One year ago today, in the aftermath of the first of two Roman blizzards during my stay in the Eternal City, I ventured out in early evening to walk the short distance from the Paulist residence to the church of Santa Susanna in order to get my throat blessed. Treading carefully through the icy slush, I remember watching several Romans - all adults - thoroughly enjoying themselves making and throwing snowballs at each other. They were having fun, but the streets and sidewalks were really treacherous, and much of Roman city life (including my class) had shut down for the day.
Yet it never occurred to me not to make the effort to go and get my throat blessed! I'll leave it to sociologists and anthropologists to theorize about what makes certain social rituals and religious devotions particularly popular. Traditionally, blessings were provided for all sorts of objects and activities - from wine to herbs to bonfires - all assigned to specific days in the calendar. Most of those blessings are historical curiosities now, surviving perhaps here and there in popular religion in rural areas, but otherwise hardly known to the ordinary Catholic faithful. Yet the perennially popular Blessing of Throats on the feast of St. Blase seems to be that proverbial exception that proves the rule!
According to the Golden Legend, as he was being led away by Roman soldiers, St. Blase never stopped preaching amd worked many wonders - among them, most famously, laying his hands on a boy with a fish bone stuck in his throat and praying that the boy and anyone else who sought help from God in his name would be healed. For centruies since, St. Blase has been venerated as the patron of those who suffer from diseases of the throat. The ritual of the blessing of throats, however, invokes St. Blase's intercession for deliverance from every disease of the throat and from every other illness.
I have often thought that the Blessing of throats is one of the nicest things we do after Mass and the sacraments, and so I have always looked forward to it on February 3 - perhaps all the more so this year just two weeks after my mini-stroke certainly made me that much more sensitive to the fragility of the scarce blessing we call health.
Ordinary experience illustrates the universality of sickness in human life. Some, blessed with good genes and good circumstances, enjoy generally good health much of their lives. Others must struggle with chronic and serious sickness and other significant impairments. Modern medicine has produced previously unimaginable advances in the prevention and the treatment of disease, one consequence of which is the lengthened lifespan so many of us are enjoying (or expect to enjoy). Yet not all diseases have been defeated, nor does the prospect of a longer life alleviate our anxieties about aging and its physical and mental toll. Moreover, even some of the simplest and most common modern medical advances are far from universally available – even in our own affluent society, let alone in the world at large. In the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly healed the sick. The longstanding commitment of the Church’s institutions and the resources of many religious communities to health care at all levels attests to the seriousness with which his example has been taken. As for St. Blase himself, whose memory the Church invokes today in blessing us against every disease of the throat and every other illness, we know only that he was a healer in life and died a martyr's death - two of the highest acolades anyone can aspire to!