Sunday, September 21, 2008

Popular Piety, Fireworks Included

Yet again, Friday was the Italian version of Groundhog Day as the dried blood of the 4th century martyr St Januarius (San Gennaro) liquefied on his feast in Naples.

The only remnant left of the beheaded bishop, the relic has usually gone liquid twice a year since at least the late 1300s. When it hasn't, Neapolitans tend to take it as a sign of impending doom... and with good reason; the vial stayed dry in 1980, weeks before a massive earthquake rocked the south of Italy, in 1527 before a plague struck the city, and in the lead-up to World War II.

In keeping with tradition, the vial containing the blood was brought out before a packed cathedral crowd early on the feast by the city's archbishop, the former "Red Pope" Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe. Observing that the miracle had yet again taken place, the customary white handkerchief was waved to cheers and screams as the Duomo bells announced the news outside, where fireworks were set off. A procession through the city's streets invariably follows with the reliquary on display.

Of course, the feast isn't just one for the old country; the famous 11-day celebration in New York's Little Italy (where a cannoli-eating contest, above, opened the celebrations) wraps up today. But beyond Mulberry Street both near and far, recent Septembers have seen Gennaro's star fade in the shadow of the Bel Paese's modern cult-favorite, St Pio of Pietrelcina -- the famous Padre Pio -- whose Tuesday feast marks the 40th anniversary of the Capuchin mystic's death.

It might sound heretical, but it's no joke: in Italy, Pio's bigger than Jesus -- at least, if the faithful's devotion is any indicator. A recent survey of Italian religious practice reported that the stigmata-bearing friar was turned to in prayer more than any other figure, the Good Lord and Blessed Lady included.

PHOTO: Getty Images(2)