The Mysterious Gifts of the Saints

When the Case for the Miraculous Cannot Be Honestly Dismissed

Holy men and women of the Christian Churches often surprise their faithful long after death. Their bodies may remain incorrupt, their bones can produce liquids like oils, or solids like powders, and their blood can turn from liquid to solid almost on cue.

What is called “manna” is not to be confused with the Biblical term from Exodus when the Jews wandered through the desert. This was believed to be a gift from God. The ‘Manna of the Saints’ is a broad name given generally to oil that has flowed or still flows from the bones of certain saints. Believers have used oil exuded from relic bones to cure both physical and spiritual ills. One of the oil-producing saints is St. Walburga in Bavaria who is recorded exuding the sacred manna from as early as the ninth century. The manna was tested and basically is made up of water. It constantly flows from the saint onto her slab and into a silver cup. Other saints inexplicably produce a powdery substance. The church recognizes over a score of manna producing saints.


The Gift of St. Nicholas

The most widely known producer of manna is St. Nicholas. St. Nicholas has been giving the faithful a very unusual gift for sixteen hundred years—not from a sack but from his bones. They constantly produce a liquid substance. This phenomenon started soon after his burial in Myra, Turkey, and continues today in his new resting place in Bari, Italy. The “manna,” a combination of hydrogen and oxygen, is biologically pure and not the result of seepage, rain, seawater, or any known agent. The substance is found only on his bones, not the walls of his tomb, which would indicate a more natural cause. His tomb, partially marble, is said to be unaffected by outside atmosphere and shows no signs of humidity. The liquid oozes out of pores in his bones and is regularly collected. Because the paranormal occurrence has occurred in two separate places, local climate is eliminated as a cause. A tale of a knight who took a tooth from the saint’s body that also oozed manna when placed in a golden case would seem to eliminate the tomb as cause. Similarly, bones taken from the tomb in a sack soon left the sack wet with manna.

To the believers, what is called manna is a sacred liquid, often oily, with thaumaturgical powers. In plain English, the clear liquid can ward off danger, and cure sickness. It is sold in bright hand painted bottles produced in Bari (and has been diluted with water). Anyone with three dollars can buy a gift of St. Nicholas to bring home. The sacred oil is also used in annual blessings of the waters, in Bari and even in Lake Michigan where a ceremony precedes pouring some of the saint’s oil in the water to protect sailors and provide fishermen with a plentiful bounty.

The story of the man who became Santa Claus is a long one. Nicholas was born sometime before the year AD 300. As a baby he was said to start praying immediately after being delivered. Even as an infant he was so pious he fasted. His childhood served as an example of piety to other children. He joined the church and moved to Myra, He was tortured, chained, and thrown into prison for his efforts during the Roman persecution by Diocletion. The Roman Grinch who had the future Santa thrown into prison was soon replaced. When Constantine took over in Rome he had the saint freed. Bishop Nicholas would become the source of the modern Santa. The people of coastal Turkey had seen better days than the fourth century, and one man was so poor he had no money to provide dowries for his three daughters. Instead the daughters were ready to be sold into slavery. Nicholas threw gold coins into their chimney, at least one coin landing in their stockings. The women then had enough for their respective dowries and were able to marry.

After his death Nicholas became the patron saint of children, merchants, bakers, mariners, and pirates. A sailor’s wish on departure was “May St. Nicholas hold the tiller.” Prisoners and captives invoked the intercession of Nicholas for their freedom. He is even said to protect city dwellers from mugging, no small feat in the winding narrow alleyways of the old city in Bari. He also became the patron saint of many nations including Greece, Italy, Russia, and Holland. By the Middle Ages, there were already 400 churches in England dedicated to St. Nicholas.

Other priests and bishops all through Europe preached about the generosity of Nicholas without understanding the role they would ultimately create. A man in each village dressed up like a bishop and would inquire if local children had been bad or good. The good, especially those whom had learned their catechism, might be rewarded with gifts.

Just in case, they also left a gift for St. Nicholas, as well as hay for his horse and a glass of schnapps for his servant.

Remarkably, after 1,000 years, St. Nicholas still exudes gallons of the liquid called manna. Because the manna is actually a hydrogen-oxygen combination, it is safe to call the gift of St. Nicholas water, although a better description is pure water. The question of just how the bones produce such liquid over a thousand years after the death of the saint, and in almost any atmosphere, has not been answered by science.


The Miracle of St. Gennaro

Southern Italians have an unusually deep superstitious side. Naples it seems is as full of superstitions as any third world nation. Belief in the power of saints is an integral part of religion. Here amulets, charms, and Madonnas decorate cars and houses. In such a place it has to be a true miracle that can make someone sit up and take note. In Naples, such miracles take place three times a year. These regular miracles occur like clockwork on the first Saturday in May, on the nineteenth of September, and on December sixteenth.

On those dates the blood of the city’s patron saint, San Gennaro, also known as St. Januarius, is brought out in public for all to see. The blood is in a solid state, but it almost never disappoints as the miracle that thousands from all over the world have come to view—the blood liquefies. Every year since 1389, the blood of the city’s patron saint has liquefied with a few remarkable exceptions.

In Italy alone there are 200 blood relics, and they are mostly in the southern part of the country. A small number of these blood samples can seemingly liquefy from their normal clotted state. Science has attempted to explain the phenomena by proposing that thixotropy may explain the seemingly miraculous change in the blood matter. Thixotropy is the opposite of isotropy, both scientific terms that have an easy explanation.

Isotropy is the property by which a liquid becomes solid by being agitated. Thixotropy, the opposite allows a solid to become liquid by the same means. Striking a bottle of ketchup to get the seemingly solid mass to pour out of the bottle is an example of thixotropy.

Three times each year there is a celebration or feast for St. Gennaro. During the feast, the ritual liquefaction would hopefully take place. While the church does not take a stance on authenticity and no one has ever been allowed to perform physical tests on the blood, it does liquefy in front of numerous witnesses. The ritual starts with the cardinal bringing out the two phials from a safe behind the altar. The substance in the phials is dark and solid. The cardinal will raise the phials in the air, repeatedly, until they turn liquid and red. Not everyone has always been convinced that the liquefaction is real. Mark Twain denounced it as “one of the wretchedest of all religious impostures.”

‘Thixotropy’ as an explanation would be a kinder answer. Blood drawn from a living body poured into a container actually causes a reaction. The soluble serum protein fibrinogen is turned into insoluble fibrin, or simply put, the blood clots. The clot can be broken down, that is, reliquefied. However once this happens, it is unusual for it to ever clot again.

The act of vigorously shaking the blood of the saint can explain a one-time liquefaction; it cannot, in general, explain the three times a year transformation.

The story of St. Gennaro starts in AD 305 when Gennaro, then the bishop of Benevento, was comforting Christian prisoners arrested by the Romans. He too was arrested and was sentenced to death in the amphitheater of nearby Pozzouli. With six companions, he was sentenced to be beheaded, but first a finger was cut off. His followers filled two phials with his blood. Even if our modern sensibilities find this barbaric, the collection of blood is still practiced. (Interestingly in 1980, when Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was murdered while serving mass, another priest rushed out and collected his blood.)

Gennaro’s body was brought to Naples where it too is preserved in a cathedral.

Mount Vesuvius, the nearby active volcano would occasionally threaten to erupt, and San Gennaro would be called upon to intercede. The amalgamation of people in southern Italy resulted from the Italian ‘boot’ status as a trading center for the world. A decidedly Asian attitude took hold, and the saint’s statue was placed in the path of the lava flow, implying, “Save us or die with us.” After performing the miracle of saving Naples in 685 it was decided that an annual feast to the patron saint would be held.

While some would consider it typical of religious hucksterism in Italy, others would be convinced it was truly miraculous. In 1902, light was shone through the liquid and it gave off the same spectrum as blood. Later, a Jesuit debunker of false miracles declared it to be the real thing. To paraphrase Galileo: Nevertheless, it does liquefy!

And woe to Naples when it doesn’t! In 1944, the miracle failed to happen. This was considered an evil omen for the city, and the ever-threatening volcano Vesuvius erupted. Lava was spewed 2,000 feet from the central crater into the sky, and a column of ash rose nearly a mile into the atmosphere.

In 1980, the liquefaction failed again, and an earthquake hit the area. In Naples, the ground shook and buildings collapsed. The city proper was spared the worst, but a spate of bad news followed. The nearby Irpinia was almost completely destroyed as it had been the epicenter of the quake. Three thousand lives were lost. Billions of dollars sent to rebuild the many destroyed buildings and homes in Naples were put in the hands of corrupt politicians who seemingly just split it with the Camorra. This Calabrian version of the Mafia controlled the construction business that reputedly stole the relief funds. Years later many of the projects contracted were still not completed. Napolitanos, however, accept their patron saint even in his imperfections. Even the soccer fans there scream for their saint to protect them.

If performing one such regular miracle was not enough, St. Gennaro performs two at a time. Nine miles away, housed in a church at Pozzuoli, is the stone on which the saint was allegedly beheaded. When the saint’s blood is performing its thrice-annual miracle in Naples, a depression in the stone reddens. It is said the cause of this is his blood. One time in 1860, it actually exuded blood, if the locals can be believed, when a church dedicated to the saint caught fire. Another time, in 1894, cotton was used to take a sample of the blood. The blood was revealed to actually be blood, although the test was not done until years later. The column itself was monitored and turned different shades of red without changing humidity.

Adequate testing on the column and the blood itself has never been done in a manner that would satisfy skeptics. It was in 1994 that the more logical explanation of the thixotropy effect was proposed. The faithful simply ignored the scientific explanation. The explanation itself, if true, would then make it harder to explain the numerous other miracles. Southern Italy has no less than twenty who perform blood miracles, whose blood does not require being shaken.


The Incorrupt

Another phenomenon is that of incorrupt saintly bodies. To the church this state of remaining incorrupt defies nature and is therefore a sign of holiness. On occasion, saint’s bodies have remained incorrupt for centuries only to begin decomposing much later than natural bodies. St. Bernadette, one of the three children to whom the Blessed Virgin appeared at Lourdes, died in 1879. One hundred and thirty eight-years later her incorrupt body lies in St. Gildard Convent in Nevers, France. St. John Vianney, who died in 1859, similarly lies incorrupt over one hundred and forty years later, encased in glass on a marble altar in Ars, also in France. St. Francis Xavier, who died in 1552, a colonial Jesuit apostle to Asia, remains incorrupt after hundreds of years. Parts of his body have been taken for gift relics to other churches, but most of his body remains incorrupt in a silver casket. Occasionally it is only the skeleton that remains intact. St. Clare of Assisi died in the mid-thirteenth century. Her clothes and flesh turned to dust.

St. Catherine of Bologna, who died in 1463, appeared to a sister nun 60 years later. She requested that her body be exhumed and left in a sitting position in the cell where she lived. Her face and hands today are darkened, but it is said that the burning of candles has caused this. In some cases, there is reason to believe that such an incorrupt state has been assisted. St. Bernadette was injected with formaldehyde. Other saints had wax coverings over the face. Others had been buried in lime that actually has a preservative effect on a corpse.

Finally, there is what has been referred to as the Odor of Sanctity. It can be demonstrated by corpses that have been dead for hundreds of years, and it can be exhibited by living humans. Hundreds of saints have demonstrated the effect. St. Theresa of Avila, Christianity’s most mystical woman saint, is said to have exuded a pleasant fragrance throughout the hallways and rooms of her convent. Saint Catherine de Ricci, who died in the sixteenth century, exuded a fragrance described as more pleasant than any perfume. St. Gerard Majella, who died in the eighteenth century, also gave off a very sweet smell even when he was near death. Padre Pio, whose life was lacking in any form of miracle, often gave off a pleasing fragrance when his stigmata wounds were open. His own doctor, Giorgio Festa, who had no sense of smell brought a cloth dipped in his blood to Rome. Despite the cloth being in a box, others could smell the perfume-like odor and commented on it, to the doctor’s surprise. For a long time afterwards, he kept the cloth in a cabinet, and his patients often commented on the source of the fragrant odor.

Many such remarkable powers are explained away as the power of suggestion, others as pious hoaxes. And then, there are some for which science has had a tougher time in providing a satisfactory explanation.

By Steven Sora