THEY NEED A MIRACLE

Giuseppe Frassinetti (died 1868), a holy priest and founder of a religious order, would be a saint today--like his sister, Paola--except for one thing: he lacks two miracles credited to his intercession. The Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints has a list of several hundred candidates who need one or more of the miracles required for canonization. Some are recent and sure to be saints, like Pope John XXIII and Mother Teresa, who already has 600 "divine favors" (unverified, possible miracles) credited to her intercession. Other candidates, like Jesuit Father Miguel Pro, who was executed by the Mexican government in the "Christero" rebellion in 1927, and Belgian Father Damien DeVeuster (1840-1889), who ministered to lepers on the island of Molokai, have been stalled for decades.

Last month Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone of Genoa, formerly a high Vatican official, caused a huge stir in the European press by openly criticizing the church's rules for making saints. Frassinetti would be a saint today, he complained, if the church would only relax the miracle requirement. Indeed, Bertone said that his former boss, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope's closest adviser on church doctrine, had told him he would take up the matter with John Paul II himself.

Is the church about to change the millennium-old requirement that miracles are necessary for canonization? Not in this pope's lifetime. John Paul II has already eased the path to sainthood by reducing the number of required miracles from four to two: one for beatification, a second following beatification for canonization. More he will not do. "I spoke with the pope about this issue some years ago," says Jesuit Peter Gumpel, a senior member of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. "The pope said, 'I will leave that problem to my successor.' He smiled when he said it."

The power to work miracles has always been expected of saints--not only in the Roman Catholic tradition but among Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims as well. But in the Catholic Church, only miracles worked after the saint's death are considered as "divine signs," confirming that the candidate is truly worthy of veneration. This presupposes that there are believers who will pray to the candidate for miracles, usually cures. And there's the rub. For example, buried in a side altar inside St. Peter's Basilica lie the remains of Pope Innocent XI. He died in 1689 and, because of fierce political opposition from the French, was not beatified until 1956. But few Catholics living today remember him, and fewer yet are likely to seek his intercession for a miracle.

The bigger problem, however, is that most modern miracles approved by the church are inexplicable healings that require testimony from attending physicians. The church solicits a doctor's statement and records it to be sure that the cures wrought through prayer cannot be explained by science. "Getting doctors to collaborate is not always easy," says Father Paul Chavasse, the British priest in charge of the cause of Cardinal John Henry Newman, a towering figure in 19th-century Catholicism. The pope acknowledged as much when he declared in 1986 that "the cases of physical healings are becoming more rare."

In response, some members of the saints congregation have argued for recognition of nonphysical "moral miracles." For instance, many reformed drunks kicked the habit after praying to an Irish candidate, Matt Talbot, a reformed alcoholic himself. But one member of the saints congregation, Dominican Friar Ambrose Esser, believes the best proof of such a miracle would still be a physical one: the reformed drunk who took a drink and did not become addicted again.

There is in any case considerable evidence that the reluctance of many physicians to corroborate miraculous cures is largely a cultural issue. In highly secular northern Europe, doctors are very likely to believe that science will someday explain cures that today they themselves cannot. But in most other cultures, doctors are not so agnostic about inexplicable healings. In a recent survey of 1,100 office-based physicians in the United States, conducted for the Jewish Theological Seminary, 55 percent said that they had witnessed "medical miracles" in their work. Even so, the church believes God makes many more saints than the official few credited with miracles.

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