CAMPANIA, ITALY – Thousands of protesters demonstrated in Naples on Saturday to prevent the Catholic Church from gaining any control over the treasure of a local saint, reputedly worth more than the British crown jewels.
The protest was sparked by a decree issued by Interior Minister Angelino Alfano.
Critics say his move opens the door to church control, as it threatens a lay council that for centuries has guarded the jewel-encrusted treasures donated by kings and aristocrats in honor of St. Januarius, or San Gennaro in Italian.
The lay council was established in the 16th century as the southern Italian city struggled to overcome a series of devastating misfortunes: a resurgence of the plague, a siege by the French and an eruption by the volcano Vesuvius which set off earthquakes.
Those who survived pledged in 1527 to build a chapel to their patron saint, who was beheaded in A.D. 305 during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Diocletian.
Not only was the chapel built with the city’s money, it was presided over by the newly formed council, made up of 12 lay citizens and the mayor, and came to house one of the world’s most important collections of religious treasures.
As well as silver busts of saints, there are heavily-jeweled necklaces and earrings and a golden miter, the ceremonial headdress of bishops, which is studded with 3,326 diamonds, 164 rubies and nearly 200 emeralds.
Alfano ruled that the council is the same as any other caretaker body that manages religious buildings.
But the council and its supporters say it is much more than that, particularly because it oversees the Gennaro miracle. Three times a year, a ceremony is held in which locals pray for miraculous liquefaction of the saint’s blood, held in a glass vial clutched by a priest or cardinal.
If the blood does not return to liquid from its coagulated state, it is seen as a bad omen for the city.