Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Saint Januarius / San Gennaro

Why is the Cardinal so happy?

So very happy?

And his predecessor?

Everyone, in fact, is happy!

What is going on?

And who on earth is this?

If you go to Mass today, it will most likely be a Green Mass, of wednesday of week 24 in Ordinary time or wednesday of the 15th week after Trinity, whatever that might be. Maybe the Priest will be wearing White, however, and keeping an optional memorial of St Theodore of Canterbury who did good work in reconciling Celtic and Roman traditions from his consecration as Bishop in 666.

However, if you are an Italian, and particularly from Naples or New York, today is a great festival day and maybe your priest will be wearing his best red vestments and you may be preparing San Gennaros' stew, which is a fennel and pork sausage fried with onions, peppers and herbs and ironing your best shirt.

So what is going on in the pictures? Forgive the slight flippancy of the titles, but it serves to remind us of how the continental Europeans celebrate festivals....with joy and exuberance, singing and dancing not solemnity and exclusivity. Today, the whole of Naples comes to a stop. Everyone, and I mean everyone, at midday comes to the great Cathedral square or finds a TV or radio to watch or listen to so they can see their great Patron Saint, St Januarius' (or Gennaros') relic being taken to the High Altar of his Cathedral. With great pomp, this small handheld reliquary is processed through the town centre and then placed next to the skull of the saint, which you can see in the last picture, beneath the gilded mask, while the Cardinal prays in front of it. He then takes the reliquary which contains the dried blood of the Saint and inspects it while the litany is sung by the thousands of people who cram into the square and the church. He is hoping, praying that the dried blood will liquefy- turn to liquid- as it does every year, for if it does not, then legend has it that disaster befalls the city and the Cardinal! The prayers get ever more fervent and then the Zie Di San Gennaro (Aunts of the Saint) come to the front of the altar and scream and shout at the relic until it liquifies! Can you imagine that in St Pauls Cathedral! Oh, the joy! When it liquifies, a flunky waves a massive white handkerchief around and the city erupts into cheers and everyone in the cathedral and the square play instruments and dance and drink until the early hours.

Yes, of course, it is probably some long forgotton substance which was accidentally made which liquifies when agitated or warmed slightly. Naples in fact boasts 16 liquefaction miracles, including the milk of the Virgin Mary, the blood of St Alphonsus Ligouri and two, yes two, liquefying heads of St John the Baptist. And I am told that successive Cardinals are becoming more and more embarrassed about the whole thing, but the point is the faith which it engenders. The love which the tens of thousands have for the church in Naples and in their lives and it is a great day when the Church, through an exuberent show of love and the slightest hint of a sense of fun, brings a town together.

So next year ask your Parish Priest to wear red instead and to pray for the intercession of St Januarius in our villages, towns and cities, that he may encourage the Church to, now and again, have a bit of a party and celebrate in a way which we all understand. I realise that this is not the usual tone of these pieces, but there we are. Maybe even Shawn, our 'silent partner' in this blog, will be going to a party for San Gennaro tonight in Washington DC.

San Gennaro, Pray for us!