Gianluca Orsola, in a recent book, San Longino nella tradizione greca e latina di età tardo antica [Saint Longinus in the Greek and Latin Tradition of Late Antiquity] (Graphe.it Edizioni, Ponte Felcini (PG) 2008, reprinted 2017), reconstructs the figure of Saint Longinus, the Roman centurion at Calvary who pierced the side of Jesus with the Sacred Lance to see if He was dead, basing his account on the testimonies of the Acta Pilati, the Martyrologium Hieronimianum, and numerous other Greek and Latin sources. After recognizing and confessing that the man he had crucified was true God ( Mk 15:39), Longinus gathered the “blood and water” ( Jn 19:34) which gushed from the divine side and fell at the foot of the Cross, placing it into a vase, which he carried to Italy, together with the sponge that was used to give Jesus vinegar to drink. He stopped in the Caesarean city of Mantua, burying the relics in a small lead case, with the words “Jesu Christi Sanguis” written on top. In the same city, on 15 March A.D. 37, Saint Longinus underwent martyrdom by decapitation in a suburb called Cappadocia.
After about eight centuries, in the year 804, the Apostle Saint Andrew appeared to one of the faithful, showing him the place where the bones of the martyr were found and also the case which he had buried. News of this reached the court of Charlemagne, who requested Pope Leo III to verify the veracity of the discovery. The Pope went to Mantua and approved the apparition of Saint Andrew and the authenticity of the relics, bringing a fragment to Charlemagne, which was then preserved in the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. The Pope then elevated Mantua to a diocese, and named Gregory of Rome as its first bishop.
In the 11th century a great basilica was constructed in honor of Saint Andrew, which was rebuilt beginning in 1472 under the direction of Leon Battista Alberti. The canonization of the centurion took place on 2 December 1340 under the pontificate of Innocent III, and his memorial is kept each year on March 15. A statue sculpted by
Gian Lorenzo Bernini depicts Saint Longinus at the base of one of the four great pillars which support the cupola of Saint Peter’s Basilica.
Inside the Basilica of Sant’Andrea, the cathedral church of Mantua, a chapel holds the remains of Saint Longinus, while the phial of the Most Precious Blood is kept in the crypt of the same basilica. Each year in Mantua on the afternoon of Good Friday, a ceremony is held for the opening of the coffers which hold these holy relics, which are then exposed for the veneration of the faithful at the feet of Christ Crucified in the apse of the cathedral.
But Saint Longinus was not alone at the foot of the Cross when he collected the Blood of Christ. According to an ancient tradition known by the Church, another Roman soldier belonging to the Savelli family had his garment sprinkled with a few drops of the Most Precious Blood of Jesus, as others did, and was converted.
The soldier removed the part of his garment reddened by the Blood and returned to Rome, where he kept it in his palace of Monte Savello, enclosed in a reliquary of ebony and crystal, where it remained jealously guarded for many centuries.
The Savelli family, one of the first baronal families of Rome, gave two popes to the Church, Honorius I and Honorius IV, and the family also held the honor of being marshals of the Conclave. Prince Giulio Savelli (1626-1712), the last prince of his house, gave the relic to the Church of San Nicola in Carcere, adjacent to his palace, in the Theater of Marcellus.
The relic was enclosed in a silver case and placed on the altar of the Most Holy Crucifix for veneration, the same crucifix which had once spoken to Saint Bridget. On December 8, 1808, the occasion of the first centenary of the gift, the rector of the church, Canon Francesco Albertini, founded, with a group of people devoted to the relic, a pious association in honor of the Most Precious Blood and assigned the preaching to the newly ordained Saint Gaspare del Bufalo (1786-1837), who was the spiritual director of the association.
Canon Albertini is considered the “hidden father” of the entire 19th century movement of devotion to the Blood of Christ, for it was he who nudged Saint Gaspare del Bufalo to found the Missionaries of the Most Precious Blood and who also inspired Saint Maria De Mattias (1805-1866), foundress of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ.
These were, however, days of tempest for the Church. On February 2, 1808, the French army, on the orders of Napoleon, occupied the city of Rome. The intimidation and moral violence against the Papacy multiplied, until on June 10, 1809, the papal banner was lowered from Castel Sant’Angelo and the French flag was raised.
Pius VII signed the bull of excommunication against Napoleon, and on the night of July 6 he was made a prisoner and deported. To the request that he swear allegiance to Napoleon, Don Gaspare del Bufalo responded firmly: “I cannot, I should not, I will not,” a phrase which would be utilized also by Pius IX at the time of the “Roman Question.” The young priest underwent four years of exile and deportation until the fall of Napoleon.
On August 15, 1815, Gaspare del Bufalo founded the congregation of the Missionaries of the Most Precious Blood, to which Pius VII and then Leo XII entrusted the mission of preaching against secret societies, which were engaged in an active propaganda of the people, and to evangelize the brigands who were infesting the Papal States in order to return them to the faith.
The Roman priest died on December 28, 1837, in a room of the palace over the Theater of Marcellus, which had passed from the Savelli family to the Orsini family. Saint Vincent Pallotti saw his soul rising to heaven like a bright star and Jesus coming to meet it. Canonized by Pius XII on June 12, 1954, Saint Gaspare del Bufalo was defined by John XXIII in 1960 as “the splendid glory of the Roman clergy” and “the true and great apostle of devotion to the Most Precious Blood of Jesus in the whole world.”
His body rests in Rome in the church of Santa Maria in Trivio.
In 1849, when Pius IX was forced to leave Rome, which had been occupied by the revolutionaries, in order to take refuge in Gaeta, he had a meeting with the venerable Don Giovanni Merlini, successor of Saint Gaspare del Bufalo and most esteemed by the Pontiff for his holiness and wisdom. To the Pope, who asked him when these terrible moments would be over for the Church, the holy missionary responded that if Pius IX would introduce the Feast of the Most Precious Blood, he would return to Rome a free man.
After reflecting on this, on June 30, 1849, the Pope communicated to Merlini that he had accepted his counsel. The next day, Sunday, July 1, 1849, the revolutionaries were forced to leave Rome, and the Pope, with the decree of August 10, 1849, extended the Feast of the Most Precious Blood to the entire Church, to be celebrated as a double feast of the second class on the first Sunday of July.
Pius X fixed the feast definitively on July 1 and Pius XI, recalling the 19th centenary of the Redemption in April 1934, elevated it to a double feast of the first class. Paul VI, following the postconciliar liturgical reform, combined the Feast of the Most Precious Blood with that of Corpus Domini, but his decision provoked a vigorous discontent among those devoted to both devotions.
Receiving the Missionaries of the Most Precious Blood, the Pope communicated to them that they could continue to celebrate the Feast on July 1 with a solemn liturgy.
The pious association of the Most Precious Blood founded by Msgr. Albertini, raised to an Archconfraternity by Pope Pius VII in 1815, was transferred in 1936 to the Carmelite Church of San Giuseppe a Capo le Case, where, behind the altar, there is still preserved the ancient reliquary venerated by Saint Gaspare del Bufalo, and the faithful who have for fifty years attended the traditional Mass in this little church continue to venerate the relic there.
But we cannot conclude this recognition of the devotion to the Most Precious Blood without recalling that before being poured out when it flowed throughout the Lord’s Passion, the Blood of Christ was offered to God and distributed to the Holy Apostles on Holy Thursday.
During the Last Supper, for the first time the bread and wine were transformed by Jesus himself into his Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, and the chalice used by Our Lord to celebrate the first Mass constitutes the most precious relic of the Passion, second only to the Holy Cross.
Janice Bennett, in her study St. Laurence And The Holy Grail: The Story Of The Holy Grail Of Valencia (Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2012) and Abbé Bertrand Labouche, in his book Le Saint Graal ou le vrai Calice de Jésus-Christ: Histoire, archéologie et théologie du Calice de Valencia (Editions de Chiré, Chiré 2015), recount the history of this relic, so closely linked to the Most Precious Blood, which is today venerated in the Spanish city of Valencia.
A Spanish university researcher, Ana Mafé Garcia, in her 2010 doctoral thesis in art history at the University of Valencia, basing her findings on new iconographic and archeological data, has confirmed the conclusions of these studies, saying that it is 99.9% certain that the chalice of Valencia is the one that Jesus Christ used at the Last Supper. Janice Bennett maintains that the chalice, a cup fashioned out of carnelian, would have been the property of the family of Saint Mark the Evangelist, who would have entrusted it to Saint Peter. It is probable however that it was kept in the oratory of the Virgin Mary until her Assumption into Heaven and then given to the Prince of the Apostles.
In Rome, Saint Peter and his successors often used this holy chalice to celebrate the Mass. The last Pope who celebrated the Sacred Mysteries with this chalice was Saint Sixtus, martyred on August 6, 258, during the persecution of Valerian, with the accusation of not having handed over to the pagans all of the goods of the Church, among which would have been the Holy Grail. The one who had care of these goods was the deacon Lawrence, who was also martyred four days later on August 10, because he also refused to hand over the relics which he guarded.
Lawrence, originally from the Spanish city of Huesca in the Pyrenees, succeeded in having the Grail sent to his hometown. An ancient mosaic which decorates the central nave of the basilica of Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls, which was destroyed during the Second World War, showed Saint Lawrence entrusting the Chalice to a kneeling Roman soldier. This soldier, who was named Precelius and who was also from Hispania, carried the chalice to Huesca where it remained for over four centuries until the Moslem invasion in 711. When the invaders drew near, the bishop of Huesca fled to the cave of Yebra, in the Pyrenees, but he was found by the Moslems and martyred.
The Holy Grail was brought to safety at San Pedro de Siresa, the oldest monastery in Aragon, in the Valle de Hecho, and after many adventures it came to the monastery of San Juan de la Peña, where it remained until 1399 when the monks gave it to King Martin I of Aragon. In 1437 it finally found its definitive resting place in the Cathedral of Valencia, where today it is venerated in a lavishly decorated chapel, in which both John Paul II and Benedict XVI prayed and celebrated Mass. One of the first concessions of the Holy See of an Office De Sanguine Christi was the one given to the Diocese of Valencia in 1582. The odyssey of the Holy Grail was not ended. After having escaped the Moslems, the holy relic also miraculously avoided being vandalized by the Army of Napoleon in 1809 and the anarchist-communist army in the Spanish Civil War in 1936. But a more subtle aggression attacks it today: the fables spread by esoteric circles about the Grail, which aim to obscure the authentic significance of the Most Precious Blood of Jesus. But the Blood of the Incarnate Word, poured out in the Passion of Christ and in the Holy Eucharist, is, as the Litanies dedicated to this mystery proclaim, victorious over demons, the strength of martyrs, the virtue of confessors, the pledge of eternal life, “ omni gloria et honore dignissimum,” and, we may add, a most powerful and triumphant weapon against the enemies of the Church.
Translated by Giuseppe Pellegrino