Saint Januarius, Bishop and Martyr, and Companions

September 19

Today is the feast day of Saint Januarius, Bishop and Martyr,  and his Companions .  Orate pro nobis.

Saint Januarius (Gennaro) is believed to have suffered in the persecution of Diocletian, c. 305. With regard to the history of his life and martyrdom, we know next to nothing. The various collections of “Acts”, though numerous (cf. Bibliotheca Hagiographica Latina, n. 4115-4140), are all extremely late and untrustworthy.

Januarius was a 4th century bishop of Beneventum, who with his companions suffered martyrdom. It is said he was first thrown into a fiery furnace and remained unscathed. Then thrown to the lions in the arena, they refused to touch him. Finally he was beheaded. The Christian women collected his blood in a glass vial and placed it in his tomb.

Adapted from THE LITURGICAL YEAR, Vol. XIV by Dom Gueranger

The following story is from tradition concerning St. Januarius and the sharers in his glorious Martyrdom.

During the persecution of the Christians under Diocletian and Maximian, Januarius, bishop of Beneventum, was brought before Timothy, president of Campania, at Nola, for the profession of the Christian faith. There his constancy was tried in various ways. He was cast into a burning furnace, but escaped unhurt, not even his garments or a hair of his head being injured by the flames. This enraged the president, who commanded the Martyr’ s body to be so stretched that all his joints and nerves were displaced. Meanwhile Festus his deacon, and Desiderius, a lector, were seized, loaded with chains, and dragged, together with the bishop, before the president’s chariot to Pozzuolo. There they were cast into a dungeon, where they found the deacons Sosius of Misenum and Proculus of Pozzuolo, with Eutyches and Acutius laymen all condemned to be thrown to wild beasts.

The following day they were all exposed in the amphitheatre; but the beasts, forgetting their natural ferocity, crouched at the feet of Januarius. Timothy, attributing this to magical arts, condemned the Martyrs of Christ to be beheaded; but as he was pronouncing the sentence, he was suddenly struck blind. However, at the prayer of Januarius, he soon recovered his sight; on account of which miracle, about five thousand men embraced the faith. The ungrateful judge was in no way softened by the benefit conferred upon him, on the contrary, he was enraged by so many conversions; and, fearing the emperor’s edicts, he ordered the holy bishop and his companions to be beheaded.

Eager to secure, each for itself, a patron before God among these holy Martyrs, the neighbouring towns provided burial places for their bodies. In obedience to a warning from Heaven, the Neapolitans took the body of St. Januarius, and placed it first at Beneventum, then in the monastery of Monte Vergine, and finally in the principal church at Naples, where it became illustrious for many miracles. One of the most remarkable of these was the extinction of a fiery eruption of Mount Vesuvius, when the terrible flames threatened with destruction not only the neighbourhood but even distant parts. Another remarkable miracle is seen even to the present day, namely: when the Martyr’s blood, which is preserved congealed in a glass vial, is brought in presence of his head, it liquefies and boils up in a wonderful manner, as if it had been but recently shed.

 O holy Martyrs, and thou especially, O Januarius, the leader no less by thy courage than by thy pontifical dignity, thy present glory increases our longing for Heaven; thy past combats animate us to fight the good fight; thy continual miracles confirm us in the faith. Praise and gratitude are therefore due to thee on this day of thy triumph; and we pay this our debt in the joy of our hearts. In return, extend to us the protection, of which the fortuuate cities placed under thy powerful patronage are so justly proud. Defend those faithful towns against the assaults of the evil one. In compensation for the falling away of society at large, offer to Christ our King the growing faith of all who pay thee honour. (1)

St. Januarius, Bishop of Benevento
by St. Alphonsus Liguori

Naples and Benevento both claim the honor of having given birth to Januarius; he is said to have been descended of the ancient family of the Sanniti, who had made war with the Romans, and were masters and dukes of Benevento. There are no historical records of the first years of St. Januarius, but it is certain that his parents were Christians, and that he was esteemed the most learned and pious of the clergy, for which reason he was unanimously chosen bishop of Benevento, upon a vacancy having occurred in that see. The humility of the saint induced him most resolutely to refuse that dignity, until he was obliged to accept it by a command from the Pope, who was at that time St. Caius, or St. Marcellinus.

Our saint undertook the government of his church during the persecution of Diocletian and Maximian, which circumstance gave him noble opportunities of manifesting the extent of his zeal for the faith of Jesus Christ. Not content with propagating and maintaining the faith in his own diocese, he ran through the neighboring cities converting pagans, and assisting and encouraging the faithful.

In the discharge of these duties he became acquainted with a holy deacon of the city of Miseno, named Sosius, with whom he formed a most intimate friendship; for as Sosius was one day reading the Gospel to the people, St. Januarius saw a most resplendent flame upon his head, from which fact he predicted that the pious deacon would be crowned with martyrdom. The prophecy was soon fulfilled; for after a few days Sosius was arrested as a Christian, and brought before Dracontius, governor of the district, who having in vain endeavored with promises and threats to make him prevaricate, caused him to be cruelly scourged, tortured, and sent to prison. He was here frequently visited by the Christians, but the deacon Proculus, and his fellow-citizens Eutyches and Acutius, were particularly attentive to him; and St. Januarius was no sooner apprised of his arrest than he repaired to the prison to comfort and encourage him.

Meanwhile Dracontius was removed to another place by the emperor, and succeeded in the government by Timothy, who upon his arrival at Nola, having heard of the preaching of St. Januarius, and the assistance which he afforded to the faithful in the neighborhood, ordered him to be arrested and brought before him, bound hand and foot. On being presented to the new governor, our saint was commanded to sacrifice, but immediately rejected the iniquitous proposal with horror and contempt; whereupon Timothy ordered him to be thrown into a furnace. The order was instantly executed, but the saint received not the least hurt; and although this miraculous preservation excited the wonder of all present, it was so far from making any salutary impression on the tyrant, that it rendered him more furious and cruel than before, and he accordingly ordered that the saint’s body should be stretched upon the rack until his every nerve should be broken.

As soon as these proceedings were known at Benevento, Festus, the bishop’s deacon, and Desiderius, his lector, forthwith departed to visit their holy prelate in the name of his entire flock; but Timothy being informed of their arrival at Nola, caused them to be arrested, and their depositions to be taken regarding the motives of their journey. They answered that, holding as they did subordinate offices in the church of the good bishop, they thought it their duty to visit their Superior in prison, and minister to him whatever assistance it might be in their power to afford. Upon hearing this declaration the tyrant commanded that they should be loaded with chains, and made to walk before his chariot to Puzzuoli, to be there delivered to wild beasts together with their pastor.

Immediately after their arrival they were exposed in the amphitheatre, when St. Januarius said to the rest: “Be of good heart, brethren! Behold, the day of our triumph has arrived. Let us confidently give our lives for Jesus Christ, who vouchsafed to give his for us.” The beasts were let loose upon them, in the presence of a great multitude; but although they ran towards the martyrs as it were to devour them, they cast themselves before them and licked their feet. The miracle was evident to all, and a deep murmur was heard to run through the amphitheatre: “The God of the Christians is the only true God.”

The effect produced by this miracle made Timothy fear a general sedition, and he accordingly gave orders that the martyrs should be led to the public square and beheaded; but St. Januarius, in passing the governor, prayed that the Lord might strike him blind, for his own confusion and the conversion of the people. This prayer having taken instant effect, the tyrant delayed the execution of the sentence, and besought the holy bishop to forgive the maltreatment he had received, and to pray for the restoration of his sight. St. Januarius did so, and the miracle was followed by the conversion of five thousand pagans; but Timothy, fearing lest he should lose the favor of the emperor, ordered his officers to have the last sentence privately but instantly executed.

While our saint was being led to Vulcano, the place selected for his last struggle, an aged Christian followed him, imploring with many tears that he would give him something to keep for his sake; the good bishop, moved by the devotion of the old man, told him that he had nothing to give, except his handkerchief, which, as he needed it to bandage his eyes in receiving the stroke of death, he could not let him have until after his martyrdom. On arriving at Vulcano, St. Januarius tied the handkerchief over his eyes, and repeating the words, “Into Thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit,” he was decapitated on the 19th of September, towards the close of the third century, together with his companions, Sosius, Festus, Proculus, Desiderius, Eutyches, and Acutius.

The relics of these holy martyrs were afterwards translated to different cities. Puzzuoli was favored with the bodies of SS. Proculus, Eutyches, and Acutius; while Benevento was honored with those of SS. Festus and Desiderius; that of St. Sosius was removed to Miseno. The body of St. Januarius was first deposited at Benevento, and afterwards at the Monastery of MonteVirgine, until during the pontificate of Alexander IV., St. Severus, bishop of Naples, accompanied by the Neapolitan clergy and a great concourse of the laity, translated it to Naples, and placed it in a church dedicated to God in his honor. From this church, however, which was without the city, the relics of St. Januarius were again translated to the cathedral, together with two vials of his blood, and have been there objects of great religious veneration for fourteen centuries. The Neapolitans honor this saint as the principal patron of their city and nation, and the Lord himself has continued to honor him, by allowing many miracles to be wrought through his intercession, particularly when the frightful eruptions of Mount Vesuvius have threatened the city of Naples with utter destruction. While the relics of St. Januarius were being brought in procession towards this terrific volcano, the torrents of lava and liquid fire which it emitted have ceased, or turned their course from the city.

But the most stupendous miracle, and that which is greatly celebrated in the church, is the liquefying and boiling up of this blessed martyr’s blood whenever the vials are brought in sight of his head. This miracle is renewed many times in the year, in presence of all who desire to witness it; yet some heretics have endeavored to throw a doubt upon its genuineness, by frivolous and incoherent explanations; but no one can deny the effect to be miraculous, unless he be prepared to question the evidence of his senses.

All the facts related about St. Januarius are drawn from trustworthy sources, such as the Acts possessed by Baronius, the Greek Acts of the Vatican, the Greek Menology of Basil, the writing of John Diacono, an author of great credit, who lived in the ninth century, and whom Muratori himself praises. To this must be added the very ancient Offices of Naples, Salerno, Capua, and Puzzuoli, and finally the tradition of Nola, where is yet shown at the present day the prison in which the saint was shut up, the place where his bones were dislocated, and the furnace from which he came forth unhurt. These records contain nearly all that we have related: all, or nearly all, are written in the Acts of Baronius, which, resting on other records, deserve our entire confidence.

I repeat here what I have said at the beginning of this book, that it seems to be a kind of temerity to wish to doubt positively about the truth of the facts related by several ancient authors, though they may not be contemporaneous–authors grave and careful to examine into things, especially when these facts are supported by an uncontroverted and ancient tradition.

It is true that we should justly doubt ancient facts against the authenticity of which we may allege some solid reason; but I ask here, which are the arguments that Tillemont, Baillet, and some other modern authors oppose to the facts of the martyrdom of St. Januarius? They say that this antiquity removes them too far from our time; that the tortures related are too violent, and therefore incredible; that these facts are too numerous. They also add other similar objections which are groundless, and which I pass over in silence for brevity’s sake. To all these difficulties I reply, that by following this method we should have to reject many Acts that are commonly regarded as genuine, such as those of St. Felix of Nola, of St. Carpus, of St. Theodotus and of St. Tarachus, and many others that we read of in the celebrated Ruinart, and in a host of other good authors.

Some of our writers have approved of what is said by Tillemont and Baillet, because of certain Acts of St. Januarius that were found at Bologna with the Celestin Fathers in the monastery of St. Stephan. But I do not see why we should put faith in these Acts, and not in those of Baronius and of other authors mentioned above. They say with Tillemont that the Acts of Bologna are more simple, because in them no mention is made of the miracles described in the Acts of Baronius, and should therefore the former be preferred to the latter?

Allow me to make here a painful reflection. The present age is called the age of light, because it has a better taste and a more correct judgment of things. But would to God that it had not degenerated in many things, and that it were not growing worse by wishing to subject divine things to be estimated by our feeble intelligence! Some of these who are learned in this fashion deny or call in question most of the miracles related in the lives of the saints; they say that the account of these miracles only makes heretics laugh at the too great credulity of the Catholics, and for this reason refuse to be united to our Church. I answer: Heretics do not wish to believe our miracles, not because they esteem us too credulous, but because among them no miracles are ever seen; this explains why they despise our miracles. And it is by no means true that our too great facility in believing in miracles hinders them from being united to our Church, for it is precisely because they do not wish to unite with our Church, and to submit to her that they refuse to believe in miracles. These unfortunate people do not see that in refusing to submit to the Church they reduce themselves to a state of believing in nothing, as evidently appears from the books that often reach us from the so-called reformed countries. Moreover, they know that the Christian faith was propagated and maintained by means of miracles–just as Jesus Christ and the Apostles propagated it; and the reason of this is clear. For as the revealed truths which are the object of our faith are not of themselves evident to the eyes of our mind, it was necessary to induce us to believe them by means of miracles, which surpassing the forces of nature aid us to know clearly that it is God who speaks to us in the midst of these prodigies. Thus in proportion to the persecutions raised against the Church has the Lord multiplied miracles. In short, the miracles wrought more or less frequently by God through his servants have never been wanting in our Church.

Let us return to our subject. It is not therefore just to prefer the Acts of the Monastery of Bologna to all those that we have quoted, because they are more simple, and because they do not comprise all the miracles related by Baronius, Diacono, and other authors. Besides, these Acts of Bologna, if carefully examined, date only from the sixteenth century. Again, another well-informed author, Xavier Rossi, in a learned dissertation, assures us that these Acts should be regarded as less trustworthy than those that we have followed, since they are encumbered with other narratives that are false, or at least improbable, and since it has become known that they were written by an ignorant person, who collected them without discretion, and in writing committed many faults against the Latin grammar. (6)

The first recorded liquefaction of his blood was recorded in the year 1389 and since then countless pilgrims have witnessed this unexplained occurrence. The phenomenon has been the subject of intense dispute and scientific examination for centuries. The Church has never made any official declaration that it is a supernatural event. But even sceptics admit that something happens.

What is involved is a dark solid mass held in a glass vial kept in the treasury chapel of Naples cathedral. Three times a year a priest brings it out with a reliquary said to contain the saint’s skull, holds it up and turns it as the people pray. After a period of anything from two minutes to an hour, it appears to become red and to bubble – or not. If it does, the priest proclaims the miracle and all sing the Te Deum in thanksgiving. If not, this is taken as a kind of prophetic warning.

In 1631 an eruption on nearby Mount Vesuvius threatened. The people prayed to St Januarius to spare them. The flow of lava abated and the city was saved. Ever since, St Januarius has been invoked against volcanic eruptions. He is also the patron saint of blood banks.

Three points attested by recent investigators seem worthy of special note.

  • It now appears that the first certain record of the liquefaction of the blood of St. Januarius dates from 1389 (see de Blasiis, “Chronicon Siculum incerti auctoris”, Naples, 1887, 85), and not from 1456, as formerly supposed.
  • In 1902 Professor Sperindeo was allowed to pass a ray of light through the upper part of the phial during liquefaction and examine this beam spectroscopically. The experiment yielded the distinctive lines of the spectrum of blood. This, however, only proves that there are at any rate traces of blood in the contents of the phial (see Cavène, “Le Célèbre Miracle“, 262-275).
  • Most remarkable of all, the apparent variation in the volume of the relic led in 1902 and 1904 to a series of experiments in the course of which the whole reliquary was weighed in a very accurate balance. It was found that the weight was not constant any more than the volume, and that the weight of the reliquary when the blood filled the whole cavity of the phial exceeded, by 26 grammes, the weight when the phial seemed but half full. This very large difference renders it impossible to believe that such a substantial variation in weight can be merely due to an error of observation.

We are forced to accept the fact that, contrary to all known laws a change goes on in the contents of this hermetically sealed vessel which makes them heavier and lighter in a ratio roughly, but not exactly, proportional to their apparent bulk (Cavène, 333-39). The reality of the miracle of St. Januarius has repeatedly been made the subject of controversy. It has had much to do with many conversions to Catholicism, notably with that of the elder Herder. Unfortunately, however, allegations have often been made as to the favourable verdict expressed by scientific men of note, which are not always verifiable. The supposed testimony of the great chemist, Sir Humphry Davy, who is declared to have expressed his belief in the genuineness of the miracle, seems to be a case in point.

Image: Procession de saint Janvier à Naples pendant une éruption du Vésuve, 1822 (10)

Research by REGINA Staff


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