FEAST OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST: HIS RELIC IN ROME

If your name is John, Joan or another derivative of John, today is your onomastico or name day! Congratulations and best wishes to everyone marking the June 24 feast of St. John the Baptist!

FEAST OF ST. JOHN THE BAPTIST: HIS RELIC IN ROME

I did something I have wanted to do for a long time on the June 24th feast day of St. John the Baptist – I visited the Roman church that has part of his skull, San Silvestro in capite on the piazza named for St. Sylvester Pope. I had not been here in years and did not remember it well so I took a ton of pictures in order to share the great story of the church and the relic of St. John the Baptist.

This has always been a big feast day in Rome, especially at the Pope’s cathedral church of St. John Lateran (full name: Cathedral of the Most Holy Savior and of Saints John the Baptist and John the Evangelist in the Lateran). Among other events (though not recently because of Covid), there is usually a huge concert at St. John’s.

June 24 is in fact a big day in Italy and in several Italian cities whose patron saint he is, including Turin and Florence. This is a very old celebration – also known as Saint John’s Day in many countries in the world – as it was established by the undivided Christian Church in the 4th century A.D., to honor the birth of John the Baptist.

As we know from accounts of the Visitation, John was six months older than his cousin Jesus whom he baptized as an adult in the River Jordan. Jesus was born, according to tradition on December 25, so John’s birthday was presumed to be mid-summer.

Florentines celebrate the city’s patron saint, considering John the “symbol of moral rectitude and political correctness.” The daylong events include parades, boat rides on the Arno River and tables laden with local food and wine. An evening soccer match and rowboats carrying lit candles followed by fireworks traditionally end the day.

The relic of the head of St. John the Baptist has been venerated in San Silvestro in Capite since at least the end of the twelfth century, the year 1192 or 1194 being probably the earliest date at which the words ‘de Capo’ or ‘de Capite’ (referring to the Latin word for head) are found added to the church’s name. How it came to be here has not been recorded, nor can its previous history or provenance be, at present, ascertained.

Tradition holds that John was executed in the prison of the fortress of Machaerus, near the Dead Sea. It is said that Herodias, who prompted her daughter to ask King Herod Antipas for his head, afraid that if his body and his head were buried together he might come back to life, had the head hidden in Herod’s palace in Jerusalem, while John’s disciples removed the body to Sebaste in Samaria.

The chapel of the relic:

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There are two differing accounts of how the head was found in Jerusalem and made its long journey to Constantinople, but it is known with certainty that it was being venerated as the principal treasure of the monastery church of Saint John Baptist of Stoudios within the walls of that city in 873. It is not known if the head was entire at this time, or whether it had been broken into different fragments.

The relic in San Silvestro is not a full head, but the top part of a skull, which has been set into a wax skull. There is another relic in the Cathedral of Amiens in northern France, which is only the front part of a head, from the forehead down to the upper jaw, excluding the teeth.

The relic now venerated in San Silvestro as the head of Saint John the Baptist has been for centuries the focus of much devotion and prayer. It located in the chapel of the ‘Pietà’, accessible through a doorway immediately to the left on entering the church from the courtyard, or directly from Via del Gambero which runs along the side of the church. (Relic of John the Baptist (sansilvestroincapite.org)

The original church was built in the 8th century by the Popes Paul I and Stephen III, atop ruins of a pagan temple dedicated to Sol Invictus, to house venerated relics of early Christian saints who were buried in the catacombs. The church was rebuilt and the campanile with Romanesque arcades added in 1198 during the papacy of Innocent III, while in the 13th century the church was donated to the Poor Clares.

The wonderful courtyard:

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It was rebuilt by the architects Francesco Capriani da Volterra and Carlo Maderno during 1591–1601, and subsequently restored in 1681.[3] The relics of Pope Sylvester IPope Stephen I and Pope Dionysius were exhumed and re-enshrined beneath the high altar when the new church was consecrated in 1601. The church also contains the relics of Tarcisius.

The church:

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The church of San Silvestro was granted to the English Catholics by Pope Leo XIII in 1890, and is now served by Irish Pallottine Fathers. Mass is thus regularly celebrated in the English language. The church is the National Church in Rome of Great Britain, although the structures of the Catholic Church continue to be organized separately for England and Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Scottish national church in Rome, Sant’Andrea degli Scozzesi, was deconsecrated in 1962. (San Silvestro in Capite – Wikipedia)