Franco Caldarola is my father-in-law’s first cousin, part of the tribe that never left Italy. Over the years, the family has stayed close, visiting and entertaining each other on both sides of the Atlantic.
So, one day when we were in Rome this year, Franco and his wife Franca picked us up for a drive to Orvieto, an Umbrian hill city. We trekked up the winding streets, disappointed that since it was Sunday in the off-season, Franca’s sister’s gelato shop was closed.
In many ways, Orvieto seemed a typical Italian village — gorgeous views, narrow stone streets. It was only when I rounded the corner near the town’s apex that my jaw dropped. Here, in this small village, a huge, magnificent church sat in the square. Rick Steves, the travel guru, says Orvieto’s church “gets my vote for Italy’s liveliest façade.”
Although we had attended Mass on Saturday night, we stayed for the liturgy.
Unfortunately, the language barrier between us and the cousins prevented me from asking my many questions. It was only when I got back to Rome and told the Jesuit traveling with us where we’d been that I discovered Orvieto is the repository of a eucharistic miracle.
Miracles are ubiquitous in Italy, and sometimes must be taken with a grain of salt. It seems everywhere there’s a legendary miracle, or an appendage under glass, say a finger in Sienna or vocal cords in Padua.
But here’s the Orvieto story: the church was sometimes a refuge for medieval popes – Orvieto is, after all, built on volcanic stone a thousand feet above a valley floor. So it happened that in 1263, Urban IV was in residence. A few miles away in Bolsano, a priest who was having a crisis of faith – a waning belief in the Real Presence in the Eucharist — was offering Mass. At the moment of consecration, he purportedly observed that the host began to bleed. In his shock, he immediately traveled to see the pope, who ordered that the stained corporal — the linen altar cloth — be brought to Orvieto, where it remains.
Did I see it? No, because I had no idea it was there. So it wasn’t just the gelato I missed out on. However, the priest told me it was probably in the chapel, not always open to tourists anyway.
A fellow writer, Elise Italiano Ureneck, wrote recently of her similar experience visiting family in Abruzzo, where a miracle in the village of Lanciano took place in the 8th century. A monk, also with eucharistic doubts, was stunned to see an actual physical change occur when he spoke the words of consecration.
So today in Lanciano, Ureneck observed a monstrance that held what “looked like bloody skin.” Turns out, in scientific testing, the monstrance holds cardiac tissue. And in a chalice were five globules of blood “that looked like dark pellets.” Although the blood looks solid, Ureneck said “it shares the chemical properties of blood that has been freshly shed.”
Here’s something else: in the tests that have been done on purported blood in these miracles, the result is consistently type AB, same as the testing on the Shroud of Turin.
Jesus (John 4:48) scolded his followers about demanding “signs and wonders,” but even today, in our skeptical age, we yearn for miracles. But each of us draws from these occurrences what feeds us and leaves the rest.
The question is, if we put stock in miracles, do they bring us closer to Jesus and help us to carry out the work of love he asked of us? That’s when the real miracle begins.