St. Aspren—Take Two
Saints and Call
Me in the Morning
There are two churches in Naples dedicated to the first bishop of the city, Sant'Aspreno, known in English as St. Asprenas or St. Aspren. One is Sant' Aspreno ai Crociferi, built in 1633 just outside the old northern wall of the city in the Vergini section of Naples in 1633; it was rebuilt in 1760.
The other is Sant'Aspreno al Porto
on the other side of the old city off of what is now
the wide main street, Corso Umberto. Historically,
this church is more interesting than the other one,
since the origins, they say, go back to the first
century A.D; that is, it was the home of Aspren,
where he lived when he met Peter when the Apostle stopped
in Naples on the way to Rome. Indeed, Aspren is said
to have been converted by Peter, himself. The site is
documented as a church as early as the eighth century;
it was rebuilt in the 17th century. The urban renewal
of Naples, the risanamento,
in the 1890s led to the church being incorporated into
the side of the new Stock Exchange building. As a
house of worship, it is closed; it is open to
sight-seers only occasionally. It holds a number of
salvaged bits and pieces of another paleo-Christian
church, nearby San Pietro ad Aram,
part of which was torn down during the risanamento.
So far, nothing
strange—interesting buildings with an historic link to
But hold on. It turns out that in
Roman Catholic hagiology, St. Aspren is the one that
you invoke in order to get rid of a headache! How
can this be? Aspren? Aspirin? Aspirin is a
brand name for the miraculous (!) pain-killer,
acetylsalicylic acid; the name Aspirin was
invented by the Bayer corporation in Germany and
first marketed in 1899. How can something as
similar-sounding as "Aspren"—the first bishop of
Naples— also be the name of a
saint you call on when you have a headache? How can
this be a coincidence? I don't think I buy the
official etymology of A (for Acetly-) plus -spir (from Spirsäure—German
the plant from which the drug is derived) plus -IN (to make it
sound like a medicine.) Perhaps...
Section 2683 of the Roman Catholic
Catechism tell us that saints...
...contemplate God, praise him and constantly care for those whom they have left on earth...[and that]... intercession is their most exalted service to God's plan. We can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world...Thus most ailments and misfortunes have a saint you can turn to for intercession: Bernardino of Siena for lung problems, Deicolus for childhood diseases, Epipodius for victims of betrayal or torture, etc. There are many hundreds.
Whom should I call? I imagine, but don't know, that there is an office in the Vatican that determines what saint gets invoked for what ailment. I want to know if there is also a section of that office reserved for mischievous saint-choosers with way too much time on their hands. I mean, how long can there have been a saint for headaches, anyway! Maybe 1899?
Scene: the Vatican, 1899. Two monks, Fra
Luigi and Fra Guido, are doing the crossword puzzle
in the Osservatore Romano.
Uh...eight letters...for rabies...uh...
Luigi: Huh? 1, 2, 3...yep. that fits. Nice going. How did you know that one?
Guido: Got bit once.
Luigi: Oh. OK. Wait a second... I have a headache.
Guido: Headache? Hold on...mmmm...I don't think there IS one.
Luigi: No, I said I have a headache. Have you got any of those new-fangled German pills...Aspirin? Is that what they're called?
Guido: What does he have to do with it?
Luigi: What does who have to do with what?
Guido: Aspren. You said St. Aspren. What does he...
Luigi: ...No. I said I have a headache and asked you for some Aspirin.
Guido: And I said that there IS no saint for head...wait a minute...I've got an idea...