An Ancient Miracle
Lanciano hosts one of the most ancient eucharistic miracles whose relics are still preserved. It is so ancient that a precise historical documentation regarding the original event has been lost over the centuries. However, the inhabitants of Lanciano managed not to lose sight of the origins of this miracle until modern age through oral tradition and very strong uninterrupted devotion.
What happened exactly? In all likelihood, a Basilian monk was celebrating Mass in Lanciano at the church of Sts. Legonziano and Domiziano between AD 700 and 750. In Greece and the Byzantine East, Basilian monks were following St. Basil’s Rule, according to the spirituality of the Desert Fathers and St. Anthony. Between AD 600 and 700, many Basilians were fleeing from persecutions and found refuge in Italy. In Lanciano, one of these monks, whose name has not been passed on, was celebrating Mass. I shall then turn to a 1631 manuscript:
Thus, one morning, in the midst of his Sacrifice, after uttering the most sacred words of consecration, while more than ever before caught up in his old mistake, he saw (Oh marvelous and unique favor!) the Bread turned into Flesh and the Wine turned into Blood. . . .
Behold the Flesh and the Blood of our most beloved Christ.
At these words the anxious people hastily ran with devotion to the Altar and terrified, not without overflowing tears, began shouting for mercy.
After many centuries, without undergoing any process of decay — which is evidently in itself a mysterious fact — a double relic has been handed over to us made of
- a fleshy rounded tissue, dark brown and yellowish in color, about 6 centimeters in diameter, thicker on the edges and thinning out centrally into a large cavity in the middle
- five solid fragments of unequal volume, yellow-brown color, of clotted blood weighing altogether 16 grams
At present, the relics are contained and sealed in an elegant silver double monstrance crafted in 1713, which allows full view of the precious contents through a window and a crystal chalice. They are kept in a marble case on top of the main altar in the church of St. Francis, under custody of the Conventual Friars Minor.
A Blackout of Eight Centuries
There are currently no reliable historical documents about the origin of these relics. The first written text explicitly mentioning a eucharistic miracle preserved in Lanciano dates back only to 1574
Oral tradition about the remote event was put down in writing in 1631, but the first eight centuries since the miracle of Lanciano remain a “black hole” for historians. A black hole, yes, but one nevertheless lit up by archived documentation.
Lanfranc’s Miracle (c. 1073)
An important theological contribution was provided in 1073 by Guitmund of Aversa, a Norman monk who wrote De corporis et sanguinis Christi veritate in Eucharistia (On the Truth of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist). In a passage there, he recalled a miracle he was told about by his teacher and friend Lanfranc of Pavia.
During his infancy, Lanfranc had heard that in Italy “a miracle had taken place in the hands of a priest who, while celebrating Mass, saw the true Flesh on the altar and the true Blood in the chalice. He was afraid to consume them and thus called on the bishop for advice. The bishop, along with other fellow bishops who came together for the event, took the chalice containing the Flesh and the Blood, carefully sealed it, and set it in the center of the altar for it to be perpetually preserved amongst the most important relics.” Fr. Nicola Petrone, who recently studied the miracle’s history, believes the miracle mentioned by Lanfranc is referring to the one in Lanciano, which is unlike any others known to us from the early Middle Ages in Italy because it is fully complete and has survived through so many centuries.
The 1574 Inspection
Since 1574, the miraculous tissues have undergone inspections nearly every century. The first one, in 1574, should certainly be remembered: the monstrances were opened in front of the people, and the relics were inspected and weighed. On this occasion, a mysterious event took place that was destined to be memorable: the five blood clots, clearly different sizes to the naked eye, turned out to be of identical weight on the scale. Not only that, but when all the clots were weighed together simultaneously, they still weighed the same as each clot weighed alone.
In the following inspections, such a miracle no longer took place. For instance, in 1886 the weights of the five fragments amounted to 8.00, 2.45, 2.85, 2.05, and 1.15 grams, besides 5 milligrams of pulverized fragments.
In 1809 Napoleon’s laws arrived in Lanciano: the convent of St. Francis was turned into barracks, the friars went missing, and the dining hall became a town hall. For some time, part of the former convent even hosted a Masonic lodge. The church of St. Francis became the parish church. The Conventual Franciscans returned in 1952.
The 1970 Inspection
On the morning of November 18, 1970, at 10:15 in the sacristy of the church of St. Francis, the archbishop broke the 1886 seals and, in front of many witnesses, opened the monstrance on a table covered in “white linen.” In a moving ceremony, Prof. Linoli asked the archbishop “to be allowed to touch” the Flesh, and the bishop consented. The texture was hard, almost wooden. The case containing the Flesh was clearly not airtight: the tissue of the Flesh was covered in white, dry stains, detaching easily.
After returning to Arezzo, Prof. Linoli carried out a batch of baseline tests over the following hundred days: those were quite possibly the most exciting of his life.
The work was not easy. The histological structure needed interpretation: cellular nuclei did not stain with conventional dyes, nor were there any enhancing transverse striations (although this was to be expected in a longtime preserved tissue). Thus, Linoli asked for extra help from Prof. Ruggero Bertelli to confirm that the muscle tissue originated from the heart.
Still, one step at a time, with patience and persistence, a full and amazing result began to take shape, perhaps beyond everyone’s expectations. On two occasions, Prof. Linoli felt the need to anticipate and share his satisfaction about his preliminary results with the Lanciano friars. He wrote two telegraph messages. On December 11, 1970, he wrote: “In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum caro factum est,” citing from the prologue to the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word became flesh.” Again, on February 11, 1971, he wrote: “Further research allows confirmation of the presence of cardiac striated muscle. Alleluia.”
On March 4, 1971 — one of the coldest days of the century in Italy — Prof. Linoli finalized a scientific report in snow-covered Lanciano. It summarized the following points:
- The Blood of the eucharistic miracle is true blood and the Flesh is true flesh.
- The Flesh is made of heart muscle tissue.
- The Blood and the Flesh belong to the human species.
- The blood group is AB and is identical in the Blood and the Flesh: hence, in all likelihood, both belong to the same Person.
- Blood proteins could be fractionated in the ratios of normal fresh blood.
- Chloride minerals, phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, and sodium were detected in reduced quantities in the blood, whereas calcium was present in excess.
In addition to the above-mentioned conclusions, Prof. Linoli also mentioned the following:
- The structure of the Flesh does not lend itself to the hypothesis of a “fake” specimen maliciously crafted in previous centuries: only a very expert hand in anatomical dissection could have tangentially cut through the surface of a hollow organ so neatly to obtain such a thin cross section or “slice” from a cadaveric heart (as deduced by the mostly longitudinal course of the bundles of muscle fibers seen in the histological samples).
- The specimens — the Blood in particular — would have rapidly undergone putrefaction if originating from a corpse.
- However, salts of preservative substances were never detected in the tissue samples.
Thirty years later, Linoli candidly confessed that after the time when these results came through, “for a few months [he] felt as if [he] was walking thirty centimeters above the ground.”
The Supplemental 1981 Inspection
In the decade following the 1970 inspection, the Franciscan brothers asked Prof. Linoli to further examine the miraculous Flesh, both macroscopically and microscopically. Thus, new histologic section were obtained from a small fragment not used in 1970 that was still preserved in Lanciano.
In the new microscope slides, the myocardial structure of the muscle fibers was even more clearly delineated. Moreover, new and original structural details could be seen: the endocardium, the internal lining of the heart, was clearly visible as well as areas of adipose tissue; arterial and venous blood vessels and even bundles of vagus nerve fibers could be appreciated. It was a series of microscopic findings that — taken as a whole — outlined the picture of a complete human heart.
The macroscopic study was also surprising. Linoli’s focus was on the fourteen small circular holes punched along the entire external edge of the relic, as if, in a remote past, it had been necessary to fix the Flesh with fourteen nails onto a wooden support to counteract the retraction and shrinkage of rigor mortis. Thus, the Flesh would have retracted toward the outer nails, giving rise to the hollow space currently present in the middle. However, according to the professor, this cavity was also partly pre-existent. Therefore, still to this day, the relic macroscopically resembles a complete heart cross section, or possibly a cross section just through the left ventricle.
Prof. Linoli added one last penetrating observation: if the Flesh we venerate today had undergone rigor mortis, evidently at the time of the original miracle it would have been alive. In fact, rigor mortis begins one to three hours after death and ends thirty-six to forty-eight hours later.
He actually continued to reflect on this in the following years and, on the twentieth anniversary of the inspection, felt the urge to reveal a macroscopic aspect of the Flesh that he had previously missed: A full heart transverse section can actually be recognized in the overall makeup of the miraculous Flesh. A remnant of the left ventricle can be glimpsed in the thicker lower portion while the thinner upper portion is the right ventricle. Time caused the loss of anatomical parts such as the interventricular septum, which physiologically divides the two ventricles, hence resulting in the remaining single cavity. Dehydration and spontaneous mummification caused a reduction in size, as the current size is smaller than one of a living heart.
Therefore, the Flesh of Lanciano begins to resemble the image a cardiologist visualizes on an ultrasound screen.
Editor’s note: This article is adapted from a chapter in Dr. Serafini’s book, A Cardiologist Examines Jesus: The Stunning Science Behind Eucharistic Miracles. It is available from your local Catholic bookstore or online through Sophia Institute Press.
image: reliquary for the Eucharistic Miracle at San Francesco (Lanciano) / Shutterstock