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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

In addition to his enormous slate of saints, John Paul has beatified more than 1,300 people. They are a diverse bunch, including, for the first time, a lay couple. They are eligible for sainthood, but another miracle, performed after the date of beatification, must be authenticated first.

Junipero Serra, the Franciscan friar who founded California's system of missions in the 18th century, was beatified in 1988 on the strength of what was judged to be the miraculous recovery from lupus by a nun in St. Louis who prayed for his intercession.

The pope beatified Marija of Jesus Crucified, a Croatian nun, after a Peruvian submarine captain whose vessel was sinking prayed to her for salvation. The ship was saved in what the Vatican certified was a miracle.

Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer, founder of the ultraconservative and powerful Opus Dei sect, was made a saint last year, in record time; the miracle attributed to him involved a Spanish physician, Manuel Nevado, who in 1992 prayed to Escriva for help and was cured of an otherwise-incurable form of skin cancer known as chronic radiodermatitis.

Aware that many skeptics see all of this as little more than hocus-pocus, some priests downplay the critical role of miracles in judging a potential saint's qualifications.

"Miracles are not the essence, they are an accidental element," said Father Peter Gumpel, a Jesuit priest who has worked in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints for 40 years, half of them as a relator, a kind of overseer. "We concentrate on the life. The miracle is the confirmation."

A divine confirmation, he added, that gives the congregation an assurance that it hasn't missed something when it judges a servant of God fit to become a saint.

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