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John Thavis | author
Jun 02, 2014
Filed under Columns

John XXIII & the missing miracle

John Thavis writes that under Pope Francis, miracles might just be redefined  . . .

John Thavis

John Thavis

When Pope Francis was informed last year that a second miracle had been approved for the sainthood cause of Pope John Paul II, opening the way for his canonization, he asked his Vatican aides: What about John XXIII?

Francis was told there were several reported miracles being studied for Pope John, who was beatified in 2000 and needed one more verified miracle to be canonized. That was all Pope Francis had to hear. He proposed — and naturally, Vatican cardinals gave their assent — that the second miracle requirement be waived for John XXIII so that he could be declared a saint together with John Paul II.

The move startled some Vatican officials, who are known to be sticklers when it comes to the centuries-old saint-making procedures. But in effect, Francis seemed to be harkening back to a more ancient tradition of declaring someone a saint on the basis of certa scientia, sure and certain knowledge that the person was truly holy. It fits with Francis’ tendency to cut through red tape, but it raised a question: Was this a sign of things to come?

In fact, Francis has canonized five other saints without authenticated miracles. He did so using a process called “equivalent canonization,” in which a pope waives the normal rules in cases where the person has been venerated for a long period of time, and his or her fame of miraculous intercession is well established.

That’s a process Pope Benedict XVI used once, when he declared sainthood for Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century abbess, mystic and Doctor of the Church. Does that mean authenticating miracles is on its way out as the Church’s means of verifying sainthood?

Not so fast, say Vatican experts in sainthood causes. They emphasized that, for John XXIII, there were so many miracles under study that approval of one of them seemed a foregone conclusion. Miraculous intercession is still seen as “divine confirmation” of the human judgment on a person’s saintliness, they said, and for now it remains a general requirement for canonization.

But as Monsignor Robert Sarno, a U.S. official at the Congregation for Saints’ Causes, pointed out, the miracle requirement is ecclesiastical practice, not divine law. “It’s not that a miracle is divinely required,” he said. “What is divinely required is holiness of life. By martyrdom or holiness of life, these saints have attained the goal of heaven, by following Christ more closely. The key thing about sainthood is imitating their lives, not looking for a miracle.”

Some have asked why Mother Teresa, beatified in 2003, couldn’t be declared a saint without approval of a second miracle. Vatican officials say that could happen. She clearly has fame of holiness, as did John XXIII.

For years, there’s been a quiet debate at the Vatican over the types of miracles used in sainthood causes. Until 1983, two miracles were generally required for beatification and two more for canonization. John Paul II reduced the number to one miracle for each phase of the process (martyrs, however, can be beatified without a miracle).

Today, almost all approved miracles are permanent, instantaneous medical cures following prayers to an intercessor. The healings must be unexplained by medical science and verified by a panel of medical experts. But some have suggested that in addition to medical healings, the Church should consider other kinds of miracles in evaluating sainthood causes.

Fr. Paolo Molinari, SJ, who has worked on sainthood causes in Rome for more than 50 years, said medical miracles are more easily verified in richer countries, where medical facilities and experts can conduct the necessary examinations. In a place like the Congo, for example, such resources are lacking. As a result, he said, the Church’s sainthood process risks discriminating against poorer countries.

Father Molinari wonders whether the Church’s experts might find a way to also recognize “moral miracles,” like a sudden conversion after a spouse’s prayers, or a child who quits drugs after prayers by a mother or father, or other dramatic spiritual changes and gifts.

Years ago, Fr. Molinari took his concerns to John Paul II, who had said that he wanted more modern men and woman canonized. The pope listened sympathetically, Fr. Molinari said, but never changed the rules. And when John Paul was himself declared a saint, it was after two medical miracles attributed to his intercession.

Now, with Pope Francis at the helm, some believe the Vatican may give a new look to the sainthood process, and perhaps new meaning to the phrase “it’s a miracle!”

JOHN THAVIS is a speaker, author of “The Vatican Diaries,” and the former Rome bureau chief for Catholic News Service.


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