June 24 is the Feast Day of St. John the Baptist's birth and that means a very busy day for Father John Fitzpatrick, the rector of the Church of San Silvestro in Capite, where the decapitated head of St. John is kept on public display.
“It is very important to keep the head of St. John the Baptist from the point of view of telling his story, because he was the forerunner of Jesus Christ,” the Pallotine priest told CNA.
“People come here to lay flowers, light candles and pray. They come from everywhere, even from Russia or Romania, and in great numbers to visit the relic. In fact, it would be difficult to count the number of pilgrims who come to the Church,” he said.
St. John the Baptist was the last great prophet to herald the birth of Jesus Christ. In fact, he was related to Jesus as the son of Elizabeth who was a cousin of Mary, the mother of Christ.
The Gospel of Luke states that Jesus was conceived when Elizabeth was about six months pregnant. For that reason, the Church places today’s feast day six months before Christmas and the birth of Christ.
Fr. Fitzpatrick said that the head was brought to Rome by Greek monks in the year 1169. The monks then founded a church dedicated to the 4th-century Pope St. Sylvester and to the decapitated head of St. John—a dual tribute reflected in the church’s name.
In the Gospel accounts of John the Baptist’s death, King Herod had the prophet imprisoned for denouncing his marriage to his brother’s wife, Herodias. The King then had John beheaded following a request from Herodias’ daughter, Salome.
The head in St. Silvestro in Capite is kept on a red velvet cloth within a clear plastic box.
There are other religious sites around the world that also claim to house the remains of St. John the Baptist, including the Umayyad Mosque in the Syrian city of Damascus.