John Anglin, OFM, of the Province’s Ministry of the Word, shares some thoughts about St. Blaise, whose feast day is Feb. 3.
For centuries now, Catholics have lined up in large numbers on the feast of St. Blaise to have their throats blessed. In recent years, at least in the United States, the custom has been moved to the nearest Sunday, this year on Feb. 1, to make it more convenient for those who work during the week and find it difficult to take time off to get to a church for this blessing. We Catholics are very sensate and willingly show up for ashes, palms and anything else that reminds us that God’s touch is quite near to us.
I remember as a boy being brought to church to have my throat blessed. I didn’t know what to expect, though my mother had given me some explanation. I knew that candles would be placed on my neck, around my throat, and that this was supposed to protect me from getting a cold or other sicknesses. Having suffered through a number of childhood maladies, I found this to be a good idea, and was quite relieved to discover that the candles were not lit.
So, who was St. Blaise? Where does this custom come from? And what are we to make of this in our modern technological age?
A Web site of St. Anthony Messenger, Americancatholic.org tells us that “we know more about the devotion to St. Blaise by Christians than we know about the saint himself.” He was born in the late third century and died as a martyr in Sebastea, Armenia in 316. The blessing of throats custom came about because, according to legend, as he was being hauled off to prison a woman came with a boy who had a fish bone lodged in his throat and at Blaise’s command the boy coughed up the fishbone — perhaps an early form of the Heimlich maneuver.
Indeed, what do we make of this today, in this age of antibiotics, MRIs, laser surgery, and other medical procedures? Why do people still come in large numbers to get their throats blessed? Is this just superstition? Perhaps in some cases, but I think that in a deeper sense most people of faith instinctively realize that this is a visible, tangible way of acknowledging our need for God in times of sickness and distress.
To bring in a personal note, a few years ago when I was recovering from treatment for prostate cancer and dealing with the news that I was diabetic, I had my throat blessed at Mass here in St. Anthony Friary. I remember thanking God for the marvels of modern medicine that helped treat my cancer, asking for the strength and discipline to deal with my diabetes, and realizing that it was all in the hands of God.
We in the Ministry of the Word like to point out that while God does not always cure or grant a miracle, God does always heal, always leads us to something good and to a deeper awareness of the divine presence in our lives. I’ve always found it so, ever since Mom took me to have my throat blessed.
— Fr. John is one of more than a dozen friars who are part of HNP’s Ministry of the Word. He lives at St. Anthony’s Friary in St. Petersburg, Fla.