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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

Ironically, they use the latest medical techniques to substantiate something that is as far from modern science as can be. They pore over CT scans, pharmaceutical regimes and medical reports supplied by physicians who treated the person allegedly healed by the miracle.

On average, five Consulta Medica doctors examine a case, and three of the five must agree that the criteria are met. Cortesini noted that most cases that reach the Consulta Medica have already been thoroughly screened, thus the relatively high rate of approval by his board.

The doctors do not utter the word "miracle," however. That is a theological determination, not a medical one. They simply judge whether the cure is complete and without scientific explanation. Next, a panel of theologians, cardinals and priests establishes that the cure came as a result of someone praying to the candidate.

Cortesini, 72, reviewed and approved the case of a girl in Massachusetts a few years ago who swallowed a bottle of Tylenol and lapsed into a coma with a damaged liver. Awaiting a possible liver transplant but fast losing hope, the girl's family prayed to Edith Stein. The lesions on the girl's liver disappeared, according to the case literature, and she recovered completely.

Stein, a Jew who converted to Catholicism and was killed in a Nazi concentration camp, was canonized five years ago this month. The sainthood granted Stein, who became Teresa Benedict of the Cross, has been roundly criticized by Jewish groups who contend that she was killed not because of her Catholicism but because of her Judaism, which the canonization obscures.

Cortesini was also impressed by the case of a Chilean firefighter who was electrocuted in an accident. He was pronounced dead, his heart and brain apparently stopped. When his family prayed to Juana Fernandez Solar, he abruptly came to, unscathed. Solar, who died in 1920, was beatified in 1987 and became St. Teresa de Jesus de los Andes in 1993.

Noting that many of the medical reports that reach the Consulta are by non-Catholic doctors (though all members of the Consulta are Catholic), Cortesini said he is convinced the board is able to eliminate cases of hysteria, or psychosomatic conditions, and is dealing with truly sick people who became well in ways inexplicable by science.

"It is not a matter of imagination or illusion," the doctor said. "You are at the border of reality. You are somewhere between the natural and supernatural. You can touch the supernatural."

This might seem odd talk coming from a man of science. But he and other members of the board seem comfortable, even satisfied, with their role in promoting saints. They see no contradiction between science and faith.

Quite the contrary, said Dr. Patrizio Poliska, a cardiologist who has served on the board for 15 years. "Faith and science can coexist in harmony," he said in an interview at Rome's European Hospital, where he practices. "I can understand [the skepticism], but speaking as a Christian man I must refer to the New Testament, and there, the miracles of Jesus are written. It's not a joke."

Cortesini was on the panel that judged the miracle attributed to Mother Teresa, who died in 1997 at the age of 87. It involves a Bengali tribal woman named Monica Besra from a remote east Indian village who was reputedly suffering from an ovarian tumor so awful and huge that she could no longer eat or drink.

Sent to die in 1998 at a hospice founded by Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity, Besra was attended by two nuns who placed a medallion with Teresa's image against her sick abdomen. Besra recovered, and the tumor disappeared. "This is divine intervention," Cortesini said.

Others are not so sure, especially in Besra's home region. At least one of her doctors has said she received extensive medical treatment that should be credited with shrinking the tumor. Even her husband initially told interviewers that he doubted the miracle -- although he has more recently come on board.

Admired enormously by the pope and internationally famed, Mother Teresa is on the fast track. Normally five years must pass after the candidate's death before the beatification process can begin, and the process itself usually takes many more years. John Paul ordered that an exception be made, and she will be named "blessed" in record time. In fact, there was a movement, ultimately squashed, that advocated skipping beatification and elevating her straight to sainthood.

Even so, Teresa's supporters have worked endlessly to compile a complete volume of records documenting her case. More than 100 witnesses answered a 263-question survey, and a 35,000-page, 80-volume report was assembled, according to the promoter of her cause, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk.

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