NAPLES, Italy (Reuters) - Thousands of Neapolitans crowded into the city's cathedral on Friday to witness the miracle of Saint Gennaro -- whose dried blood is said to liquefy twice a year, 17 centuries after his death.
Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, archbishop of Naples, announced the blood turned to liquid at 9:45 a.m. (3:45 a.m. EDT) and the glass phial was paraded to crowds outside, who set off fireworks in celebration.
"It (the saint's blood) is the seed of hope for all of us," Sepe said.
Legend has it that when Gennaro was beheaded by pagan Romans in 305 A.D., a Neapolitan woman soaked up his blood with a sponge and preserved it in a glass phial.
The substance usually turns to liquid twice a year - on September 19, the saint's feast day, and on the first Saturday in May.
The miracle was only first recorded in 1389, more than 1,000 years after Gennaro's martyrdom.
More scientifically minded skeptics say the "miracle" is due to chemicals present in the phial whose viscosity changes when it is stirred or moved.
Some Neapolitans fear disaster may strike the city if the blood of the fourth-century martyr does not turn to liquid.
Disaster has struck at least five times after the blood failed to liquefy, including in November 1980 when some 3,000 people died in a massive earthquake that struck southern Italy.
Naples has endured a difficult year, with the historic port city's image stained by a trash crisis that saw rotting rubbish pile up in city streets.
Writing by Phil Stewart; editing by Keith Weir