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Confirming Miracles Is Art and Science

To judge the works of candidates for sainthood, doctors are enlisted to recognize the unexplainable.

October 14, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

VATICAN CITY — Cancer is cured. Bleeding is stopped. Third-degree burns vanish overnight.

These and many, many more examples are on record as authenticated miracles that are the essential -- and most unusual -- step in the naming of a saint by the pope, leader of the world's Roman Catholic Church.

John Paul II, who on Thursday marks 25 years as pontiff, has set the record for canonizing saints and beatifying potential saints. He has given the title to more people than all his predecessors in the last four centuries combined, according to Vatican statistics: 476 saints as of Oct. 5.

On Sunday, the pope will add to the roster of "the blessed" by beatifying Mother Teresa of Calcutta, the petite nun with the white-and-blue sari whose ascent has generated a bit of controversy, because of both its unprecedented swift pace and questions about the miracle included in her dossier.

It is in the field of miracles, however, that the church's medieval traditions intersect with the modern edifices of science and knowledge. In some ways, it is the miracle that most tests one's faith.

"There is always an element of faith where science ends and faith takes over," said Monsignor Robert J. Sarno, an official with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Vatican office that investigates the cases of potential saints.

"We have to be courageous enough to admit that science is not the only truth in human existence," said Sarno, a New Yorker who has been doing this kind of work for 22 years. "While it plays an essential part, it doesn't explain all human reality ... [and] it does not satisfy all human needs."

The requirements for sainthood are specific, and the men who prepare and authenticate the cases are meticulous and serious. "We have nothing to do with crying statues," Sarno said.

In a dusty library on the third floor of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, just off St. Peter's Square, row after row of shelves hold thousands and thousands of documents attendant to the claims of holiness going back centuries.

To be considered, candidates for beatification and sainthood -- they are known as servants of God -- must have widespread reputations for holiness that have grown and deepened years after their death.

And they must be known to have "intercessionary" powers. That means a believer can pray to the candidate requesting intercession with God to grant a favor, which may be the cure of a serious medical problem.

Those two points established, supporters of a particular servant of God embark on a long and expensive lobbying campaign that includes the accumulation of documents and eyewitness reports establishing that the candidate lived a life of "heroic Christian virtue."

Then comes the miracle.

In 1983, under John Paul's guidance, the process of beatification and canonization was streamlined to allow people to become saints more quickly. The pope, aides say, wanted to make saints a larger and more diverse group to show that holiness is within the reach of all good Catholics. Critics said the changes, including the elimination of the devil's advocate, whose role was to challenge each candidate and force greater scrutiny, allow for political manipulation of the process.

Among the reforms was a significant reduction in the number of miracles required. People who are "martyrs" -- killed because of their Catholic faith -- can be beatified without a miracle and then need just one miracle to become a saint. Others need two, one to be beatified, a second to make the final leap to sainthood.

Miracles almost always involve cures in part because many of Jesus Christ's miracles were related to healing. Also, Sarno said, it is when one is sick or dying that one most likely prays to God for help.

At the midpoint of the last century, the Vatican established a medical board, the Consulta Medica, consisting of about 100 prestigious doctors who are asked to examine the cures. To be considered miraculous, a cure -- coming after the believer has prayed to the potential saint -- must be instantaneous or sudden, complete and permanent, and without scientific explanation.

Dr. Raffaello Cortesini, a heart-transplant specialist who served as president of the board for two decades until retiring last year, has seen, he believes, many a miracle. Of about 500 cases he reviewed in his long career with the Consulta, roughly half have met the criteria for miraculous cures.

He's seen cases of tumors that vanished and cerebral lobes that regenerated, he said. Cervical cancer cured overnight. Expired hearts and brains jumping back to life.

"It's really impressive," he said in a telephone interview from New York, where he is working at Columbia University hospital. "Every time, we try to find an explanation, but we don't."

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