Joseph Pronechen is staff writer with the National Catholic Register since 2005 and before that a regular correspondent for the paper. His articles have appeared in a number of national publications including Columbia magazine, Soul, Faith and Family, Catholic Digest, Catholic Exchange <i>, and <i>Marian Helper. His religion features have also appeared in Fairfield County Catholic and in major newspapers. He is the author of Fruits of Fatima — Century of Signs and Wonders. He holds a graduate degree and formerly taught English and courses in film study that he developed at a Catholic high school in Connecticut. Joseph and his wife Mary reside on the East Coast.
On Feb. 3 many Catholics will be in church for the annual blessing of throats on St. Blaise’s feast day. We know we ask through this blessing to for bishop and martyr St. Blaise’s intercession, as the priest prays, "Through the intercession of Saint Blaise, bishop and martyr, may God deliver you free from every disease of the throat, and from every other disease. In the name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."
But why two candles? And what miraculous event led to his major patronal church in a city which has hundreds of statues and other art on him?
Let’s start with the candles. First, they’re tied together to form a cross. The reason should be unmistakable.
But what other events do the pair of candles recall? Why two?
Most everyone is familiar with the story of how St. Blaise, arrested and being led to prison, met a woman rushing up to him and pleading for him to save her only son who was choking to death on a fishbone. Bishop Blaise interceded with his prayers and the boy was miraculously healed. That miraculous intercession led to the blessing of throats for his intercession for health which carries on today. He’s patron of illnesses of the throat.
Even in his life Blaise was known for healing humans. People from all around sought him out for healing their bodily ills and their spiritual ills.
The second part of the double reason: he was also known for healing and helping animals.
Stories go how when the Christian persecutions began, he withdraw to a cave in the woods when inspired to do so by the Lord. Since he was a physician before he became a bishop, Blaise soon became the friend of wild animals that were ill or wounded. They sought him out. One day the governor’s hunters searching for animals to bring to the city’s amphitheater were shocked when they happened upon Blaise. There he was, kneeling and praying — surrounded by totally docile wolves, lions and bears, tame in his presence.
When they took him prisoner, on the way to the jail he got more chances to perform miracles besides healing the boy with the fishbone. He met a poor woman in great distress because a wolf had snatched her small, young pig. She asked his help. Blaise commanded the wolf to return the pig. Right away, the wolf heard and brought back the pig which was not harmed.
St. Blaise also is patron of animals, veterinarians, wool combers, and against attacks of wild animals.
And again why the two candles? Because that poor widow who got her pig back in gratitude brought Blaise food and two candles while he was imprisoned and being tortured. On a smaller scale, the two candles recall that story.
In the year 971, just over 650 years after St. Blaise was martyred in 316 in Sebastea, Armenia, he made an appearance which still is celebrated big time every year since 972. The place: Dubrovnik, Croatia.
It was Feb. 2, the feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, the Purification, and Candlemas. All was normally quiet. The only difference was that a fleet of Venetian ships were in the harbor. They had assured Dubrovnik that they were only present to load up more supplies before sailing on.
That evening, the night before next day’s feast of St. Blaise, Father Stojko, the pastor of what is today’s Dubrovnik Old Town, was taking a walk when he spotted that the doors of St. Stephen’s Church were left open. Entering the church to check the inside, he spotted an elderly man with gray hair. The man introduced himself to the pastor as Saint Blaise, the 4th-century bishop and martyr of Sebaste.
“I come to warn you of great danger for the city,” he explained. The Venetians were fooling. Thy really intended to invade and take over the city because it was beginning to boom and develop into a threat to Venice’s commercial power. He was to tell the city council.
The pastor rushed with St. Blaise’s message to warn the council. At once the city’s gates were protected and the heavy city walls manned for action. Seeing what was happening, the Venetians changed their minds, dropped their plans, and sailed on. St. Blaise’s feast arrived hours later with the peace of Dubrovnik as safe and secure as ever.
Naturally, the citizens credited St. Blaise for saving them and immediately named him Dubrovnik’s patron. They called him by his Latin name, St. Blasius. Every year they remember him with a great festival on his feast. This super-big Festival of St. Blasius been going on for over 1,045 years. (See a good video on it here.)
Major Church and His Relics
Dubrovnik citizens erected a church in his honor — the Church of St. Blasius, or Church of St. Blaise. Damaged in the great earthquake in 1667 and destroyed in a 1706 fire, the present Church of St. Blaise was built in 1715. And to show bygones were bygones and all was healed, this church was designed by Marino Gropellia, a Venetian architect. He designed it after St. Mauritius Church in Venice.
A focal point of the church which was spectacularly restored and completed in 2016 is the main altar with its gothic statue of St. Blaise from the 15th century. The saint holds a model of the City of Dubrovnik as it looked before the massive earthquake. The statue and some other items were undamaged in that quake and in the fire that followed years later. People interpret it as a miracle.
There are several major relics of this popular saint in the city, especially just a few blocks from the Church of St. Blaise in the Treasury of the Dubrovnik Cathedral. Among its other relics, there is the head, arm and leg of St. Blaise.
They’re encased in stunningly elaborate silver and gold reliquaries, shaped quite differently than what we normally expect to see. The head is within a Byzantine imperial crown. The hand within a golden hand shaped like a hand. Same for the foot. Beginning in the 11th and 12th centuries, Dubrovnik’s superior goldsmiths formed them of the precious metals, etched them in high ornamental detail, and added many exquisite stones and jewels.
Priests process with them on the annual Festival day so that the faithful honoring their city’s patron saint can venerate them and touch them. (See the procession and relics here.)
St. Blaise Watches
Residents and visitors to Dubrovnik are constantly coming upon St. Blaise outside of the Cathedral Treasury and the Church of St. Blaise. Around the Old City statues of him number in the hundreds. They appear on every corner of the city’s walls. He’s ever present, alert, and on the watch as he as in that year of 971.
St. Blaise listens, too, as people over the centuries have asked and prayed for his intercession. In the Middle Ages he gained widespread popularity as one of the Fourteen Holy Martyrs.
Never did Agricolaus, Roman governor of Cappadocia and Lesser Armenia who carried out the persecution of Christians that Emperor Licinius ordered, dream that Blaise would blaze to such heights. They figured torturing Blaise in various ways with whips, raking with iron combs, then finally beheading him, would put an end to this popular bishop.
But God something else in mind.
This article originally appeared Feb. 3, 2018, at the Register.