Saturday, July 6, 2013

Its a Miracle Indeed!

We have recently heard the beautiful (but not unexpected) news that Pope Francis has given his final approval for the canonization of Blessed John Paul II. A very rigorous scientific, theological, and ecclesiastical investigation has given its recognition to what the Church calls a miracle.

A woman in Costa Rica was completely healed of a cerebral hemorrhage shortly after watching John Paul II's beatification on television. She has testified that she heard him speak to her from a magazine picture.

At this point, people might start rolling their eyes. But this is not the end of the story. Her doctor was amazed to find that her brain hemorrhage (which was of a particular kind, and which neurologists have subjected to very careful study) was simply gone... without a trace. It wasn't a "reversal," or a remission or some kind of gradual (albeit unusual) healing process. It had simply disappeared.

People get "the willies" when they hear this kind of stuff. People say, "ho, there must be some natural explanation...."

This is not an unreasonable reaction. In fact, no one gets "the willies" about these things more than the Catholic Church. The Church receives so many reports of "miracles" that all the hard drives and clouds of the cyberworld do not have enough bytes to hold the data that would be needed to contain them! The vast majority of these phenomena are handled by the pastoral care of local churches. Very few reports make it to the Vatican. And the vast majority of those reports, even, don't pass the Vatican's tremendously strict scientific standards.

But in this case, the doctor, his professional colleagues, and other experts were amazed. The woman was tested further. The amazement only grew.

But even the amazement of scientists is not enough for the Church.

When considering a reported miracle in a canonization cause, the Church asks scientists if there is any possible natural explanation for what has taken place. Scientists have to go beyond what they immediately see, in order to consider what might be possible.

Finally, the report goes to the medical board of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. A panel of experts is assembled. Non-believing scientists are welcome, indeed encouraged to participate. This panel passes on their assessment, and only if they have concluded that the event cannot be explained by natural causes does the report proceed to the next stages of evaluation.

For all practical purposes, its impossible to cheat this process. Contrary to widespread prejudice, the Church is not credulous or superstitious. The formal recognition of a miracle comes only after an extremely cautious and rationally exhaustive investigation by scientists, i.e. people who work in their fields and who do not work for the Church.

Only at this point does the Church's authority take up the consideration of the event as a special divine action, and whether or not it can be directly linked to the prayers of a figure being considered for sainthood.

The term miracle is often misunderstood. A miracle is an event that takes place through the extraordinary intervention of God in the world. A miracle is a work of God. When a person prays to a saint for a miracle, the result is not that the saint performs it by his or her own power. Rather the saint, who remains united with people on earth as a brother or sister in God's great family of love in Christ, prays to God with the person and for the person. If God wills it, He performs the miracle in response to the prayers of the saint.

Sometimes we say, "Saint Joseph cured me," but this is a kind of shorthand. What we mean by this is that "God cured me in answer to the prayers of St. Joseph" or "through the intercession of St. Joseph."

Of course, everything is a miracle, in a way. Everything comes from the Mystery of God who creates and sustains all things in their being and activity. But the God who utterly transcends all things can act with a special expression of His power and love that goes "beyond" the order of the universe that He creates and sustains. These are the "miracles" -- the "works of wonder" -- in which He reveals and communicates in a more profound way His goodness within the world.

The fundamental "miracle" at the center of the whole universe and in the life of every person is the stunning fact that God took on our human nature and became one of us, and that He dwells with us in Jesus Christ who lives in the Church.

The focus of the life of the Church is the miracle of the Eucharist in which Jesus is substantially present -- body, blood, soul, and divinity -- under the appearances of bread and wine. The Eucharist is not a merely symbolic commemoration of something that happened two thousand years ago. It is Christ present, here and now, so that crucified love can enter into and transform you and me. This is a miracle indeed.

It is also a miracle that the human being is raised up in Christ to a participation in the life of God, who is the communion of Eternal Love. And the human being sees more and more that the miracles of God's love are everywhere, penetrating every circumstance with His presence.

It is not surprising that we believe in miracles. We are called to a miraculous life of communion with God.

It is helpful to us and to the world, however, that God's power and love sometimes flow over into further wonders. Sometimes God manifests His saving presence in a special and unusual way that results in concrete effects that can be analyzed (up to a point) by human understanding within the more mundane realms of the empirical sciences, or even in a way that is evident to the simple observation of the human senses.

These are the kind of events we tend to call "miracles" -- the blind see, the lame walk, the withered hand is restored before one's very eyes, ravaging diseases disappear. These things happen in ways that can't be accounted for by ordinary causes; they go beyond anything that can be explained by the internal workings of the universe. They are special acts that have God's signature upon them -- special interventions of God's power, authority, goodness, and compassion.

It is important to emphasize again that only God can perform miracles. Jesus did such things on His own authority as a way of manifesting that He was God. A created person, however, can at most be an instrument or an occasion for a miracle, which remains the expression of God's sovereign power. It is the furthest thing from any kind of trick or abnormal event brought about by a person's harnessing of some hidden intraworldly power. It is not magic or fakery or superstition. It is the hand of God at work in our midst

The Church looks for a true manifestation of God's presence, power, authority and love in action -- a publicly verifiable "miracle" -- when she canonizes a saint. This is because the veneration of the saints involves the public invocation of their prayers by the Church in her liturgical worship, and the saints being proposed as special friends and helpers in the lives of the faithful. The life of the saint who is now in glory can be set forth for the inspiration and imitation of others. And the faithful are encouraged to pray to them with confidence. Through miracles, God gives clear signs that He wills to continue to spread His love in the world in particular ways through the prayers of the saints who live eternally in Jesus Christ.