In my previous post on Candlemas (February 2), I mentioned my confusion of that day with St Blaise’s feast day (February 3).
The candles which the priest blesses on Candlemas are used to bless throats on St Blaise Day. How serendipitous that his feast day is right after Candlemas and at the height of colds and flu season in the Northern Hemisphere!
Blaise is one of the Catholic Church’s Fourteen Holy Helpers, a grouping of saints compiled by the Germans in the Rhineland during the Black Death in the 14th century. These were saints to whom the faithful prayed for intercession in time of need. They are:
Saint Christopher and Saint Giles were invoked against the plague itself. Saint Denis [and Agathius were] prayed to for relief from headache, Saint Blaise for ills of the throat, Saint Elmo, for abdominal maladies, Saint Barbara for fever, and Saint Vitus against epilepsy. Saint Pantaleon was the patron of physicians, Saint Cyriacus invoked against temptation on the deathbed, and Saints Christopher, Barbara, and Catherine for protection against a sudden and unprovided-for death. Saint Giles was prayed to for a good confession, and Saint Eustace as healer of family troubles. Domestic animals were also attacked by the plague, and so Saints George, Elmo, Pantaleon, and Vitus were invoked for their protection. Saint Margaret of Antioch is the patron of safe childbirth.
The other saint not mentioned in that paragraph is Catherine of Alexandria invoked against a sudden death.
As the saints’ joint cultus spread in the fifteenth century, Pope Nicholas V attached indulgences to devotion of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, though these no longer apply. While each had a separate feast day, the Fourteen Holy Helpers were in some places celebrated as a group on 8 August, but this celebration never became part of the General Roman Calendar for universal veneration. When that calendar was revised in 1969, the individual celebrations of St Barbara, St Catherine of Alexandria, St Christopher, and St Margaret of Antioch were dropped, but in 2004 Pope John Paul II reinstated the 25 November optional memorial of Catherine of Alexandria, whose voice was heard by Saint Joan of Arc. The individual celebrations of all fourteen are included in the General Roman Calendar as in 1954, the General Roman Calendar of Pope Pius XII and the General Roman Calendar of 1962.
All except St Giles were martyrs.
We’ll come to St Margaret of Antioch in an upcoming post on the Churching of Women.
As well as being known for healing throats, St Blaise was known for his affinity with animals. Blaise was born in what was then Armenia sometime in the third century. Today we would know his birthplace as Sivas, Turkey.
Around the end of the fifth or beginning of the sixth century, the court physician Aëtius Amidenus included Blaise’s story in his medical book:
there his aid is invoked in treating objects stuck in the throat. He cured animals and lived in a cave. Before being killed, he spoke to a wolf and told it to release a pig it was harming. The wolf did so. Blaise was going to be starved but the owner of the pig secretly gave him food in order to survive. After a while, he was tortured because of his Christian faith but did not give up his beliefs. He died in the year 316.
For this reason, St Blaise is known as the patron saint of the wild beast. However, he has other patronages, which we’ll get to below.
Explorers Marco Polo (1254 – 1324) and William of Rubruck (1220 – 1293, a Franciscan missionary) both recorded seeing the shrine marking the place where Blaise was martyred in what was then Sebastea, Armenia. The shrine, which no longer exists, was near the citadel mount in that city.
During the 11th and 12th centuries, the cult (veneration) of St Blaise became widespread throughout Europe. His other names are Blasius, Blas (Spain), Biagio (Italy) and Blazey (Cornwall).
Blaise is the patron saint of Dubrovnik, Croatia, as he indirectly helped to defend the city from invading Venetians in 971. Local historians Rastic and Ranjina recorded a vision reported by Stojko, a canon at the city’s St Stephen’s Cathedral. Blaise revealed the Venetians’ plan to the canon:
The Senate summoned Stojko, who told them in detail how St. Blaise had appeared before him as an old man with a long beard and a bishop’s mitre and staff. In this form the effigy of Blaise remained on Dubrovnik’s state seal and coinage until the Napoleonic era.
The Acts of St Blaise were compiled during the Middle Ages and written in Greek. E-H Vollet summarised these for his Grande Encyclopédie, which records them as follows (emphases mine):
Blaise, who had studied philosophy in his youth, was a doctor in Sebaste in Armenia, the city of his birth, who exercised his art with miraculous ability, good-will, and piety. When the bishop of the city died, he was chosen to succeed him, with the acclamation of all the people. His holiness was manifest through many miracles: from all around, people came to him to find cures for their spirit and their body; even wild animals came in herds to receive his blessing. In 316, Agricola, the governor of Cappadocia and of Lesser Armenia, having arrived in Sebastia at the order of the emperor Licinius to kill the Christians, arrested the bishop. As he was being led to prison, a mother set her only son, choking to death of a fish-bone, at his feet, and the child was cured straight away. Regardless, the governor, unable to make Blaise renounce his faith, beat him with a stick, ripped his flesh with iron combs, and beheaded him.
The iron combs used to torture Blaise resembled those used to comb wool. Devotion to St Blaise was popular in England during the 17th and 18th centuries among those working in the burgeoning wool trade which brought much wealth to the nation. Newspapers of the day recorded a tradition that Blaise was actually from Jersey (Channel Islands) and taught the English how to comb wool.
The wool combing legend confused the Blaise from Armenia with another St Blaise, Blaise of Caesarea. Caesarea is the Latin name for Jersey. Now that’s something I bet most of us did not know.
Millions of Catholics around the world will no doubt receive the blessing of the throat from their priest this weekend. The priest crosses two newly-blessed candles in an X, holds them near the person’s throat and prays as follows:
Through the intercession of St. Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God free you from illness of the throat and from any other sort of ill. In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Did it work? From my own experience when I was a Catholic, I still got three colds per year, all starting in the throat. One year I had a sore throat when I received the blessing. It didn’t help, but perhaps St Blaise was asking for intercession in other areas of my life. And, as my mother and better half would say, ‘Things could have been worse. You’ll never know’.
One thing I would say is that whilst I have never had a flu shot, I have had my throat blessed several times. I’ve had the flu only once.