Modern Miracle

When saints intervene nowadays, it tends to be in healthcare.

By Michael Paulson
July 12, 2009
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On a quiet Friday at the start of this month, Pope Benedict XVI made it official: the healing of a Marshfield man’s chronic back pain was a miracle, attributable to the intervention of John Henry Newman, an English cardinal who has been dead since 1890.

The Marshfield man is Jack Sullivan, a magistrate at Plymouth District Court and a deacon at a Pembroke parish, who had suffered crippling back pain that was relieved, twice, after he prayed for Newman’s help. After an exhaustive review of Sullivan’s medical history, the Vatican determined that his recovery could not be explained by medicine and appears to be permanent.

The miracle is the first to be attributed to Newman, an influential religious thinker and writer who is currently a candidate for sainthood.

The very idea of miracles may seem deeply at odds with modernity - the word, for many, conjures up images of biblical events like the parting of the Red Sea, or the raising of Lazarus; or paranormal phenomena, like weeping statues and apparitions of the Virgin Mary. But miracles remain an official part of the church bureaucracy, in large part because two official miracles are necessary before someone can be declared a saint - one for beatification, and the second for canonization.

Pope John Paul II, in fact, canonized people at a record-breaking rate, and Benedict, although acting at a slower pace than his predecessor, is still declaring saints in historically high numbers. So over the last several decades, there has been a paradoxical confluence of two phenomena: at the same time that medical science has become increasingly adept at explaining how the human body heals, the Roman Catholic Church is in need of - and finding - an increasing number of inexplicable healings. The result is an unusual process, in which the Vatican has had to develop a medical expertise to help separate remarkable but understandable recoveries from those healings for which medicine has no explanation.

“The irony is, if you want to have a miracle, you’ve got to have good science, because you’ve got to be able to rule out causes,” said Kenneth L. Woodward, author of “The Book of Miracles” and a contributing editor of Newsweek.

The parallel investigations of medical healings, by doctors seeking to understand the natural world and a church seeking signs of a supernatural realm, is a modern twist on the age-old tension between religion and science. The contrast has been particularly vivid in Catholicism, which has been more open to scientific inquiry than many faiths, but which also holds dear the idea that the divine intervenes in daily life. And the medical lab has become, somewhat improbably, the site where this grandeur of faith is discerned in the narrow specificity of science.

Saints play an important role in the devotional life of Catholics - they inspire art and prayer; their names are given to children, churches, and schools. Men and women are often proposed for sainthood as a result of having led virtuous lives, but it is their posthumous miracles that are considered evidence that the saints are now in heaven, able to intercede on behalf of those who seek their help.

In the past, miracles tended to be more fantastical, such as St. Francis of Assisi taming the fierce wolf of Gubbio. But in the modern world, as the Vatican has sought to protect the integrity of the canonization process at a time when science can explain much that previously seemed incomprehensible, official miracles are now found almost exclusively in the realm of medical healings.

“The church requires its miracles to be verifiable, and normally the ones that are easiest to verify (in the sense of “scientific” evidence) are healings from illness,” said the Rev. James Martin, an associate editor of America magazine and the author of “My Life with the Saints.” “They must be immediate, permanent (no relapsing), not attributable to any other treatments, clearly documented by medical evidence, and the result of intentional prayers for the saint’s intercession.”

The process of canonizing saints in the Catholic Church, informal during the first millennium of Christianity, has become increasingly regulated over the last eight centuries or so, and in 1983 Pope John Paul II spelled out, in a document called “Divinus Perfectionis Magister,” a simplified set of rules for declaring sainthood.

When someone attributes a miracle to a possible saint, the bishop in the local diocese is supposed to seek help from a doctor who will help question witnesses, bring in experts to examine the beneficiary of the alleged miracle, and then send a transcript of the investigation to the Vatican. In Rome, the office charged with assessing candidates for sainthood - the Congregation for the Causes of Saints - has a board of medical experts who consider whether the healing lacks any known scientific explanation. The question of whether it was truly miraculous then goes to theologians, and ultimately the pope.

The investigations are supposed to be conducted without bias for or against sainthood. The rules tell bishops to avoid giving the impression that their inquiry “carries with it the certitude that the Servant of God will be one day canonized.” In an effort at dispassionate analysis, the physicians called in by the church to assess alleged miracles are often not practicing Catholics.

These investigations are going on around the world, including a number in the US. In Baltimore, the church is investigating whether Mary Ellen Heibel’s recovery from terminal cancer is a miracle attributable to the intercession of the late Rev. Francis X. Seelos, a 19th-century Maryland priest; in Wichita, Kan., the church is investigating whether Chase Kear’s recovery from a head injury is a miracle attributable to the late Rev. Emil Kapaun, a heroic Army chaplain who died in the Korean War in 1951.

And there are local sainthood causes awaiting miracles too: in Springfield, a Passionist priest who died in 1974, the Rev. Theodore Foley, needs a miracle to advance his cause; in Easton, supporters of the canonization of the Rev. Patrick Peyton, who died in 1992, are inviting evidence via a website that instructs “anyone having substantiated, documentable information regarding the intervention of the Servant of God Patrick Peyton, CSC, in response to prayer requests, to forward such information,” and featuring a list of anecdotes from people claiming a variety of positive turns of events that they attribute to Peyton’s posthumous intercession.

It’s not easy to have a miracle declared. A miraculous healing is supposed to be permanent - meaning relapses are often ruled out as miracles - and church officials pride themselves on rigorous investigations. At Lourdes, the Catholic pilgrimage site in France that is visited annually by millions, so many people claim miraculous healings from the sacred waters that the church has set up a medical bureau on-site. Of the thousands of alleged cures there, fewer than 70 have been affirmed as miraculous.

Even doctors who are skeptical about miracles acknowledge the Vatican is onto something - that in the realm of medicine, there are still fairly deep mysteries that lurk behind what we think we understand.

“The more you know, you realize how much you don’t know,” said Patrick McNamara, director of the Evolutionary Neurobehavior Laboratory at the Boston University School of Medicine, and the author of a chapter on miracle healings.

“If you ask any scholar or scientist, they’ll say, on the one hand, there is real progress, but on the other hand, it seems like every day we realize we just skim the surface about so much, and we’re in the dark about so many things. Mystery is a reality.”

Some Catholic thinkers are questioning whether the church still needs to rely on miracles for canonizations, especially in cases where the figures being considered for sainthood have earthly achievements that seem to dwarf their reported posthumous accomplishments.

The two most prominent pending candidates for sainthood are Pope John Paul II and Mother Teresa, and in both cases the public has essentially already declared each of them saintly - at John Paul II’s funeral, voices in the crowd shouted “Santo Subito,” Italian for “Sainthood Now,” and Mother Teresa was widely revered for her saintliness even while alive. And yet, despite their enormous impact on millions of people, in each case, church officials are painstakingly collecting evidence of individual healings and weighing the evidence before moving ahead with the process.“I’ve often thought that there ought to be alternative ways to honor publicly heroic people in the church - people consider Mother Teresa a saint irrespective of whether or not the Vatican comes up with miraculous events due to her intercession,” said Lawrence S. Cunningham, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and the author, most recently, of “A Brief History of Saints.” “But in the ancient church, a saint was a saint if at that saint’s tomb or shrine, miracles occurred. So that connection would be hard to get away from.”

Martin, a firm believer in miracles, sees their existence as “a sign of God’s care for people, and a sign of the saints’ prayers.”

“The miracle is the final indication to the church that this person was holy, because we believe that the intercession shows the person is in heaven,” he said. “The people who are popularly acclaimed in their lifetime - these are the people that end up becoming saints - but the bar is pretty high, and the miracle is proof.”

Michael Paulson is the religion writer for the Globe. E-mail