gummy substance that they are hermetically sealed. Moreover, owing to the fact that the dark mass in the flask is protected by two thicknesses of glass it is presumably but little affected by the temperature of the surrounding air. Eighteen times in each year, i.e. (1) on the Saturday before the first Sunday in May and the eight following days, (2) on the feast of St. Januarius (19 Sept.) and during the octave, and (3) on 16 December, a silver bust believed to contain the head of St. Januarius is exposed upon the altar, and the reliquary just described is brought out and held by the officiant in view of the assembly. Prayers are said by the people, begging that the miracle may take place, while a group of poor women, known as the “zie di San Gennaro” (aunts of St. Januarius), make themselves specially conspicuous by the fervour, and sometimes, when the miracle is delayed, by the extravagance, of their supplications.

The officiant usually holds the reliquary by its extremities, without touching the glass, and from time to time turns it upside down to note whether any movement is perceptible in the dark mass enclosed in the phial. After an interval of varying duration, usually not less than two minutes or more than an hour, the mass is gradually seen to detach itself from the sides of the phial, to become liquid and of a more or less ruby tint, and in some instances to froth and bubble up, increasing in volume. The officiant then announces, “Il miracolo é fatto”, a Te Deum is sung, and the reliquary containing the liquefied blood is brought to the altar rail that the faithful may venerate it by kissing the containing vessel. Rarely has the liquefaction failed to take place in the expositions of May or September, but in that of 16 December the mass remains solid more frequently than not.

According to the church, all naturalist explanations of the liquefaction have been found wanting, so the answer must lie in the supernatural. Blood removed from a living organism soon coagulates and eventually spoils, something that must have been obvious to everyone for  millennia. Thus re-liquefaction of blood would emphasize the supernatural forces behind the beliefs in the holiness of the saints. The earliest recorded example of the liquefaction of the blood of St Januarius dates from 1389 and has been publicly demonstrated 18 times a year over the past 600 years.

While numerous speculations have been put forward as to how such a miracle could occur, ranging from trickery to magnetism, the most probable explanation is the process of thixotropy.

Thixotropy denotes the property of certain gels to became more fluid, even from solid to liquid, when stirred, vibrated, or otherwise mechanically disturbed, and to resolidify when left to stand. Common examples of such substances are catsup, mayonnaise and some types of paints and toothpastes.

Thus, the very act of handling the reliquary, repeatedly turning it upside down to check its state, might provide the necessary mechanical stress to induce the liquefaction. A successful performance of the rite, therefore, does not need conscious cheating, while not excluding its occurrence, as gentle or sharp movements can certainly control the timing of the liquefaction.

Indeed, over the centuries, unexpected liquefactions have often been observed whilst handling the relic case for repairs

Materials capable of thixotropy were known and available to medieval artists and alchemists, particularly a mineral called molysite. Molysite occurs only near active volcanoes such as Mount Vesuvius which is not far from Naples.

A spectroscopic analysis carried out in 1902 is touted by the church as proof of the presence of haemoglobin, however the only source of the report is from the Roman Curia.  Other miraculous claims of the blood changing in volume and weight have not been verified outside of these publications.

The Church has a policy of not allowing vials of this nature to be opened for analysis, however, there are a number of non-destructive tests that could be carried out.

for example, molecular absorptions and fluorescence spectroscopy, and Raman scattering measurements, made with modern electronic instruments by qualified spectroscopists. Controlled temperature increments and shock tests also represent non-destructive analytical methods by which our or alternative hypotheses might be verified or disproved.

The above skeptical analysis was performed by di L.Garlaschelli, F.Ramaccini, and S.Della Sala and published in 1994. To the brst of my knowledge, none of these tests have been carried out in the intervening years. Given the popularity of the myth of the Shroud of Turin, disavowed by the church itself, it is highly unlikely that any natural explanation for the liquefaction of the blood of St Januarius would have any impact on the beliefs of the faithful.

It remains to be seen what miraculous properties will be ascribed to the blood of St John Paul II.

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