The prodigious event of the liquefaction of the blood of St. Gennaro is known worldwide. Thousands of the faithful gather in the cathedral of the city of Naples three times a year to witness the phenomenon and invoke graces. The event manages to involve people of all social conditions, believers and non-believers alike, so much so that it can be said that through the Saint’s blood passes the very identity of Naples.
However, it remains unknown to most that there are several prodigies of blood liquefaction in the Neapolitan city, so many that the French writer Jean Jacques Bouchard (1606-1641) called Naples Urbs sanguinum.
Among these is that of St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori: the Doctor of the Church, the Saint of the Age of Enlightenment, the founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, which today has more than 700 houses in 80 countries around the world.
A prodigious fact of which there is no longer any memory, not even among his spiritual children.
And yet, until a few decades ago, hundreds of the faithful went to the Santa Maria della Mercede (Holy Mary of Mercy) and St. Alphonsus church in Naples, also known by the name of the Redemption of the Captivi, in Via San Sebastiano, a few steps from the Conservatorio di San Pietro a Majella, the same place where the young and noble Alfonso de Liguori laid his sword at the foot of the statue of the Virgin (fig. 1), to witness, on the anniversary of the Saint’s dies natalis, the liquefaction of his blood preserved in an ampoule set in a marvellous reliquary.
To not permanently lose the memory of this extraordinary event, it is necessary to reconstruct the events that led to the collection and preservation of this most precious relic.
In an 1885 certificate, now lost, it was stated that the blood of St. Alphonsus, preserved at Santa Maria della Mercede, came from an incision made on the Saint’s corpse on the day of his death. However, Fr Antonio Tannoia (1727-1808), his first biographer, wrote that an attempt was made to collect blood that day, but, as was natural and as the Saint himself had predicted, no substance came out of the incisions made.
In an article first published in the Redemptorist journal Analecta (fasc.1, 1932, pp.102-106) and later in the journal S. Alfonso (year XX, no. 7-8, pp. 88-89), the author, Fr. Klemens Henze (1880-1965), tells a different story, reported by the Neapolitan priest Giunio Arnaldo Nappi, the spiritual father of the Archconfraternity dedicated to St. Alphonso, which is based in the same church of S. Maria della Mercede.
In 1785, thus two years before the Saint’s death, some of the blood taken by bloodletting was placed in a small vial by Alessio Pollio, his personal valet, who later gave it to his daughter. The latter, in turn, gave it to a Neapolitan priest, Luigi Petroni, with whom her husband worked. The latter made a gift of it to one of St. Alphonso’s nephews, Giuseppe de Liguori (1766-1846), Prince of Pollica, the eldest son of Hercules. On 4 February 1837, the Prince bequeathed the relic to the Archconfraternity, of which he was a confrere. In a letter whose addressee remains unknown, Petroni recounts that the blood from the flask, still in the woman’s possession, had turned into a dry, almost sandy ash (una cenere asciutta e quasi arenosa) over the years. In 1819, the year of Venerable Alphonsus’ beatification, the dust again turned to blood. The prodigy would be repeated the following year. The authenticity of the phenomenon was attested by Monsignor Pasquale Giusti (1780-1831), Bishop of Ascalona.
In the Apostolic Process of St Alphonsus, yet another story is reported.
Four years before the death of Alphonsus, after yet another bloodletting performed on the Saint, Alessio Pollio collected some of the blood in a small glass bottle. Years later, he noticed that it had not congealed but was still liquid and, astonished by the prodigious event, he handed the relic over to Fr. Vincent Giattini (1752-1827), Postulator General of the Congregation. However, the latter made it clear in a letter sent on 2 February 1821 to Fr. Nicola Mansione (1741-1823), Rector Major of the Redemptorist Congregation, that it was not the same phial in possession of Pollio’s daughter. According to Henze, the relic in Fr. Giattini’s possession could be the one that is now kept in the Redemptorist House in Pagani (fig. 2).
On 1 August 1851, the Rector of the Church della Mercede, Vito Ardia, wanted the sacred relic to be exposed to the veneration of the faithful. At 2 p.m. of the same day, the Neapolitan priest Gennaro Baccher (1818-1866) was the first to witness the prodigious liquefaction. The phenomenon ended four hours later. Over the next few days, vast crowds of the faithful, both lay and religious, flocked to witness the event. Among them was the Archbishop of Naples, Cardinal Sisto Riario Sforza (1810-1877), who later attested to its authenticity and donated a precious reliquary in which to store it (fig. 3).
This was not, however, the only eminent testimony of the prodigious phenomenon.
The German Redemptorist Karl Mader (1840-1925) reported the liquefaction episode in his work Die Congregation des Allerheiligsten Erlösers in Österreich, published in Vienna in 1887.
On 24 September 1871, the Superior General of the Redemptorists, Nicolas Mauron (1818-1893), being in Naples, went to the Church of the Mercede in the company of the Rector Major of the Southern Provinces, Fr Celestino Berruti, and together they witnessed the event.
On 28 April 1880, the Austrian Redemptorist religious Joseph Kassewalder (1819-1898), at that time Superior of the Austrian Province, and Andreas Hamerle (1837-1930) also went to the Church della Mercede and witnessed the liquefaction of blood.
Another testimony came from Dr Caspar Isenkrahe (1844-1921), a German mathematician and physicist who, in his work Neapolitanische Blutwunder, recounts having personally witnessed the prodigious event on 3 and 6 May 1911 after a brief prayer.
Over the years, the phenomenon occurred several more times as reported in the book by Giov. Batt. Alfano and Antonio Amitrano Notizie storiche ed osservazioni sulle Reliquie di Sangue conservate in Italia e particolarmente in Napoli published in Naples in 1951.
With the Second World War outbreak, the relic was no longer on public display, and popular devotion gradually waned. In 1980, a sacrilegious theft took away the relics kept there from the Church of the Mercede, including the precious phial with the blood of St. Alphonsus.
Fortunately, others are preserved in various towns in Campania, although for some, we have no attestation of authenticity: in Naples in the oratory of Canon Nicola Tozzi and in the church of Santa Maria della Carità; in the Redemptorist House in Pagani, already mentioned, and finally in the Redemptorist College in Francavilla Fontana (fig. 4) donated by the General Consultor Fr. Antonio di Coste (1865-1944).
Beyond the events cited with their sources and whatever judgement one may make on the nature of these prodigies, the fact remains that re-proposing these relics to the veneration of the faithful would help popular devotion, even more so in this particular historical moment. It is not the prodigy itself that animates, but rather the expectation and prayer of expectation that brings God’s people into communion and strengthens them in the teachings of the church. And not least, the countries that host them would undoubtedly benefit from it for the entire community, just as the city of Naples does. Forgetting their existence, or even worse, not safeguarding them, would be a failure.