The miraculous liquefying of a famous blood relic in the presence of Pope Francis in Naples last Saturday continues to stir debate, with some insisting it was the first time it had happened in front of a pontiff, and others arguing it was stage managed.

As Francis venerated the relic — two phials of coagulated blood of San Gennaro, Naples’ patron saint — the blood “half liquefied,” according to Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, the city’s archbishop.

Sepe called it “a sign that San Gennaro loves Pope Francis: half of the blood turned to liquid.” Francis replied by saying it “means the saint loves us halfway. We all have to convert a little more so that he loves us more.”

The relic of San Gennaro, a 4th century saint, usually miraculously liquefies three times a year: on the saint’s feast day on Sept. 19, the Saturday before the first Sunday of May, and on Dec. 16. When it hasn’t done so, a calamity for Neapolitans has sometimes ensued.

The Catholic Church has never officially recognized the liquefaction as a miracle and has preferred to stay neutral about scientific investigations into the phenomenon. But some saints attest to its authenticity. Blessed John Henry Newman allegedly once said he thought it “impossible to withstand the evidence” of the liquefaction of the blood relic. St. Alphonsus Liguori even chastised “some heretics” for trying to “throw a doubt upon its genuineness.”

The semi-liquefaction on Saturday was reported to be the first time the miracle had occurred in front of a pope since Pope Pius IX in 1849, although this has now been disputed. According to Msgr. Vincenzo De Gregorio of the royal chapel of San Gennaro, the relic was put on display twice in September that year when Pius was visiting the chapel.

On the pope’s first visit on Sept. 6, 1849, “there is no mention of the miracle happening,” De Gregorio told Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops. The pope celebrated Mass there on Sept. 20, but the blood was already liquefied as the miracle had taken place the day before, on the feast day of San Gennaro, and so not in Pius’ presence.

This would mean that for the first time in the church’s history, the miracle occurred in front of a pope last Saturday. Even the presence of Francis immediate predecessors, Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, didn’t prompt the liquefaction. But did it really happen?

Some argue it was stage managed, and that by shaking the vials, which Sepe was seen to be doing before showing the relic to Francis, the coagulated blood naturally began to liquefy. If so, this would correspond to recent scientific studies by professor Giuseppe Geraci which purport to show blood from another relic, belonging to Eremo di Camaldoli of the 18th century, changing from solid liquid by shaking.

Others, particularly a few practicing Catholics uneasy with the direction Pope Francis is leading the Church, referred to the Bible, specifically Matthew 24:24: “For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect.”

But those who watch the video insist they can see the blood moving in the phials. Sepe said the liquefaction should be “looked at from a different point of view” and that what matters is the Pope’s “gesture of devotion” to San Gennaro. “Then it becomes irrelevant that the blood liquefies on this occasion but not in the presence of other pontiffs,” he said. “In any case, our saint showed that he is close to us.”

“Do you know what the real miracle was?”, Sepe, a chain smoker, joked. “I didn’t smoke a cigarette all day. Now that’s a miraculous event.”

 

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