One of the things critical to understanding Catholicism is that ours is an embodied and sacramental faith. Our Christianity isn’t just a head trip, or some intellectual construct; it permeates our physical reality, our world, and our own bodies. In our best moments, this challenges us to integrate body, mind, and spirit, and to put all of those in God’s service.
But over 2000 years of history, this has occasionally led to religious practices and observances that to modern sensibilities seem superstitious, or at least awfully odd. Take, for example, the relic of St. Januarius, or San Gennaro. The fourth century bishop of Benevento in Italy, Gennaro was imprisoned and martyred during the persecutions of Diocletian. For centuries he has been the patron saint of the city of Naples. Since the year 1389, each year on his feast day, a vial that purportedly contains his dried blood is carried in procession through the streets. During the procession, the dried blood miraculously liquefies, supposedly as a portent of good fortune for the city.
Many sources claim that the miracle defied scientific explanation. But honestly, there is a possible explanation. In 1902, a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Pavia, Luigi Garlaschelli, and two colleagues from Milan offered thixotropy as an explanation. They made their own “blood” that liquefied and congealed, using chalk, hydrated iron chloride and salt water. A thixotrophic gel appears to be solid, and liquefies when agitated.
Still, the festival of San Gennaro continues, in part because it’s a good show, but also because like all such rituals, it connects the intangible aspects of our faith—sacrifice, martyrdom, holiness—with an historical person, and tangible, physical realities. In the grand scheme of things, such miracles, whether provable or not, are peripheral to our faith. They offer a link to the transcendent, and speak of both the fragility of life, and the durability of the spirit.