Pope Francis traveled south from Rome to visit the city of Naples (Napoli) earlier this week. Because the southern regions of Italy have historically been — and are still — poorer than their northern counterparts, much of Italian emigration patterns came from the areas below Rome, including especially Calabria, Puglia, Sicily and Campania, where Naples is located. Thus, much of what we know as Italian-American culture has southern Italian roots.
Take, for instance, New York’s massive San Gennaro Festival, the Italian-American counterpart to St. Patrick’s Day. It’s named for the patron of Naples, St. Januarius in English, a martyred bishop from the city. The food, stalls and religious processions are truly unforgettable for anyone that has been there for it.
In Italy, San Gennaro is almost universally associated with what is technically called the “prodigio” (“wonder” or “marvel”), though most Italians who are not Vatican officials refer to it as the “miracolo del sangue” (“the miracle of the blood”). On certain pre-determined days, most famously his feastday, the coagulated blood of San Gennaro mysteriously defies science and liquefies in a reliquary vial securely fastened around the neck of the presiding cardinal or prelate to keep it from slipping out of his hands. The church has never made a definitive statement on its authenticity but certainly does nothing to discourage veneration, much like the Shroud of Turin.
In rare instances, the blood has failed to liquefy on these dates, and according to tradition, portended disaster for the people of the city — imminent wars, famines, or natural disasters. Locals then still have a vested interest in celebrating the wonder when it does occur.
Popes, including John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have visited at times when the blood was expected to remain coagulated, and it did so. Thus, they failed to see it liquefy in person. However, it did liquefy in the presence of Pope Pius IX unexpectedly in 1848. That was the last time a reigning pope had seen it happen in person. Until this week.
The local archbishop, Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, remarked that in Francis’ presence it had immediately “half-liquefied” and the pope quipped that perhaps the saint was only half-pleased with his work and that much was left to do for the church to spread the Word of God. By all reports, the blood fully liquefied before it was returned to its place of honor, the first time it had done so in such a setting in 167 years.
As he has been in so many other parts of the world, the pope was warmly welcomed by the Neapolitans. Since Naples is the birthplace of pizza, a local business-owner made his way to the pope-mobile to present him one with yellow cherry peppers and mozzarella to emulate the Vatican flag’s colors.
The visit had a serious element to it though as well. Naples has historically been viewed as corrupt, violent and under the thumb of organized crime. The pope lambasted those who would “give in to the lure of easy money or dishonest income, which may be bread for today but hunger for tomorrow.”
He called for the local people to be “open to hope and not allow hope to be stolen from you” and urged them to “react firmly to organizations that exploit and corrupt the young, the poor, and the weak, with the cynical drug trade and other crimes.”
He prayed that “corruption not disfigure this beautiful city” and insisted that God forgives all, so that a return to an honest life even for the hardest of hearts is possible. Instead of “folding in on itself,” Naples can and should open out to the world to conquer its demons, because “God lives in our cities, God lives in Naples.”
Collingswood native Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum), Rome.