Once again, on September 19, thousands of people will be waiting to see if the blood of the 4th century holy January martyr liquefies on his feast day, as it has done almost unceasingly for hundreds of years.
The inhabitants of Naples, where the body and head of the saint as well as his blood have been kept for centuries, and those who come from other places and countries, will eagerly come to the Cathedral of the Assumption of Mary, also known locally as the Cathedral of Naples, or sit by their radios and televisions, to see and hear if his blood liquefies in time. Saint Januarius – or San Gennaro as he is also known – is a hometown saint and the main patron saint of Naples.
At the same time, in New York City, in the section known as Little Italy, crowds will attend the annual San Gennaro party which was first celebrated 95 years ago – in September 1926 to be exact. . Naturally, it was started by Italian immigrants, mostly Neapolitans who had immigrated from Naples. What started as a one-day celebration of their boss San Gennaro, drawing inspiration from their Italian traditions and culture, will eventually grow and expand to include large numbers of non-Italian New Yorkers and visitors from out of town.
This Italian-American holiday also extended from that initial one-day event of a solemn celebration of their patron saint, as well as a block party on Mulberry Street, to today’s Italian-American festival of 11 days which started Thursday and continues until September 26th. .
To celebrate San Gennaro, it weaves religious festivities with continuous gastronomic festivals, a parade, daily entertainment and vendors. The streets and atmosphere are filled with sausage and pepper sandwiches, eggplant, chicken parmesan, mozzarella sticks, calzone, fried dough, cannoli, zeppole and more.
Naturally, the image of the saint became the central figure of a great solemn precession in the streets of Little Italy. Its unofficial national shrine was and remains in the Church of the Most Precious Blood, where the Italian population has worshiped for over a century. As usual, people honored the saint and at the same time made an offering for the poor of the surrounding neighborhoods by pinning money on ribbons affixed to the clothes of San Gennaro.
At one point, more than 25 Catholic schools and religious organizations, and even a few secular groups, were beneficiaries.
Blood liquefies three times a year
The blood of Saint January – San Gennaro – actually liquefies three times a year in the Cathedral of Naples.
Although little is known about him, Januarius was the bishop of Benevento, a city northeast of Naples. He hid Christians during Diocletian’s persecution, but he himself was taken, and in AD 305 he and his companions were cast to the lions. The beasts refused to harm them. Then, like Daniel’s companions, he was thrown into a furnace, but the fire had no effect. He came out unharmed. Finally, the proconsul, no doubt frustrated, had him beheaded.
When her body and head were removed, an old Neapolitan woman collected her blood and filled a vial with it. After a roundabout ride where his body and head were taken to three different locations, they were eventually brought to the Cathedral of Naples. This is where his blood is also kept. The first time it liquefied was in 1389.
After September 19, another major annual liquefaction of his blood – changing from solid to liquid – takes place on the Saturday before the first Sunday in May in memory and celebration of the date on which his separate relics – body and head – are finally arrivals at the Cathedral of Naples.
It is quite interesting to note that the last place for his relics before coming to the cathedral was at Monte Virgine, an abbey in the province of Naples which is believed to contain relics (brought from Jerusalem by Emperor Frederick II) of the bodies of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. These are the companions of Daniel, who were also saved from the fiery furnace (Daniel 3: 16-97) as Januarius would be.
The third time that the blood of Saint Januarius-San Gennaro liquefies is on December 16. This date marks the anniversary of his intercession which saved Naples from certain destruction in 1631 when nearby Mount Vesuvius was about to erupt. People cried for his help in saving the city, and Naples was spared what was shaping up to be certain tragedy. The following year, December 16, 1632, for the first time on that date, the blood of San Januarius liquefied, and has continued ever since, in commemoration of this event.
No reason to wonder why for centuries, during these three days, the Neapolitans, both civilians and religious, celebrate and honor him every year as the patron of the city. They pray for the protection of San Gennaro from Vesuvius and other potential disasters, including fires and epidemics.
Prayers continued when the Neapolitans came to America and settled in Little Italy from Manhattan. As the website of the Sanctuary Church of the Most Precious Blood, built in 1905 and now a sister church with the Basilica of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral a few blocks away:
âThe Italian Neapolitan immigrants regarded San Gennaro as their protector in America. They called it, as they had done in Italy, to protect them from natural disasters, fires, misfortunes and diseases. In America, where Italian immigrants faced new hardships, they turned to San Gennaro to intercede to protect them from childhood illnesses, polio, flu and tuberculosis, which were common in their poor neighborhoods. .
Fast forward 95 years
As in New York, Naples also celebrates with a procession through the streets of central Naples. But, of course, they will have the true relics of San Gennaro. The silver bust of the saint, the reliquary containing his head, is placed near the altar. The Archbishop, Abbot of the Cathedral’s St.January Chapel, or another priest will take the hermetically sealed bulbous glass vase stored in a safe place in the cathedral and show it to everyone. The blood begins to liquefy when it is near the head of the saint. There are prayers before the liquefaction and celebration as people approach and kiss the vessel with the liquefied blood of San Gennaro.
All the archbishops of Naples have attested to this phenomenon, as has a long line of secular officials who join the assertion because the exhibition only requires the presence of civil and ecclesiastical authorities. The Church and civil servants must agree on the outcome. It is no wonder that the feast of St. January is an official holiday in Naples.
Has blood never failed to liquefy? On rare occasions it has remained strong. When this happens, people see it as a distressing and terrible omen for the city. His blood did not liquefy in 1980, and soon after an earthquake struck the area that same year, killing around 3,000 people and leaving thousands and thousands homeless. Again in 2016, his blood did not liquefy. That year, earthquakes hit the town of Saint-BenoÃ®t de Norcia and other neighboring regions. It also failed to liquefy in December 2020, but in May 2021 it liquefied again.
San Gennaro, Little Italy style
This year’s San Gennaro party returns after being canceled last year due to the COVID-19 situation.
Father Brian Graebe, the pastor of the Basilica of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral, will be the celebrant of the 2 p.m. mass, which kicks off the 11-day celebration, Sunday at Most Precious Blood Church on Baxter Street.
âImmediately after, the famous procession through the streets,â he said. Naturally, being a religious procession, the life-size bust of Saint January sculpted in silver and brass will attract tremendous attention. It was given as a gift by the people of Naples on September 19, 1946, at the end of World War II, as a “thank you” for the assistance of the United States during this time.
Besides the health crisis of last year, which brought the party to a halt, the only other times it did not take place were during the years of World War II from 1942 to 1945, and then again in 2001 after the 11 September.
For the 20th anniversary of September 11, the feast of San Gennaro will be celebrated this year in honor of all first responders and their families, and the Grand Marshal will be New York City Fire Marshal Daniel Nigro.
As the Italian residents of Little Italy have gone from an all-time high of 1.5 million people around the mid-20th century to fewer than 100 families today as the children married and moved to Brooklyn and in other districts, the feast of San Gennaro continues. Although the tasty dishes and pastries of Italy are still popular, the religious aspects remain strong. Father Graebe mentioned that Cardinal Timothy Dolan was recently in the area filming videos at the Church of the Most Precious Blood.
âIt is a very pretty church that would find its place in any side street in Naples,â said Father Graebe. He knows the city because he visited the Sanctuary of St. January in the Cathedral of Naples.
After the Church of the Most Precious Blood has become part of the basilica’s family, it is only open for Sunday Mass, but for the feast of San Gennaro, it will be open every day âduring the feast to order. that people can come and pray and light a candle, âsaid the pastor.
âWe also have a group to come and do evangelism. Priests come to confess.” Weather permitting on the last night of the festival, there will also be another procession.
As Father Graebe said, during the festival the plan and idea is to âstay focused on the faith as much as possibleâ. This is the highlight that Saint Januarius (San Gennaro) will certainly enjoy.