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What price a miracle?
Bill Avent’s last piece for Webdiary was A gooey glob of yellow hubris
What Price a Miracle?'
On Friday night, in
Ho hum. $100,000. Proof — Ho bloody hum. How much reward money do you want to prove it isn't true, John? And what price a miracle? Of course, I remember, you secularists don't believe in miracles, do you? So try proving that none exists. Name your own reward. But bear in mind, if you are able to stretch your mind that far, that miracles rarely have anything to do with money.
Mary MacKillop had no money. She grew up in a poor family, and when she grew up she vowed to live her life in poverty. Examine the life she led, consider all she said and did, and see if you agree with me that if we all had a bit of what drove Sister Mary in us there would be less poverty in the world today. Less absurdity altogether, and no kiddies digging in the garbage dumps of the
While the Pope is here, surrounded by wealth and by anti-Catholic placards, he will visit Mary MacKillop's tomb. It is in a little chapel in
The Pope will probably contemplate and pray for guidance on whether or not she who stands so much higher than he should be declared a saint. Higher than he because she is already beatified, by his predecessor. From being excommunicated when she was 29, for the sin of leading her sisters in insubordination, and for refusing to stop singing so much, she is now being considered for sainthood. The one who declared her persona non grata, and then on his death bed changed his mind, or had his mind changed by his God, is long forgotten. He was Bishop Shiel, for those who need to know.
Being considered for sainthood is not quite correct. The Church readily concedes that there are many saints in Heaven who are not officially recognised as such on earth. The church does not create saints. All it can do is examine evidence to determine whether or not a person can be proved to be one. It is a laborious process. Some have been declared saints on the basis that they were martyrs to Christ. In other, more common cases, two essential things are taken into account. The first is whether or not the person lived a wholly holy life; to resolve this question the life in question is minutely picked apart and examined. The second is that at least two examples of miraculous intercession between people and their God, ascribed to the candidate for sainthood, can be established as real. People pray to figures they believe to be saints, and true saints are able successfully to lobby God on their behalf, is one overly simple way of putting it.
Such a thing may sound outlandish to our all too sophisticated, modern way of thinking, but the faithful might tell us to put those thoughts aside and consider the results. What we are having trouble with is the way of putting it. There are some things which we are simply at a loss to explain. We may be well advised to look beyond attempts to explain and understand, and instead try to appreciate the mystery itself. The world is full of such mysteries. Our self-satisfaction, our sophistication and dedication to scientific method can put blinkers on us. Jesus spoke of ears, but were he here today he may well say: He who has eyes, let him see.
Beatification requires less demanding criteria than canonisation. It calls for incontrovertible evidence of a faultless life, and only one miracle. Mary MacKillop was considered for beatification in 1995. Her life having been found faultless, the miracle attributed to her was then painstakingly studied. Despite every effort, no earthly explanation for what had happened could be found. Of all the hundreds of thousands of comparable illnesses examined, none other had without treatment spontaneously vanished without trace.
It involved the relapse a young woman who had been afflicted with leukaemia. She had responded well to treatment, and seemed to be cured. She was confident enough of her cure to become pregnant. During check-ups, though, it was discovered that her illness had returned. Now chemotherapy was not an option, if she wanted her pregnancy to continue. Her only options were termination or prayer. She settled for prayer, and prayed to Mary MacKillop. Some months later, on the 8th of August, the very anniversary of Mary MacKillop's death, her healthy baby boy was born. Without any medicine or treatment, the woman's leukaemia was inexplicably gone, never to return. She went on to have several more children in the years following.
The members of the Josephite Order now calling for the Blessed Mother Mary's canonisation can show evidence that she is universally revered. They have letters of devotion from all over the world. And pilgrimages to her tomb in
One of those being put forward for examination is that of another woman who suffered from cancer, in this case cancer of the lung and brain. No cure-oriented treatment was possible; doctors could only offer treatment to ease this woman's suffering. She was given weeks to live. A devout Catholic, she had a picture of Mary MacKillop, and a piece of cloth from a habit the nun had worn. She kept these with her day and night, and thought of little else; and the weeks turned to months, with no apparent deterioration of her condition. From all indications, the growth of her cancer seemed to be slowing down. Or perhaps, miracle of miracles, it might be stable, or even shrinking? When they X-rayed her head and chest to see how far her tumours had progressed, the doctors at first thought they must be looking at someone else's pictures. Her lungs and brain were perfectly healthy. There was no sign of any cancer at all.
Then there is the case of Sophie Delezio. Sophie, for the benefit of those who may be reading this from a country far from hers, is a little girl, now seven years old. When she was two, a car crashed through the wall of her day care centre. It pinned her to the floor, and burst into flames. She suffered burns to 85% of her body.
Doctors had never known anyone to survive burns so severe, let alone together with all the other injuries she had suffered. They suggested to her parents that the kindest thing to do might be to take her off life support. It was little short of miraculous that she had survived this far. If her injuries didn't kill her, the multiple and complicated operations needed to repair them surely would.
But Sophie's parents sought help from God, through Mary MacKillop. They insisted that their prayer card, and their relic, together with a photograph of Sophie, should be with their child throughout all her operations. And so what could be done for Sophie by the surgeons would be done; and everyone who believed in prayer prayed for her; and those who didn't believe in prayer wished they did. And who among the sceptics was in a mood to argue with the surgeon when he emerged from the operating theatre with the news: It's a miracle!" Sophie would survive. And as captivating a smile as the world has ever known would not be lost to it.
Was the surgeon a Catholic, or a secularist? I don't know. And it makes no difference. His reaction was spontaneous — it came from his heart, not his head. Sometimes things happen which make us believe, whether we are believers or not.
And then it all happened again. Sophie's life again seemed certain to be taken from us when she was struck by another car and flung from her wheelchair to suffer more horrendous injuries. More prayer, and a nation once again holding its breath.
Few who saw Sophie on their TV screens when eventually she emerged from hospital after her second accident will ever forget her words. From her wheelchair, swathed in bandages, she smiled the most beautiful smile anyone has ever seen and said: "I am feeling better now. And thank you, everyone, for caring about me."
That will do me for a miracle.
And thank you, Mary MacKillop, for answering people's prayers, if that's what you do; and for caring about what happens in the world.
We don't need to believe in a