The mystery behind a miracle

What exactly is a miracle? How does the Church decide which ones are real? And what do we do when we don’t get the miracle we prayed for?

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By Leslie Scanlon

Monsignor Fred Easton is not exactly the first person who’d jump to mind when one thinks about miracles. Trained as a canon lawyer, the judicial vicar for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis is by nature of his profession rational and methodical. He also came face-to-face a few years ago with the miracle of Phil McCord.

McCord, the son of a Baptist lay minister, was then the director of facilities maintenance for the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods near Terre Haute, Indiana. McCord had had trouble with his vision since childhood. By the fall of 2000, with the development of cataracts in both eyes, his eyesight had grown much worse.

On September 21, 2000, McCord had surgery on his left eye, but a second surgery about a month later on his other eye did not fix the problem. By the end of 2000, McCord was facing the possibility and the risks of a corneal transplant.
Discouraged, McCord was walking one day in early January 2001 past the Church of the Immaculate Conception at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. He heard organ music coming from inside and almost by instinct followed the music into the church. McCord sat down in a pew.

There, roughly familiar with the Catholic tradition of praying for saints’ intercession, he prayed to Mother Theodore Guerin, the founder of the Sisters of Providence mission, to ask God to improve his vision or to give him the strength to endure the surgery.

McCord was not a great man of prayer. He said later he wasn’t exactly sure why he did what he did. But he prayed for healing. And by the next morning he got it.

When McCord woke up the next day, he looked in the mirror and thought his eye looked better. When he went to the ophthalmologist, the doctor confirmed it. He did not need surgery, and there was no medical explanation for why the eye had healed.

“The whole thing went away. This just doesn’t happen,” Easton says. In time, McCord’s case was carefully documented. Testimony was presented at a hearing in Indiana, and the medical evidence was reviewed by a panel of five doctors in Rome. His became the second miracle formally attributed to Guerin, a French-born nun who founded schools and orphanages for children in Indiana and died in 1856. Pope Benedict XVI canonized her on Oct. 15, 2006 as St. Theodora.
McCord could not be reached for an interview for this story, but for Easton, who served as the delegated judge for the McCord hearing in Indiana, the experience confirmed that — even in this skeptical, postmodern, scientific age — miracles really are possible.

While the popular conception of a miracle can be wide ranging (“It’s a miracle!” rings out for everything from finding that long-lost set of car keys to winning the lottery), the Catholic Church has a specific definition for the kind of miracle formally recognized in a canonization process.

“It has to be a physical miracle, normally one that’s easily demonstrable, that could not have happened by any other means,” Easton says. “That’s the key,” that there can be no other scientific or medical explanation.

“It’s nailed down pretty much by the doctors, and especially then by the doctors in Rome, those five people whose task it is to pick holes in all the arguments. And [in the McCord case] they didn’t find any holes,” Easton says.

In this age of technological wonders, doctors can diagnose and treat many diseases that, not so long ago, would have been fatal. It would be natural for people in the 21st century to put their faith in science, not miraculous healing. But while some do scoff, it seems that most people do believe in miracles.

A Harris poll in November 2007 found that nearly eight in 10 American adults believe in miracles. In 2000 a Newsweek poll showed that 84 percent of Americans believe that God performs miracles, nearly eight in 10 think the miracles in the Bible really took place, and more than six in 10 say they know someone who claims to have experienced one. Three-fourths of American Catholics say they pray for miracles.

Miracle stories are found in many of the major religious traditions. In the Catholic Church, the recognition of a miracle requires a rigorous process of verification. The Church will not declare a person to be a saint until the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints determines that two miracles — typically miracles of physical healing, attributed to the candidate’s intercession — have taken place following the candidate’s death.

Many of these are essentially private stories of miraculous cures, brought forward in the hopes they will lead to the canonization of a revered figure to whom Catholics often have been praying for years. But in ordinary life, miracles — at least the hope of them, the desire for them — float closer to the surface. People pray for miracles in their dark hours, and some do tell remarkable stories of healing.

“What I have witnessed here has just been astonishing,” says Father Byron Miller, a Redemptorist priest who works at the National Shrine of Blessed Father Xavier Seelos in New Orleans. Seelos has already been beatified and so has one miracle already officially attributed to him. Part of Miller’s job is to search for and document a second one so that Seelos can achieve sainthood.

The back page of every newsletter from the Seelos Center is filled with testimonials to Seelos’ intercessions, with cures from cancer and drug addiction and other ailments. Here’s one story: A 6-year-old girl with encephalitis was suffering seizures; doctors said she could be left in a vegetative state. After prayers were offered for Seelos’ intercession, she began to improve almost immediately and made a full recovery.

There is much to be learned, theologians and Scripture scholars say, from what the Bible and Church history attribute to miracles. What do the miracles in the Bible — from Joshua stopping the sun and moon in the sky to Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead — teach us about the nature of God and how God works in the world, both at the beginning of creation and in our high-tech day?

John Cavadini, an associate professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame and the author of Miracles in Christian and Jewish Antiquity: Imagining the Truth, points out that the stunning nature of a miracle is not the real story. A true miracle points to something bigger.

A miracle is essentially a challenge to “repent and believe in the Gospel,” Cavadini says. It’s a chance to wake up, to reform one’s life.

What about widely publicized “miracles” like Mary appearing in a grilled cheese sandwich?

“The media has an investment in spectacle,” Cavadini says. “That’s exactly what a true miracle is not. It is not a spectacle — this is not something done to call attention to itself. It’s done to call attention to something else. It’s a sign,” a dramatic reminder of God’s presence and power.

Also, not everything that seems impossible to explain is necessarily a miracle. “A miracle is not identically equal to a violation of natural law,” Cavadini says. “The idea of violation of natural law can be considered as an element of what makes something truly miraculous. But it’s not sufficient by itself.”

Let’s say, for example, that Cavadini were able to levitate — something he’d love to do. “They would talk about it, and I’d get famous and I’d go down in Notre Dame lore. It would be a violation of natural law, but it wouldn’t be a miracle,” because it would point to him and not to God.

The miracle, in other words, is not an end unto itself. It’s part of the ongoing story of God.

One clue to that: In the Bible God often shows a preference for the poor in working miracles. “A lot of the people for whom miracles are worked are people who some would consider worthless, I suppose,” Cavadini says. “Praying for a miracle at a time of desperate need is pretty much a way of acknowledging our poverty and asking for God to enrich us in a way that God sees fit.”

So why are some granted miracles and others not? Why does God heal some and let others die?

When healing is granted, “The miracle is not primarily for the person healed, but for all people, as a sign of God’s work in the ultimate healing called ‘salvation,’ or a sign of the kingdom that is coming,” Cavadini says.

He adds, “God does not actively will death or disease — to the contrary — and miracles are a sign of God’s working to undo death and disease once and for all, in a time when ‘He will wipe away every tear’” (Revelation 21:4).

Monsignor Frank Giusta, for more than 30 years a parish priest, now works as a Catholic chaplain at Emory University Hospital in Georgia. Giusta says he’s been surprised to find that, even when patients know they may die soon, often they achieve a kind of peace, little by little. “They are the ones who usually tell me, ‘We are in God’s hands.’”

While many pray for physical healing — sometimes even for a miracle — they also pray for God’s will to be done, Giusta says. And if physical healing does not occur, he says, “they are ready to accept it. There’s really a sense of peace, both in patients and in their families, when they are really confronted with issues of life and death. There’s a lot of anger in the beginning, dismay, and shock. But if the sickness progresses, I really notice that very often there’s a sense of peace,” rather than anger at God.

“There is a transformation,” Giusta says. “Something changes in their spirits. That in itself is healing. That is to me the miracle right there.” CD

Leslie Scanlon

Leslie Scanlon is a writer and former newspaper columnist from Kentucky. This article appeared in the June 2009 issue (Vol. 74, No. 6, page 12) of U.S. Catholic.