THE HOLY BLOOD: EUCHARISTIC MIRACLES
Holy Communion commemorates Christ’s sacrifice in symbolic form, but over the centuries there have been celebrated instances in which the Host has apparently oozed blood or even transformed into human tissue. TED HARRISON steps up to the altar rail and su
Holy Communion commemorates Christ’s sacrifice in symbolic form, but there have been cases in which the Host has apparently oozed blood or shown the face of Jesus. TED HARRISON surveys some Eucharistic miracles and their possible explanations.
In October 2006, while helping a priest distribute Communion at a church in Tixtla, Mexico, a religious sister noticed something strange on the pix, the small plate on which she was carrying the consecrated bread. She turned to the priest, so reports claim, with tears in her eyes. The Communion Host she was about to give to a parishioner was oozing blood.
Roman Catholics believe that during Mass a miracle is performed, on cue, thousands of times a week. At the moment of consecration, the bread (the Host) and wine become the body and blood of Jesus; not in a physical and chemical sense, but in essence and meaning. This ‘miracle’ is called transubstantiation.
However, for centuries some faithful Catholics have believed that in rare cases the consecrated Communion elements can literally turn into human tissue. This was what the Tixtla nun believed she was witnessing with her own eyes.
The Vatican has declared over 150 claims of Eucharistic miracles to be ‘church approved’. They have been listed and described in a catalogue entitled ‘The Eucharistic Miracles of the World’.
Many of the claims are centuries-old legends. One celebrated example is from eighth century Lanciano in Italy, where a priest who was having doubts about the doctrine of transubstantiation was celebrating Mass. As he pronounced the words of consecration the Host changed, so the story goes, into flesh and the wine into blood. He called the congregation to the altar to verify the miracle. The flesh and the blood, which coagulated into five globules, were placed in a reliquary.
Through the monastery’s long history, the relics have been carefully preserved and today are guarded by Franciscans. Over 1,200 years later, the flesh appears not to have decomposed and is still preserved at the Church of San Francesco.
Another famous Italian Eucharistic miracle occurred in Bolsena, just north of Rome. In 1263, a visiting priest was celebrating Mass when a consecrated Host was seen to bleed and some of the blood stained the corporal, the square white linen cloth, resembling a handkerchief, used by the celebrant. Pope Urban IV happened to be 15 miles away in Orvieto and was immediately informed. He ordered a “thorough fact-finding investigation and that the miraculous Host and the linen cloth stained with blood be brought to Orvieto and placed on display”. There was a popular movement of renewed interest in the stories of the suffering of Christ at the time. It was after approving the miracle at Bolsena that Urban IV, in 1264, declared the Feast of Corpus Christi by papal bull, which is still celebrated every year in late Spring.
Today ‘The Corporal of Bolsena’ is still kept in the Cathedral at Orvieto. It may be seen behind glass in a lavishly ornate reliquary, and believers say that when they
The host changed into flesh and the wine into blood
gaze at the reddish marks on the cloth they see the shape of the head of Christ.
While Italy has more claims (30) than any other country, 20 other nations make it into the Eucharistic miracle charts. Portugal’s best-known case happened in 13th century Santarém. A woman was distressed that her husband was being unfaithful to her, and she decided to consult a sorceress for help. “The sorceress told her the price of her services was a consecrated Host. She went to Mass at the Church of St Stephen and received the Eucharist on her tongue. She then removed the Eucharist from her mouth, wrapped it in her veil, and headed to the door of the church. But before she got out, the Host began to bleed.
“When she got home, she put the bloodied Host in a trunk. That night, a miraculous light emanated from the trunk. She repented of what she had done and the next morning confessed to her priest.”
The miracle was duly investigated and the church was renamed The Church of the Holy Miracle.
While the main European Catholic countries unsurprisingly predominate when it comes to Eucharistic miracles, cases have been reported from as far afield as India and Egypt. The Egyptian case is probably the earliest on record and involved a monk living in a religious community in the desert who doubted the teaching of the Church and asked for proof that the bread of the Eucharist was, in reality, the Body of Christ. His evidence, so the fifth century story goes, came during Mass one Sunday when, in place of the Host, the monk saw the infant Jesus, who was pierced with a sword by an angel when the Host was lifted up, his blood running into the chalice. Just as the monk was given Communion, the Host became bread again and the doubting monk cried out that he now truly believed.
The Indian claim is one of many from recent years, confirming that the phenomenon is not just a mediæval peculiarity. On 28 April 2001, in the parish church of St Mary of Chirattakonam in Trivandrum, South India, Father Johnson Karnoor placed a consecrated Host in a monstrance for public adoration. This common Catholic practice involves placing a large Communion wafer in a glass-fronted and highly ornate vessel, a monstrance, used solely for the purpose. “I saw what appeared to be three dots in the Holy Eucharist. I then stopped praying and began to look at the monstrance, also inviting the faithful to admire the three dots.”
A week later, Father Karnoor looked at the Host again and immediately noticed the likeness of a human face. “I was deeply
moved and asked the faithful to kneel and begin praying. I noticed that the rest of the faithful were looking intently at the monstrance… as the minutes went by, the image became more and more clear. I began to cry… I asked the altar server what he noticed in the monstrance. He answered: ‘I see the figure of a man.’ I noticed that the rest of the faithful were looking intently at the monstrance.”
Later he called a photographer to take pictures of the Holy Eucharist with the human face on it. Today, the Host is still kept at the church.
Another example of this variant – in which the face of Christ appears without any blood being seen – was reported in November 2013 at the church of Christ the King atVilakkannur, Kerala, India. Here, the priest saw a face of a bearded man appear on the large Communion Host traditionally raised during the Mass at the moment of consecration. When the Host was put on public view the church became a centre of pilgrimage, with thousands of the curious and the faithful arriving to see the ‘miraculous’ image of the face of Christ.
The presence of blood, however, is the most commonly reported characteristic of a Eucharistic miracle. In April 2017 in Santa Fe, Argentina, a group of young Roman Catholics at a drug rehabilitation centre were praying and singing in front of a consecrated Host that was on display. As they looked at the Host in adoration, it apparently started to bleed. It was the Tuesday of Holy Week, when the trial and suffering of Jesus is especially recalled. Juan Ternengo, from the San Miguel centre at Guemes, described the oozing liquid as being a “deep red colour”.
The local bishop instructed that the Host be removed from public display for
He saw the face of a bearded man appear on the communion host
appropriate examination and a statement was issued by the Diocese of Rafaela. It did not deny that there had been instances in history when, indeed, the bread literally turned into the body of Christ, but added cautiously, “these cases have been neither common nor simple to discern… Meanwhile, prudence and respect are recommended”.
In 2016 a bleeding Host in Poland was officially approved for veneration by Bishop Zbigniew Kiernikowski of Legnica. On Christmas Day in 2013, a consecrated Host fell to the floor in St Jacek parish, the bishop said in a statement. The Host was placed in a container of water and red stains subsequently appeared on it.
Bishop Kiernikowski said the Host bore signs of “a Eucharistic miracle” and took the matter to theVatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It was recommended that a special place be found at the church for the Host to be put on display for veneration. “I hope that this will serve to deepen the cult of the Eucharist and will have deep impact on the lives of people facing the Host,” the bishop said.
In February 2014, a small fragment was placed on a corporal and underwent testing by various research institutes. The final medical statement, as reported by the Catholic News Agency, said that the Department of Forensic Medicine of the Pomeranian Medical University in Szczecin found that “fragments [of the Host] contained the fragmented parts of the cross striated muscle. It is most similar to the heart muscle. Tests also determined the tissue to be of human origin, and found that it bore signs of distress.”
TESTING THE CLAIMS
For at least 1,000 years claims of Eucharistic miracles have been carefully examined by the Church, as the interest of Pope Urban IV in the Corporal of Bolsena illustrates. The Lanciano miracle has undergone several investigations. When, initially, the Host appeared to be flesh and blood, the evidence was carefully weighed and the five globules, although of different sizes, were found apparently to be the same weight.
They were placed in a special ivory reliquary, but not hermetically sealed. In 1574, a Monsignor Rodrigues once again weighed the five globules in the presence of witnesses and arrived at the
same conclusion. He noted too that, eight centuries after the original events, no visible sign of deterioration had taken place.
In 1713, the original ivory reliquary was replaced by one of silver and crystal, with the globules of blood being put in a crystal chalice (which some believed was the actual chalice when the miracle occurred).
In the 20th and 21st centuries scientists have been involved in examining new cases and using new techniques to examine historic evidence. According to many believers, what they have discovered has not undermined the miraculous claims but strengthened the case for their authenticity. Much quoted is the Buenos Aires miracle of 1996, which, interestingly, links with the Lanciano case. On the evening of 18 August that year an unconsumed Host was found in the church of Santa Maria y Caballito Almagro in Buenos Aires, Argentina. A parishioner handed it to a priest, Father Alejandro Pezet, who put it in a container of water and placed it reverently in a tabernacle in the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament.
Eight days later Father Alejandro discovered that the Host had changed in appearance. It seemed to have grown in size and become bloody. Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, Father Alejandro’s superior, advised that the Host be photographed, and this was done on 6 September. Cardinal Bergoglio, later elevated to become Pope Francis, instructed that the episode be kept secret and that the Host be kept carefully under wraps.
Three years later, on 5 October 1999, the cardinal arranged for a sample of the bloody fragment to be sent for analysis. So as not to prejudice the study the laboratory was not told the sample’s history. The Catholic
Herald later reported that results came back
showing the blood was group AB and was indeed human.
Another sample was sent to the late Dr Frederick Zugibe, a retired American forensic pathologist and one-time professor of pathology at Columbia University, New York. In addition to his 30 years of experience, during which he conducted an estimated 10,000 autopsies, Dr Zugibe was well-known for his interest in the scientific investigations into the Shroud of Turin (see FT326:38-41).
The results of his investigation into the material from the bleeding Host were announced on 26 March 2005. He identified the sample as human flesh and blood and testified that it was a fragment of heart muscle. It was, he said, in an inflammatory condition and contained a large number of white blood cells. This indicated to him that the heart was alive at the time the sample was taken, as white blood cells die outside a living organism. He stated that “the heart had been under severe stress, as if the owner had been beaten severely about the chest.”
However, the Buenos Aires story was not finished, as it came to be linked with the much earlier Lanciano ‘miracle’. In 1970, Pope PaulVI permitted a series of scientific studies to substantiate, or undermine, the Lanciano legend.
According to The Catholic Education Resource Centre, Dr Edoardo Linoli, professor of anatomy and pathological histology, chemistry and clinical microscopy, and head physician of the hospital of Arezzo, conducted the study. He was assisted by Dr Ruggero Bertelli, professor emeritus of human anatomy at the University of Siena. “The analyses were performed in accord with scientific standards and documented, and Dr Bertelli independently corroborated Dr Linoli’s findings. In 1981, using more advanced medical technology, Dr Linoli conducted a second histological study; he not only confirmed the findings but also gathered new information.
“The major findings from this research include the following: The Flesh, yellowbrown in colour, has the structure of the myocardium (heart wall) and the endocardium, the membrane of fibrouselastic tissue lining all the cardiac cavities. These have the same appearance as in the human heart. No traces of preservatives were found in the elements. The blood was also of human origin with the type AB. Proteins in the clotted blood were normally fractioned with the same percentage ratio as those found in the sero-proteic make-up of normal, fresh human blood.”
Linoli’s findings were published in the medical journal Quaderni Sclavo di Diagnostica Clinica e di Laboratori in 1971. He found significant the fact that the
blood group was AB, a comparatively rare group that is found, however, more predominantly in the Middle East than in Italy (and, he claimed, the same blood group as that of the man of the holy Shroud of Turin). He also said that the samples should have deteriorated, given that they were centuries old. They had never been hermetically sealed from the air and yet they had preserved the same properties as might be found in fresh human blood and flesh.
Several Catholic websites report that in 1973, the Higher Council of the World Health Organization (WHO) appointed a scientific commission to verify the Italian doctor’s conclusions and confirmed what had been stated and published in Italy.
In reporting this supposed link between the Buenos Aires and the Lanciano miracles – that both samples appeared to be of the same unusual AB blood group – some accounts have extrapolated further. In one Youtube video, claims were made that not only was the blood group identified, but DNA as well. Some believers have even claimed that DNA extracted from the Argentinian bleeding Host was found to match DNA taken from the Lanciano sample, and even more remarkably, that both matched DNA found on the Turin Shroud.
The only problem with this story is that while human DNA was found in dust particles taken from the Shroud, they did not have a single identifiable source. To quote from the report of the research published in Nature: “a large number of different human sequences corresponding to three distinct mtDNA loci were identified. This result not only indicates that human DNA was indeed unequivocally present in the dust, but also that the sources of human DNA could be ascribed to numerous individuals. In fact, the mtDNA haplotypes were found to belong to different branches of the human mtDNA tree, even after having excluded all the mtDNA sequences that could be theoretically attributed to operator contamination.” In other words, the Shroud had been handled by so many people over the years that to pinpoint the DNA from the original corpse buried in it was impossible.
Claims of scientific verification of tales of the miraculous tend to hit four main problems. Firstly, sourcing the claims can be difficult. In general, the scientific evidence is only cited in hearsay versions on dedicated Catholic websites and not in mainstream scientific, peer-reviewed journals. In particular, why does the corroborative investigation conducted, supposedly, by the WHO prove impossible to source? The WHO body involved, described as the Higher Council, does not even appear to exist in the WHO organisational structure.
The scientific claims follow a wellestablished pattern found in websites run by enthusiasts who are dedicated to their own marginal causes, whether conspiracy theories, alien sightings or imminent apocalypses. Claims are freely circulated around the families of websites, each one quoting the other as substantiation, but none providing irrefutable and checkable source material. One unnamed correspondent to the website Catholic
Answers Forums in 2007 was particularly scathing. “According to various Catholic websites, the physician Dr Edoardo Linoli examined the Eucharistic Host at Lanciano and found it to be composed of human heart muscle. And the Blood was human blood, type AB. The findings are only found on the Catholic websites. This sounds similar to the “Oil well to Hell” hoax that many Fundementalist Protestants still fall for to this very day and suggests that the Catholic websites have unwittingly parroted a lie.”
Secondly, even sourced scientific reports of tests do not provide corroborating evidence of how samples were presented. Where individual institutions have a special interest in having a miracle confirmed, attempts might be made to dupe reputable scientists with sample substitutes. The Lanciano tissue could have been tampered with at any time over hundreds of years. The best that scientific laboratories can hope to do is state what they find in what they are given to examine – but there is no scientific test that proves a sample might once have been Communion bread.
Thirdly, it is often the case that the Church calls on the services of scientists who are themselves not impartial investigators and who have previously taken a special interest in alleged miracles and have a personal, faith-based motivation to substantiate them.
And fourthly, even when reports can be sourced, the evidence is far from clear. The most celebrated and most studied holy relic is the Shroud of Turin, and over time scientific claims have been far from consistent. After carbon dating tests poohpoohed claims that the Shroud was 2,000 years old, came other tests on pollen, dust and nanoparticles. Believers interpreted the various results as supporting the claim that the Shroud was the burial cloth of Christ; sceptics took the opposite view. Most recently, in July 2017, a report into an analysis of nanoparticles from the Shroud seemed to corroborate the theory that it was used as a burial cloth and contradicted previous theories that it was made in mediæval times. Professor Giulio Fanti, one of the authors of the research, said: “The presence of these biological nanoparticles
found during our experiments point to a violent death for the man wrapped in the Turin Shroud.”
Further scientific studies, of course, may produce yet another swing in the pendulum of evidence.
Another claim of evidence to support a miraculous Eucharistic event has come in the form of video footage. In the village of Betania inVenezuela there is a shrine celebrating the apparitions of theVirgin Mary which are said to have occurred there. In the 1970s and 1980s there were said to be at least 30 appearances in which the mother of Jesus warned of impending war and suffering. On one occasion in 1984, 108 people claimed to have seen an apparition. The shrine is a popular local site of pilgrimage and on 8 December 1991, Father Otty Ossa Aristizábal was celebrating Mass in the chapel when the Host began to bleed. Reports say that it appeared to be spurting blood as if from a wound. He and the congregation immediately recognised the event as a miracle and today the miraculous Host is preserved in the city of Los Teques at the convent of the Augustinian Recollects Nuns of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, where it is on permanent display and attracts hundreds of pilgrims a year.
In 1998, an American pilgrim, Daniel Sanford, went to Betania with an organised prayer group from Medford Lakes, New Jersey. On 13 November, the group went to see the famed Bleeding Host of Betania. After Mass, they opened the door of the tabernacle that contained the Host. “The Host was in flames, bleeding, and there was a pulsating heart bleeding in the centre of the Host. I watched this for about 30 seconds or so, then the Host returned to normal. However, I did manage to film this miracle with my camcorder!” Sanford’s video has been viewed over 140,000 times on YouTube (you can see it at www.youtube. com/watch?v=jqsRDD6kXWY). He shot the footage without a tripod and the camerawork is very wobbly. The supposed heartbeat of the Host is inconsistent, depending, it seems, on the camera angle at the time. The low quality of the visual evidence prevents proper study of the claim. Sceptics will easily dismiss the illusion as a trick of the light or the consequence of seeing the Host through distorted glass.
MOULDY OLD DOUGH
In many cases, sceptics would argue that something as simple as mould or some other contaminant might be responsible for discolouring or leaving marks on a wafer. In the context of faith, it is quite plausible that such discolorations are interpreted imaginatively; that these interpretations can become charged with religious significance for the faithful is again all entirely within the bounds of possibility.
Relevant here – and common to several claims of Eucharistic miracles – is the code of practice that priests are advised to follow when a Communion Host becomes in any way contaminated: it has to be placed reverently in water until it dissolves.
In 2015 a Communion wafer was returned to the priest at St Francis Xavier Church in Kearns in Salt Lake City, Utah. It had been given in error to a young child. He duly placed it in water according to the protocol. After several days, the Host developed a red colour. Some parishioners said it appeared to be bleeding (see FT336:20). The diocesan authorities set up a committee of enquiry and commissioned scientific tests. To the disappointment of some believers the conclusion was that the discoloration was not supernatural and most probably attributable to red mould.
The diocese stressed the need for Catholics to avoid “rash speculation” about miraculous claims. Monsignor M Francis Mannion said that while such miracles had happened in the past, “false claims of miracles cause harm to the faithful and damage the Church’s credibility.” He said the investigating committee had been appointed “in the wake of excitement generated by the premature and imprudent display and veneration of the Host”.
That a similar red bread mould might explain many other cases in which Hosts have been placed in water seems not improbable. However, once a miracle has been announced it is difficult to backtrack – unless, as in the case of the Salt Lake City diocese, a prompt and impartial investigation is carried out. Another suggested explanation for human blood being found on Communion bread is that it the blood of the priest who, perhaps inadvertently, has contaminated the evidence. A drip of blood from a slight nose-bleed or a small cut on a finger might be a possible explanation.
Whatever the cause, and the Church authorities do not rule out the very rare possibility of supernatural intervention, what really creates the ‘miracle’ is the popular response to an event. A miracle is something that creates wonder in the eyes of beholders. If believers experience a sense of wonder, whatever the cause or mundane explanation, that event can become to them a thing of holiness and a faith-enhancing experience.
TED HARRISON is a writer, artist, television producer and former BBC religious affairs correspondent. A regular contributor to FT, his latest book is The Death and Resurrection of Elvis Presley.
LEFT: A Corpus Christi procession in which the ‘Corporal of Bolsena’, stained by a bleeding host, is displayed. BELOW: Pope Urban IV, who approved the miracle in 1264.
ABOVE: The ‘Corporal of Bolsena’ in its reliquary at Orvieto Cathedral.
BELOW: The Lanciano Host, preserved in a reliquary in the Church of San Francesco.
BELOW: At the Church of Christ the King in Vilakkannur, Kerala, this image of a bearded man was interpreted as the face of Christ and drew thousands of pilgrims.
ABOVE: The Host bearing the “the figure of a man” in a monstrance spotted by Father Karnoor church of St Mary of Chirattakonam in Trivandrum, South India (above).
ABOVE LEFT: The bleeding fragment of the Host from the Buenos Aires miracle of 1996. ABOVE RIGHT: The bleeding communion wafer first seen by a nun in Tixtla, Mexico, in 2006. BELOW: Doctor Frederick Zugibe investigated the Buenos Aires case and the Turin Shroud, as well as conducting the odd crucifixion in his lab.
TOP: Betania, Venezuala, was home to a series of Marian apparitions in the 1970s and 1980s. Here, a vendor sells photos of some of the visitations. ABOVE: St Jacek Church in Poland, where a bleeding Host was approved as a miracle by the local bishop and reportedly found to contain human tissue.
ABOVE LEFT: Sceptics argue that discoloration due to mould or other contaminants can leave marks on communion wafers that believers interpret in the light of faith. ABOVE CENTRE: A frame from Daniel Sanford’s video of the bleeding Host of Betania. ABOVE RIGHT: The Salt Lake City Host of 2015 – probably red mould, not blood.