A dive into Christian history reveals a rich miracle tradition. From the ministry of Jesus to the succeeding apostolic age, and down the centuries to the present day, miracles have always been present. They are signs that God is truly with us — that He loves us, cares about us and is with us always (Matt 28:19-20).
Christianity’s miracle tradition is copious, varied and extremely impressive. Its credibility has only increased in more modern times, ever since the Church further strengthened its investigative approach towards miraculous claims — a process that includes employing modern science, consulting relevant professionals, seeking formal witness testimony, collecting documentation, etc.
It will take a series of posts to cover each aspect of Christianity’s miracle tradition more deeply and do it justice. For now, in this blog post, we will examine the evidence for miraculous healings, particularly healings as a result of the intercession of the saints — our brothers and sisters in Christ who have gone ahead of us and now enjoy God’s full presence in Heaven. Although they have finished their earthly journey, these friends of ours continue to intercede for us (Rev 5:8; 8:3-4 and Heb 12:1), the church militant, for the sake of our well-being and so that ultimately, we will “finish our race”. Since these men and women lived lives of exemplary virtue, their prayers carry great weight with God, making them powerful intercessors (James 5:16).
With that said, let us get into our discussion on the topic!
A Cautious Church
Those familiar with the Church’s approach to miraculous claims know that they proceed with great caution and skepticism. In order for a healing to be approved as a formal miracle and used in the beatification or canonization process, it has to pass several stages. The first is a local investigation led by an uninvolved doctor, who is appointed by a bishop. If the case passes the local investigation, a comprehensive report on the healing is forwarded to the medical commission for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome, a panel of 62 doctors in various specialties. In order for the case to be approved by the committee, it must meet seven criteria:
- The disease must be serious and impossible, or at least very difficult, to cure by human means.
- The disease must not be in a stage at which it is liable to disappear shortly by itself.
- Either no medical treatment must have been given, or it must be certain that the treatment given has no reference to the cure.
- The cure must be spontaneous (this refers to the rate of recovery)
- The cure must be complete
- The cure must be permanent
- The cure must not be preceded by any crisis of a sort which would make it possible for the cure to be wholly or partially natural.
If a healing, however extraordinary, does not meet all seven criteria, the Church, while not denying that it may be supernatural in origin, withholds the formal title “miracle” to avoid the slightest taint of promoting spurious miracles. It must also be noted that no “religious tests” are done on the doctors assessing these cases of healing. The only criterion the Church cares about is the doctor’s competency in assessing the medical case in question.
If the panel decides that a healing meets all seven criteria and is “scientifically inexplicable”, they provide a report and recommendation to theologians, who assess whether the healing is due to supernatural factors — specifically the result of the intercession of the saint in question. After this step, the healing is evaluated by a special commission of cardinals and bishops, who review the findings of the doctors and theologians. If everything checks out, it is passed to the desk of the Pope, who signs off on the case in an official act of authentication. In the end, one can say that the process is a thorough examination of a possible miracle by two judges — science and faith.
The cautiousness, skepticism and thoroughness of the Church towards miraculous claims have been recognized by many outside of it, who are familiar with its processes.
Bill Briggs, a journalist for NBC News, described the Church’s process as “rigorous”. Commenting further, Briggs says:
“I think what would surprise people outside the church is how very dubious investigators are. To examine these claims, they look at hundreds, if not thousands, of medical records and other pieces of evidence. It’s the furthest thing from a rubber stamp”.
Dr. Richard Ferrara, a dermatologist, was asked to participate in a local investigation of Paula Zarate’s healing of ichthyosis, a genetic skin disease, by the intercession of Solanus Casey (this case will be discussed later in the article). He was tasked with looking for holes in the account and searching existing literature. Ultimately, he considered the process “very in-depth and involved”. Commenting on the process and the expectations of the Church, Ferrera said:
“It was a very interesting, touching process. They want us to be very impartial, to hold it up to scrutiny”.
Another medical professional and atheist, Jacalyn Duffin, also attests to the rigor of the Church’s investigation process. In a New York Times Op-Ed, she recounts her experience of being asked to do a blind reading, which she would later find out was for the Vatican. She also recalls her experience in later visiting the Vatican archives, to examine their documentation for miraculous healings used in the canonization process. Quoting her article at length:
Kingston, Ontario — THERE was no mistaking the diagnostic significance of that little red stick inside a deep blue cell: The Auer rod meant the mystery patient had acute myelogenous leukemia. As slide after slide went by, her bone marrow told a story: treatment, remission, relapse, treatment, remission, remission, remission.
I was reading these marrows in 1987, but the samples had been drawn in 1978 and 1979. Median survival of that lethal disease with treatment was about 18 months; however, given that she had already relapsed once, I knew that she had to be dead. Probably someone was being sued, and that was why my hematology colleagues had asked for a blind reading.
Imagining an aggressive cross-examination in court, I emphasized in my report that I knew neither the history nor why I was reading the marrows. After the work was submitted, I asked the treating physician what was going on. She smiled and said that my report had been sent to the Vatican. This leukemia case was being considered as the final miracle in the dossier of Marie-Marguerite d’Youville, the founder of the Order of Sisters of Charity of Montreal and a candidate to become the first Canadian-born saint”.
The “miracle” involving d’Youville had already been overturned once by the Vatican’s medical committee, unconvinced by the story of a first remission, a relapse, and a much longer second remission. The clerics argued that she had never relapsed and that her survival in first remission was rare but not impossibly so. But the panel and her advocates agreed that a “blind” reading of the evidence by another expert might provoke reconsideration. When my report confirmed what the Ottawa doctors found, that she had indeed had a short remission and then relapsed, the patient, who had prayed to d’Youville for help and, against all odds, was still alive, wanted me to testify.
The tribunal that questioned me was not juridical, but ecclesiastical. I was not asked about my faith. (For the record, I’m an atheist.) I was not asked if it was a miracle. I was asked if I could explain it scientifically. I could not, though I had come armed for my testimony with the most up-to-date hematological literature, which showed that long survivals following relapses were not seen.
When, at the end, the Vatican committee asked if I had anything more to say, I blurted out that as much as her survival, thus far, was remarkable, I fully expected her to relapse some day sooner or later. What would the Vatican do then, revoke the canonization? The clerics recorded my doubts. But the case went forward and d’Youville was canonized on Dec. 9, 1990.
That experience, as a hematologist, led me to a research project that I conducted in my other role, as a historian of medicine. I was curious: What were the other miracles used in past canonizations? How many were healings? How many involved up-to date treatments? How many were attended by skeptical physicians like me? How did all that change through time? And can we explain those outcomes now?
Over hundreds of hours in the Vatican archives, I examined the files of more than 1,400 miracle investigations — at least one from every canonization between 1588 and 1999. A vast majority — 93 percent over all and 96 percent for the 20th century — were stories of recovery from illness or injury, detailing treatment and testimony from baffled physicians.
Perversely then, this ancient religious process, intended to celebrate exemplary lives, is hostage to the relativistic wisdom and temporal opinions of modern science. Physicians, as nonpartisan witnesses and unaligned third parties, are necessary to corroborate the claims of hopeful postulants. For that reason alone, illness stories top miracle claims. I never expected such reverse skepticism and emphasis on science within the church.
Now almost 40 years later, that mystery woman is still alive and I still cannot explain why. Along with the Vatican, she calls it a miracle. Why should my inability to offer an explanation trump her belief? However they are interpreted, miracles exist, because that is how they are lived in our world.
In the end, Duffin’s detailed testimony, coming from someone who does not even believe in Christianity, is powerful.
Cases of Miraculous Healings
After discussing the Church’s cautious approach towards miraculous healings as a result of the intercession of the saints, let us now examine actual examples. Out of the eight examples, we will look at in this article, seven were used in the process of beatification or canonization, meaning that they passed the seven criteria of the Church. One of the examples on the other hand, the healing of Dafne Gutierrez by the relic of St. Charbel, occurred after the saint’s canonization. However, this case of healing is just as extraordinary. It also underwent and passed a local investigation.
All pictures used here are actual photos of the healing recipients, with the exception of Peter Smith. Instead of Peter, the photo used was of his brother F.X., who continues to share the incredible healing of his now-deceased brother, with others.
For our first case, let us examine the healing of Dafne Guiterrez.
1. Cured of blindness by the relic of St. Charbel
When Dafne Gutierrez was 13 years old in 1999, she was diagnosed with the medical condition idiopathic intracranial hypertension (IIH). One effect of this condition can be another one called papilledema, where the pressure in the brain is greatly increased. This pressure affects the optic nerves, which in some cases such as Daphne’s eventually results in complete blindness.
In 2014, Dafne lost vision in her left eye completely. In 2015, Dafne lost vision in her right eye as well, leaving her in total darkness. Her doctors declared her condition “permanent and medically irreversible”. Dafne also experienced “vise-like” headaches, seizures, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), vomiting and dizziness.
However, what broke Dafne’s heart the most was her inability to take care of her three children. In fact, she could not even take care of herself. As a result, she was approved for admittance to a nursing home.
Then, in 2016, Dafne heard a Spanish radio news report that the relics of St. Charbel Makhlouf were on a pilgrimage, honoring the Lebanese saint’s 50th beatification anniversary, and were going to a nearby church (St. Joseph Maronite Catholic Church in Phoenix) in an upcoming weekend. Neither Dafne nor her family heard of St. Charbel before but interestingly, later that same day, Dafne’s sister-in-law called and told her that she saw an announcement on the visit of the relics and suggested that Dafne and her husband go with her.
During the day of their visit and on the way to church Dafne prayed: “Please God heal me — if not for me, then do it for my kids! I’m tired of going to You praying and asking You to heal me…I am giving in. If You don’t want to do it for me, then do it for my kids”. Then when she arrived at the church she prayed again to God and then to St. Charbel saying: “I don’t know who you are, but please help me”.
After mass and during the veneration of St. Charbel’s relics, Dafne was blessed with holy oil “touched to” the relics by Fr. Wissam Akiki. Fr. Akiki prayed for Dafne to be cured of her condition. As this was happening Dafne felt “very strongly” that someone was standing next to her. After the blessing of the oil and prayer, Dafne asked her sister-in-law “Who was that standing next to me, on my right side?”. Her sister-in-law replied that there was no one standing next to her other than Fr. Akki. To this day, Dafne is not sure who was standing next to her at that moment, but she is certain that “someone” was there.
From the moment Dafne was blessed and prayed after, she says that she started to feel different: “I can’t explain it but my body felt different”.
The next day, Sunday January 17, 2016, Dafne went again to St. Joseph for the 3:00 pm Mass, and to venerate the relic of St. Charbel once more.
Early the next day at 4:00 am she suddenly awoke with her eyes “burning”: “They were like burning — really burning”. Her head also hurt “like after an operation”. Dafne woke up her husband to tell him about what she was feeling in her eyes. In response, her husband remarked how that was impossible since she had no sensation in her eyes. Then, her husband placed his hands over her eyes and noted that they were “vibrating and moving”. He also noticed a strong smell like “burning meat”. After this, Dafne realized that she could actually see her husband very vaguely, like a shadow. She shouted, “I can see you! I can see you with both of my eyes!”. Dafne started to cry. She wiped her eyes and then opened them to see if she could really see. She could.
Within three days, Dafne’s sight was restored to a perfect 20/20 vision. This sudden and remarkable healing was confirmed by an ophthalmologist and later by several other physicians.
In the end, a medical committee led by Dr. Borik, carried out a thorough review of Gutierrez’s medical records, as well as repeated examinations. The committee concluded: “After a thorough physical exam, extensive literature search and review of all medical records, we have no medical explanation and therefore believe this to be a miraculous healing through the intercession of St. Charbel.”
2. An incurable illness vs. the late Pope John Paul II
Sister Marie-Simon-Pierre, a French nun, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2001. By 2005, the nun’s condition had deteriorated greatly. She could barely move her left side. She had difficulty writing legibly with her right hand (the only functioning one at this point), moving around easily and driving more than short distances. She was in such pain, in fact, that she could hardly sleep. Looking towards the future, Sr. Simon Pierre knew that she would eventually pass away. Parkinson’s had no cure. Knowing the inevitability of her condition’s degeneration, she could not bear to watch her beloved Pope John Paul II appear on television, because he too was suffering from Parkinson’s: “It reminded me of what I would be in a few years’ time, I had to listen to his broadcasts rather than watch them”, the French nun said.
Even if Sr. Simon-Pierre was suffering and struggling greatly, she still continued to work. She considered it very important to her and had always felt a calling to serve in maternity.
Shortly after the death of John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI’s waiver to open the sainthood Cause of his predecessor became official. Immediately, Sr. Simon-Pierre’s community, the Congregation of the Little Sisters of Catholic Motherhood, united in asking John Paul II to intercede for their sister’s healing. Even their one foreign mission in Africa joined in the effort. However, despite the community’s prayers, Sr. Simon-Pierre’s condition continued to worsen. In less than three weeks after Pope Benedict opened John Paul II’s Cause, Sr. Simon-Pierre had given up on striving to work. The pain and exhaustion was too much. Now, the tremors in her right hand were so severe that writing (which was necessary for her work in healthcare) was becoming impossible.
Sr. Simon-Pierre approached her superior, Sr. Marie Thomas Fabre, and asked for permission to resign from her professional work. Hearing this and not understanding the gravity of Sr. Simon-Pierre’s deterioration, Sr. Thomas Fabre reminded her that the community was sending her to Lourdes, a Catholic Marian shrine known for healing, in August, and told her that she should try to endure until then. She also added “John Paul II has not yet said his last word”. When Sr. Simon-Pierre tried to explain that writing using her right-hand was becoming impossible, Sr. Thomas Fabre asked her to write the name of John Paul II on a piece of paper. Sr. Simon-Pierre did not want to show what her writing had become but since she was repeatedly asked by her superior to write, she did. The scrawl was far from her once clear handwriting (a graphologist who later examined it described it as the writing of someone near death). As her superior looked at the paper, she realized how bad Sr. Simon-Pierre’s condition had become. The two looked at each other then simply sat for a time praying. After doing so, Sr. Simon-Pierre made her way out of her superior’s office.
Some hours later, between 9:30 – 9:45 pm, Sr. Simon-Pierre went to her office before going to her room, feeling an unusual need to pick up a pen and write. As she recounts: “something in my heart seemed to say ‘Take up a pen and write”. Sr. Simon-Pierre did so, writing some scripture, but to her surprise her handwriting was clear, completely legible, normal. Utterly surprised, she did not know how to take in what had just happened. She continued her routine and went to bed.
At 4:30 am in the morning, Sr. Simon-Pierre awoke “fully alive”. She felt no pain or stiffness, and interiorly she felt “much different”. She also remembered being in awe that she actually slept well since the pain caused by her condition prevented her from doing so.
Dressing up without any difficulty, she hurried to Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and spent an hour expressing her gratitude and joy for the changes in her body. She then went to the community chapel and joined her fellow sisters for mass. Sr. Simon Pierre — who for a long time had not been able to stand steadily enough to do the scripture readings volunteered to do so, and she did so just fine. It was only after she had received the Eucharist that she realized that she had truly been healed. She did not take her medicines any longer. During her next regular medical check-up, her neurologist was speechless — Sr. Simon-Pierre showed no signs of Parkinson’s.
Sr. Marie Thomas Fabre reported the healing to the postulator of John Paul II’s Cause, Monsignor Slawomir Oder. A couple of months later, Oder makes two trips to visit the sisters in Puyricard, France. He asks the local bishop, Archbishop Claude Feidt, to investigate the events. A thorough investigation was conducted. An expert neurologist who was not Sr. Simon-Pierre’s doctor, came up with questions that needed to be answered. Other professionals were also consulted including other neurologists, professors of neurology, a neuropsychiatrist, a plain psychiatrist and a handwriting expert (handwriting is an important gauge of Parkinson’s). This investigation lasted a year and in the end, Sr. Simon-Pierre’s healing was declared scientifically inexplicable. Her healing was accepted for Pope John Paul II’s beatification.
In 2007, Sr. Marie Pierre was interviewed before TV cameras at a press conference with Archbishop Feidt during which she said: “I am cured. It is the work of God, through the intercession of Pope John Paul II”.
3. An immediate healing followed by the odor of sanctity
One day, as Melissa Villalobos was getting ready for work and ironing her clothes, she stumbled across an EWTN program talking about Cardinal John Henry Newman. As Villalobos recounts: “These priests and scholars were talking about him and his life and what a holy man he was, and what a tremendous influence he had on the church and on other people in his life…I was really taken by it and I thought, ‘This man is so amazing’”.
In 2011, Villalobos’ husband brought home a couple of prayer cards of then Bl. John Henry Newman. Villalobos placed one card in the living room and the other in her bedroom. She started developing a relationship with John Henry Newman, considering him a close spiritual friend: “I would pass his picture in the house and I would say little prayers to him for whatever our family’s needs were at the time – the children, my husband, myself. I really started to develop a very constant dialogue with him”, Melissa said.
In 2013, Melissa became pregnant. A troubling sign, however, arose. She found herself bleeding significantly during the 1st trimester of her pregnancy. Melissa went to the doctor who performed an ultrasound on her. She was informed that she had developed a condition called subchorionic hematoma, a blood clot between the placenta and the uterine wall that causes the former to be partially ripped and detached from the latter. Simply put, there was a hole in her placenta and it was allowing blood to escape. In Melissa’s case, the blood clot that caused this hole was two and a half times the size of her baby. Her condition was serious. There was no cure to be found in medicine or surgery. The best Melissa could do was what her doctor recommended — strict bed rest, for the sake of her health (to protect herself against the possibility of hemorrhaging to death) and in order to give her baby the best possible chance.
On Friday, May 10, 2013, Melissa went to the emergency room because her bleeding was worse. Once again, her doctor told her that she should confine herself to strict bed rest, but this was difficult to imagine given that she had four small children and a husband who had to work. The doctor also told Melissa and her husband that a miscarriage was likely, but that if the baby survived the pregnancy, she would likely be born prematurely because she would be small.
As if the situation was not stressful enough, Melissa’s husband, David, had to leave for a mandatory business trip — leaving her alone in the house with her children.
On Wednesday morning, Melissa woke up in bed in a pool of her own blood. At this time, her husband was already in an airplane on the way to Atlanta. Thinking about what she should do, Melissa chose to put off calling 911 because she did not know who would take care of her kids if she was taken in an ambulance to the hospital. She made her kids breakfast and told them to stay put before going upstairs. After going upstairs, her condition greatly worsened and she collapsed in the bathroom. As Melissa recounts: “Now the bleeding was really bad because I had just gone up the stairs, which I really shouldn’t have done. I kind of collapsed on the bathroom floor out of weakness and desperation.”
Melissa laid on the floor, thinking that she should now call 911. However, she realized that she did not have her cellphone. She also knew that the exertion of yelling for her kids would cause more damage and bleeding. As she lay on the bathroom floor Melissa was hoping that one of her children would wander into the room so she could ask him or her to call 911 but none of them came. She heard nothing from her children and the silence made her even more worried.
With thoughts of losing her unborn baby, worry for her children downstairs and wondering if she would die, Villalobos uttered a prayer to Cardinal Newman: “Please, Cardinal Newman, make the bleeding stop”. Right after she finished that prayer, her bleeding stopped immediately. As Villalobos recounts: “Just then, as soon as I finished the sentence, the bleeding stopped.”
Villalobos got off the floor, confirmed that there was no bleeding and thanked Cardinal Newman. After doing so, a scent of roses filled the bathroom. As Villalobos testifies, it was “the strongest scent of roses I’ve ever smelled”. In Christian history, the scent of roses has been associated with saints and the stigmata. As a mystical phenomenon, it is called the “odour of sanctity”.
That very afternoon, Villalobos’ cure was confirmed by an ultrasound, with the doctor telling her that everything was “perfect” and that there was no more hole in the placenta. As a result, Villalobos was able to resume her full active life as a mom. On December 27, 2013, Melissa gave birth to Gemma after a full pregnancy. Gemma weighed 8 pounds and 8 ounces. She had no medical problems.
After Gemma was born, Melissa reported her healing to the promoters of Cardinal Newman’s canonization. In the fall of 2014, representatives of Newman’s Cause visited Chicago to meet with Villalobos and her husband. Officials from the Archdiocese of Chicago carried out a local study of the healing and forwarded the case to the Vatican for another series of investigations. On February 13 2013, Pope Francis announced that the miracle was accepted and that Cardinal Newman would be canonized.
4. Revived after 61 minutes and a complete recovery
In 2010, Bonnie Engstrom found herself pregnant again. As she and her husband thought of what they were going to name their third child, they decided on the name James, after the Christian saint. For their child’s middle name on the other hand, they decided on the name Fulton, after the late American bishop and renowned evangelist Fulton Sheen. The couple decided to name their child in part after Sheen because they knew that their local diocese in Peoria had opened a Cause for Sheen’s sainthood (Sheen grew up in Peoria and was also ordained as a priest there). They also looked up to Fulton Sheen and believed that he was in Heaven, and that it was only a matter of time until he would be canonized. As a result, they asked Fulton Sheen in prayer to intercede for their unborn baby. However, the day of Bonnie’s delivery several months later was anything but easy.
On the morning of September 16, 2010 Bonnie Engstorm had gone into labor. As planned, a midwife and her assistant arrived at her home. With her husband Travis by her side, Bonnie delivered James Fulton Engstrom at around 3 a.m. However, when the midwife put the newborn on Bonnie’s chest, they noticed trouble. He was not breathing or moving, and his arms and legs hung loosely. Within seconds, the midwife grabbed the infant and began CPR while the assistant called 911. The paramedics arrived in a flash (they were stationed just down the block) but the baby’s condition went beyond their expertise, so an ambulance was called from Eureka. As this was happening, Bonnie turned to prayer towards Fulton Sheen, repeating his name: “Fulton Sheen. Fulton Sheen. Fulton Sheen”. Her husband, on the other hand, would send out requests to all of their friends and network to pray to Fulton Sheen for their son.
As Bonnie and Travis later found out, their baby’s umbilical cord had knotted, which can happen during pregnancy or during birth, and cut off blood supply. When it came to their baby, the knot had stopped his heartbeat.
As they waited for the ambulance to arrive, the midwife continued CPR. Once it did, James Fulton was hurried into it. Travis rode in the front seat and glanced back as the paramedic continued CPR. His baby had been hooked up to a heart monitor which showed no pulse. Bonnie was taken in another ambulance as a precaution since she had just given birth.
James Fulton’s ambulance arrived at OSF Saint Francis Healthcare Medical Center in Peoria in 20 minutes. Bonnie, having just given birth, was taken in another direction, while Travis followed medical personnel rushing their son to the emergency department. The medical team tried to get the baby’s heart going. After 15 minutes with no effect, a doctor told the team: “We’ll try for 5 more minutes. Then we’ll call the time of death”. Five minutes passed and Jame’s heart still showed no activity. The medical team stopped trying to resuscitate James. They took their hands off his lifeless body and began to prepare a certificate of death. Shortly afterward, James’ heart shot up to 148 beats per minute — just like any healthy newborn.
Although the doctors were astonished by James’ inexplicable return from dead, their attitude was still grim. 61 minutes had expired between James’ birth and his first heartbeat. As a result, he must have suffered severe organ damage due to a lack of blood circulation (which is essential for the oxygen to reach the different parts of the body). Their opinion was that James would die within a few hours or before the weekend ended. If he did survive, against great odds, he would be severely disabled — being blind, having cerebral palsy, and not even being able to talk or eat. They bluntly informed his parents of the situation, who in turn, continued to pray to Fulton Sheen. In the end, the predictions of the doctors never came to pass as James’ recovery turned out to be complete. He suffered zero negative effects.
Soon after, the couple submitted their son’s healing to the Fulton J. Sheen Foundation in Peoria. An investigation was launched. As Bonnie Engstorm recounts: “Travis and I turned over all of the medical records; we and 15 other people were interviewed. Everyone had to answer the same list of questions for consistency’s sake—James’s doctors, the midwife, friends, pastors—to build the evidence for the miracle. The evidence was gathered and sent to Rome”.
In the end, James’ revival and complete healing was deemed scientifically inexplicable. The case was formally approved as a miracle, paving the way for Fulton Sheen’s beatification.
Just recently, in September 2019, Bonnie Engstrom released a book describing the events that happened that day as well as the Church’s investigation into their son’s healing in greater detail. It is entitled “61 Minutes to a Miracle: Fulton Sheen and a True Story of the Impossible”.
5. A catastrophic accident reversed
On March 14, 1921, Peter Smith was born in a newly built annex to Columbus Hospital on 34th Street in Manhattan. The hospital was a charity institution founded by Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini to provide free service to the poor immigrant population of New York. When Peter was born, the hospital was still staffed by the Missionary Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, who were established by Mother Cabrini back in Italy in 1880.
The newborn was handed to his mother Margaret Smith and quickly given to Mae Redford, one of the lay-nurses, to be cleaned. Back then, it was a common method to put a one percent solution of silver nitrate into a newborn’s eyes to protect him from any bacterial infections that could have occurred during birth. However, the nurse, in a hurry, made a terrible mistake — she ended up applying a 50 percent solution into the baby’s eyes.
Young Peter Smith’s face was blackened and badly burnt, pus exuded from his tiny nostrils, and worst of all, where his eyes should be were two grotesque endemic swellings. Redford ran down the halls screaming and asking for help from a doctor. In the hours following the terrible accident, the baby was examined by three doctors and an eye specialist but unfortunately, it was a lost cause. The acid had already ravaged the baby’s eyes. Indeed, by the time the last doctor arrived at the scene, Dr. Horan, he could not even open the baby’s eyes because they were so swollen. They also started to exude puss like the nose. The doctors also noted that if the baby lives, he would be badly disfigured, since the acid solution which streamed down his eyes had burned through the layers of the skin, leaving his body incapable of repairing itself with new skin but only with scar tissue.
The Superior, Mother Teresa Bacigalupo, however, knew that there was still something that could be done. She got Mother Cabrini’s relic, who had just died less than 4 years ago, and made it touch the baby’s eyes. Then she pinned the relic to his nightgown. She, together with the other sisters then spent the entire night praying in the hospital’s chapel, begging for Mother Cabrini to intercede for the baby’s healing.
At nine o’clock the next morning, two doctors arrived at the nursery. To their astonishment, they found baby Peter’s eyelids much less swollen and pussy. One of the doctors, Dr. Kearney, opened the baby’s eyelids but instead of seeing the ravages of the deadly acid, he saw, looking back at him, two perfect eyes. The two doctors were stunned and as other doctors and nuns arrived on the scene, they too shared the same reaction. When nurse Mae arrived at the scene and learned of the healing she sobbed with great gratitude. Amid the joy and amazement in the room, someone points out something else inexplicable: the horribly charred skin which was supposed to leave young Peter disfigured for life was healing to smooth infant satin, instead of blistering and contracting. In the room, no smiles were as broad as the nuns. They knew Mother Cabrini’s sanctity personally, and now the Lord had affirmed it by this stunning miracle through her intercession.
In the end, however, the acid did leave some traces on Peter’s face. As he left the hospital, he had two scars from where the silver nitrate ran down his eyes. These however would dissipate as he grew older.
Fourteen years later, the Smith family had another boy. They named him John Frances Xavier Smith after Mother Cabrini, in thanksgiving for her intercession for his older brother. John Francis Xavier Smith would be affectionately called F.X. throughout his life. In the end, Peter Smith and F.X. ended up becoming priests, and the healing of the former would be approved as a miracle, leading to the beatification of Mother Cabrini.
Fr. Peter Smith died at the age of 70 in 2002. Fr. F.X. on the other hand is still alive today. At the age of 84, he continues to offer Sunday Mass in New York at two different parishes.
6. Another “incurable” disease
Manuel Nevado Rey, a Spanish doctor and specialist in orthopedic surgery, exposed himself frequently to x-rays due to his work since 1956. In 1962, the first symptoms of radiodermatitis began to appear, a skin disease caused by exposure to x-rays that leads to cancerous growths that ultimately metastasize. By 1984, Rey had to limit his activities to minor operations because his hands were gravely affected. In 1992, he stopped operating completely. Since radiodermatitis is incurable and irreversible, Ray never sought treatment and only followed his doctor’s suggestion of using Vaseline or lanolin to soothe his skin.
Towards the beginning of November 1992, Rey went to the Ministry of Agriculture since he had some questions about farming, a big hobby of his. As Rey was trying to find the person he had an appointment with, he ended up meeting Luis Eugenio Bernardo Carrascal, an agronomic engineer who worked at the Ministry. Carrascal kindly looked after Rey as he waited for the person he was meant to see but in so doing, he noticed Rey’s hands and asked what had happened to them. Rey explained his condition, saying that he had advanced chronic radiodermatitis. Upon hearing this, Carrascal gave him a prayer card of Josemaria Escriva and recommended that he seek his intercession. Rey did so and his hands began to improve, and his trip to Vienna a few days later only made him pray much harder.
During this trip to Vienna to attend a medical conference, he was very impressed to find prayer cards of then Bl. Josemaria Escriva in the churches he visited. As a result, he invoked his intercession more often. Within 2 weeks of placing himself under the care of Josemaria Escriva, Rey was completely cured of radiodermatitis. He was able to perform surgical operations again.
In the end, after investigating the case, the Medical Committee of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints unanimously established the following diagnosis: a “cancerous state of chronic radiodermatitis” in its third stage; with a certain prognosis of “infaust” (without hope of a cure). The total cure of the lesions, confirmed by the objective examinations carried out on Rey in 1992, 1994 and 1997, was declared by the committee to be “very rapid, complete, lasting, and scientifically inexplicable”. Rey’s healing was approved, resulting in Josemaria’s canonization in 2002.
7. Traces of the healing on the floor
Paula Medina Zarate, a retired teacher from Panama, made her way to St. Bonaventure Monastery in Detroit in 2012. She did so after the urging of Detroit-based Capuchin friars, who had ministered in her hometown parishes near Panama city.
At the monastery, Zarate did not recognize the tomb before her eyes, which was surrounded by so many people: “What’s that? A table?”, Zarate told her Capuchin friend Rev. Jozef Timmers. Timmers told her that it was a tomb, explaining how pilgrims came to the resting place of Solanus Casey to pray for healings. On little paper slips, they wrote down their requests and left them on top of it. Hearing this, Zarate filled out 14 pieces of paper for the sick and troubled people she visited in her parish volunteer work back in Panama. After doing so, she heard a voice saying: “What do you need for you?”. In response, Zarate got back down on her knees and placed herself on the tomb. She asked mercy for herself and for the condition on her legs and arms.
Since birth, Zarate had suffered from a genetic condition called ichthyosis. The condition causes thickened, scaly skin. It appeared on Zarate’s legs, arms and sometimes on her scalp, making her skin crack and bleed. Panama’s heat would only enhance the irritation and discomfort it caused Zarate.
As she knelt there, Zarate says that she felt an intense heat all over her body, from her feet and upward. She was interrupted however by Timmers who urged her to join him in the monastery’s dining room for lunch. Zarate told him that she did not have an appetite and explained the heat she was feeling in her legs. She excused herself and went to her guest room at the monastery. She examined her legs under her pants and what she saw made her afraid. As Zarate recounts: “What I saw made me afraid. I touched my legs and the scales were falling on the floor”. Since her skin condition often caused cracking and bleeding, Zarate worried that could be happening. Fortunately, she thought wrong.
That night, Zarate could not sleep as her body continued to shed sheets of scaly patches. In the morning, the newly revealed skin was as “smooth as a baby’s” and the sheets of diseased skin that fell off her body were seen by Capuchin staffers. After learning of the healing, Capuchin priests quickly prepared for an official investigation with medical and church experts — recording Zarate’s testimony.
As the investigation commenced some time later, the Capuchins paid for the flights of Zarate and her Panamanian dermatologist to visit Detroit and testify before an Archdiocese tribunal, a church court tasked with investigating the healing. Detroit Msgr. Ronald Browne, who presided over the tribunal, said of Zarate: “Paula was one of the humblest people I ever met. It’s definitely a heartfelt and moving story. When she’s relating it, you definitely see the sincerity of her”. However, the tribunal also needed medical facts. Zarate was examined by three metro Detroit dermatologists, including an expert on ichthyosis. Biopsies were taken of her skin.
When the tribunal finished its report of Zarate’s case, a thick document was sealed in red wax by Detroit Archbishop Allen Vigneron, and a Capuchin priest hand-delivered it to the Vatican. Eventually this healing was approved as a formal miracle, resulting in the beatification of Bl. Solanus Casey.
Zarate, her mother, her dermatologist and about 20 other relatives, friends and coworkers were present during Solanus Casey’s beatification ceremony in 2017, which drew over 70,000 faithful at Ford Stadium, Detroit.
8. “Flesh reconstructing anatomy”
On February 1974, 14 year old Robert Gutherman developed a terribly severe earache. He had been to a series of doctors, who treated it as a normal ear infection. However, the problem persisted and Guntherman was in grave pain.
As Robert was suffering from this infection, a sister from the motherhouse of the Blessed Sacrament in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, spoke to Robert’s mother. The sister had heard from some of Robert’s brothers, who were doing cleaning work at their motherhouse, that their brother was not well. The sister told Robert’s mother to pray to Mother Katharine that her son’s pain would either become more tolerable or go away completely. She told Robert’s mother that they believed that their foundress was in Heaven, and that their community would also be praying for Robert. Robert’s mother acceded to her advice and asked Mother Katharine for her intercession, asking her to help them as she would “a good neighbor in times of trial”. She also reminded Mother Katharine that Robert had often been an altar server in a chapel she had built.
Since Guntherman’s ear infection and severe pain continued, he was hospitalized in Saint Christopher’s Hospital, Philadelphia. His doctor conducted an exploratory operation to assess his ear infection. It turned out that his ear infection was not a regular one but a very serious one that needed immediate treatment. The operation revealed that two of the three bones in Robert’s ear that were essential to hearing, as well as several other nerves, were completely destroyed. The ear infection had also penetrated so deep into his ear that it was about to enter his brain. The doctor informed Guntherman that he would never be able to hear again. The damage was done. He also told him that two more “repair operations” still needed to be carried out in the future but that these could not restore his hearing.
Knowing the gravity of Guntherman’s condition, the doctor acted right away. Medical procedures were carried out to clean out the disease and these were successful. Fortunately for Guntherman, a stunning recovery lay ahead for him.
A few days after his exploratory operation, Robert was resting in his ward, with his good ear on his pillow and his bad ear covered in bandages. Someone in the corridor called his name, “Bobby”. He heard it clearly. Guntherman told his mother this and she told the doctor, but the doctor dismissed it saying that was “impossible”. The doctor did not investigate further and Robert was discharged from Saint Christopher’s.
During his next check-up, his doctor was astounded. Upon examining Robert’s ear, he found that Robert’s body was “reconstructing its anatomy” — the flesh was “fusing together” to repair the hole in the eardrum. He told Robert that if his ear continued to heal as he observed, he would not have to go through the planned reconstructive surgeries. On the boy’s record sheet the doctor wrote: “Child reconstructing anatomy. Could this be possible?”. He had no explanation for what was happening to Robert.
In the end, none of the planned surgeries would come to pass. The healing of Robert’s ear ended up being complete. Even the two bones that were totally destroyed were restored, perfectly. As Robert himself testifies: “Yes. My doctor testified that those two bones were gone, and then returned. I mean, say you lost an arm in an accident. Would it ever grow back? No. Well, two bones in my right ear did”. Robert’s case was forwarded to the Vatican. It was deemed “scientifically inexplicable” and approved for the beatification of Katharine Drexel.
In an interview with the National Catholic Register, Robert Guntherman reflected back on his miracle saying: “It’s been more than 40 years, but thinking about it still gives me the chills. It has given me a clearer understanding of the presence of God. I know that Jesus loves and cares about me, and that He’s still working miracles”.
The evidence for Christian miraculous healings is very impressive, even limiting our examination to healings as a result of the intercession of the saints. Although the cases we examined here are a solid sampling, they are far from exhaustive. Further cases can easily be added, literally, by the thousands. The testimony is voluminous from people around the world. These things simply happen. The only thing one has to consider is how to interpret these stunning healings.
The healings in question are extraordinary, rapid and scientifically inexplicable (e.g. Dafne being cured of her blindness, Sr. Simon Marie Pierre being healed of her Parkinson’s overnight, Peter Smith’s eyes being restored from irreversible acid damage, etc). They also occur in a clear Christian religious context (i.e. prayer to a saint to heal their disease). A number of accounts also contain indicators that further point to a supernatural origin for these healings. Among the examples we discussed, these include:
- Dafne strongly sensing that someone was beside her when she was blessed with oil touched to St. Charbel’s relic and prayed after by a priest, and her being “certain” of this.
- Sr. Simon-Pierre’s feeling an unusual urge to pick up a pen and write, and being able to do so clearly and normally.
- Melissa smelling “the strongest scent of roses” (i.e. the odour of sanctity) after uttering words of gratitude to John Henry Newman.
- Zarate hearing a voice asking for “what she needed” after she filled out petitions for the sick and troubled people she knew back in Panama.
In the end, the evidence for Christian miraculous healings provides powerful testimony for the truth of Christianity and the effectiveness of the intercession of the saints in Heaven, Christian men and women who have displayed exemplary virtues during their earthly lives. As it says in James 5:16: “The prayer of a righteous man has great power to prevail”.
- The word “pray” finds its roots in the Latin word precari, which means to entreat or ask (e.g. “I pray thee”). When we pray to the saints in Heaven, we are asking them to intercede for us to God. We are asking them to pray for us, in the same way that we ask our friends to pray for us in our daily lives. Having lived lives of exemplary holiness however, the prayers of the saints have greater efficacy with God.
Although the saints may be deceased from an earthly perspective, they are actually “more alive” than we are in Heaven.
Another point to clarify is that anyone who is in Heaven is a “saint”. However, the Church formally recognizes someone as a saint if he or she lived a life of exemplary holiness (the process for determining this is a whole other matter, I will discuss it in a future post on the saints), and if God works miracles tied to the individual.
- Catholic theology divides the Church, the mystical body of Christ, into three states: the Church triumphant (those in Heaven), Church suffering (those in purgatory) and Church militant (the Church on earth). To learn more about the three states of the Church, see this Aleteia article.
- Miraculous healings also occur outside intercession of the saints — prayer to God, healings at Marian shrines and healings from Christian saints who had the gift of healing. I will discuss the latter two in future blog posts. Healings at Marian shrines are best discussed alongside the apparitions, while healings from Christian saints who had the gift of healing are best discussed alongside the other mystical phenomena in their lives.
- To learn more about the history of the canonization process see Michael O Neill’s “Exploring the Miraculous”. For brevity’s sake, I will say that caution and care has always been an attribute of the process. In early Christianity, before any outward signs of recognition could take place (e.g. the building of an altar over the saint’s tomb, translating the saint’s relics to a church, promoting a prayer. etc) a formal inquiry into the holiness of the individual and any miracles to have occurred through his or her intercession must be undertaken. So at its very essence (i.e. an investigation into the holiness of the individual and any alleged miracles that occurred through his or her intercession), the canonization process today and then remains the same. In early Christianity however, the canonization process was carried out and determined at a local level (local diocese or region) — though this recognition could spread elsewhere as the saint’s cultus grew. It was only during the Middle Ages that canonizations were decided by the Holy See, to make the recognition more official and more known to the universal Church. As the centuries passed and with the advent of modern science, the canonization process increased in rigor, leading us to the current process.
- O’Neill, Exploring the Miraculous, pg. 90.
- This criterion refers to the rate of recovery. As stated by O’Neill in a personal correspondence (email): “In practice the Catholic Church relies on the opinions of doctors who will consider something without natural explanation when the rate of healing far exceeds what is typical or even within the range of possibilities. Diseases are different so the expected rate of recovery is different. The essential point to this criterion is that the miraculous healing must happen very quickly…”.
- This criterion involves ruling out possible natural explanations in the healing. As O’Neill told me in a personal correspondence (email): “This criterion rules out the possibility that there was another factor in the cure. If there is any possible natural explanation for the healing, it will not be declared a miracle”.
- Treece, Nothing Short of a Miracle: God’s Healing Power in Modern Saints, loc. 410 (ebook).
- Theologians look into the case to see if it can be established that the healing occurred exclusively as a result of the intercession of the saint in question. As O’Neill explains: “One of the most challenging aspects of identifying a worthy miracle is first establishing that it was worked exclusively through the intercession of the would-be saint. It is not uncommon for a person who needs help to ask many friends for a hand, so it seems reasonable that someone facing a life-and-death situation would call on the entire litany of saints if not his or her personal and most effective favorites. Even if the miracle were to be approved as worthy of belief as being beyond natural causes, not being able to pinpoint which saint interceded in the miracle would make it ineligible for use to establish someone’s cause for canonization” (Exploring the Miraculous, pg. 91).
- Draper, E. (2013). Vatican declares healing of Colorado Springs boy a miracle after prayers to German nun. The Denver Post. Retrieved from: https://www.denverpost.com/2013/04/12/vatican-declares-healing-of-colorado-springs-boy-a-miracle-after-prayers-to-german-nun/
- Montemurri, P. (2017). Did Father Solanus Casey help cure a woman from Panama? Detroit Free Press. Retrieved from: https://www.freep.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/11/17/detroit-priest-miracle/873797001/
- Duffin, J. (2016). Pondering Miracles, Medical and Religious. New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/06/opinion/pondering-miracles-medical-and-religious.html
- Knap, P. (2017). Arizona Woman’s Blindness Miraculously Cured Through St. Charbel. National Catholic Register. Retrieved from: https://www.ncregister.com/blog/pattyknap/arizona-womans-blindness-miraculously-cured-through-st.-charbel
Schiffer, K. (2017). Phoenix mother: St. Charbel cured by blindness. CNA. Retrieved from: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/phoenix-mother-st-charbel-cured-my-blindness-68040
- Someone pondering about the Christian belief in relics may find it macabre and wonder: “Why do these people believe in this?”. The answer to this question is that it is attested to in the Bible and that it has simply worked historically.
The Bible attests to the efficacy of relics many times. When the corpse of a man was touched to the bones of the prophet Elisha, the man came back to life (2 Kings 13:20-21). A woman with a hemorrhage was healed of her condition by simply touching the hem of Jesus’ cloak (Mk 5:25-34). The signs and wonders worked by the apostles were so great that people lined the streets with the sick so that when Peter walked by at least his shadow might “touch” them (Acts 5:12-15). When handkerchiefs or aprons that had been touched to Paul were applied to the sick, people were healed and evil spirits were exorcised (Acts 19:11-12).
The efficacy of relics are also attested to by Christians down the ages. See for example, the testimony of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine in the 4th and 5th century AD. Both of these men were superb thinkers, each being recognized as one of the thirty-six doctors of the Church:
“You know—nay, you have yourselves seen—that many are cleansed from evil spirits, that very many also, having touched with their hands the robe of the saints, are freed from those ailments which oppressed them; you see that the miracles of old time are renewed, when through the coming of the Lord Jesus grace was more largely shed forth upon the earth, and that many bodies are healed as it were by the shadow of the holy bodies. How many napkins are passed about! How many garments, laid upon the holy relics and endowed with healing power, are claimed! All are glad to touch even the outside thread, and whosoever touches will be made whole” – St. Ambrose (letter XXII).
“For even now miracles are wrought in the name of Christ, whether by His sacraments or by the prayers or relics of His saints; but they are not so brilliant and conspicuous as to cause them to be published with such glory as accompanied the former miracles [of Christ]” – St. Augustine (The City of God, Chapter 8).
Today, healings with relics continue, as seen in the cases of St. Charbel and St. Frances Xavier Cabrini that are discussed in this article. To give more case of a healing through a relic see the healing of Carlos Miguel Valdés Rodríguez by the intercesion of St. Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad.
In the end, scripture and history both attest that God acts through relics, especially in terms of healing. He does so in order to draw our attention to the saints as models and intercessors.
- Dafne’s healing had a substantial influence on Dr. Borick, convincing her of the efficacy of prayer. Borick, telling the National Catholic Register: “It has changed my practice! It has changed how I relate to patients. Now (referring to her relationship with those entrusted to her care) prayer is such an important part of what we do.”
- Treece, Nothing Short of a Miracle: God’s Healing Power in Modern Saints, loc. 410-936 (ebook).
Zenit staff. (2011). Sister Marie Simon-Pierre on Her Cure from Parkinson. Zenit. Retrieved from: https://zenit.org/articles/sister-marie-simon-pierre-on-her-cure-from-parkinson/
- Later, Sr. Thomas Fabre said that she hoped that she had not embarrassed Sr. Simon Pierre: “Unconsciously, I wanted to verify that she could still write, it was not the end, and that she should not give up” (Treece, Nothing Short of a Miracle, loc. 697).
- Duriga, J. (2019). Chicago woman’s healing is miracle in Cardinal Newman’s sainthood cause. Cruxnow. Retrieved from: https://cruxnow.com/church-in-the-usa/2019/07/chicago-womans-healing-is-miracle-in-cardinal-newmans-sainthood-cause/
Farrow, M. (2019). How a miracle through Cardinal Newman saved a mother and baby in a dangerous pregnancy. CNA. Retrieved from: https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/how-cardinal-newman-saved-a-mother-and-baby-in-a-dangerous-pregnancy-85875
- Pronechen, J. (2019). Meet the Miracle Boy Saved by Fulton Sheen’s Prayers. National Catholic Register. Retrieved from: https://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/meet-the-miracle-boy-saved-by-fulton-sheens-prayers
Stewart, H. (2019). She prayed to Fulton Sheen and her baby was saved. Meet Bonnie Engstrom. America Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2019/07/28/she-prayed-fulton-sheen-and-her-baby-was-saved-meet-bonnie-engstrom
Luciano, P. (2019). No pulse for 61 minutes — Fulton Sheen and the miracle baby. The State Journal-Register. Retrieved from: https://www.sj-r.com/news/20190720/no-pulse-for-61-minutes—fulton-sheen-and-miracle-baby
- Treece, Nothing Short of a Miracle: God’s Healing Power in Modern Saints, loc. 96-152 (ebook).
Connolly, S. (2019). “The age of miracles has not passed”. The Catholic World Report. Retrieved from: https://www.catholicworldreport.com/2019/11/12/the-age-of-miracles-has-not-passed/
- Nevado, M. (2001). Testimony of Dr. Manuel Nevado. Opus Dei. Retrieved from: https://opusdei.org/en/article/testimony-of-dr-manuel-nevado/
Josemaria Escriva De Balaguer: The Miracle Approved for the Canonization. Vatican Retrieved from: https://opusdei.org/en-ph/article/miracle-attributed-to-blessed-josemaria-is-approved/
- Montemurri, P. (2017). Did Father Solanus Casey help cure a woman from Panama? Detroit Free Press. Retrieved from: https://www.freep.com/story/news/nation-now/2017/11/17/detroit-priest-miracle/873797001/
- Graves, K. (2017). This Man’s Ear Was Miraculously Healed, Thanks to St. Katharine Drexel. National Catholic Register. Retrieved from: https://www.ncregister.com/blog/jimgraves/this-mans-ear-was-miraculously-healed-thanks-to-st.-katharine-drexel
Glynn, P. (2003). Healing Fire of Christ: Reflections on Modern Miracles – Knock, Lourdes, Fatima. Ignatius Press.
- According to Duffin, she examined over 1,400 miracle investigations, at least one from every canonization between 1588 and 1999. The number of actual approved miraculous healings by the Vatican is of course much higher. Here are a number of points that increase the count higher than Duffin’s examination of 1,400 cases.
- Duffin did not examine miracles used in the beatification process.
- John Paul relaxed the number of miracles needed for beatification and canonization from at least two (for each process) to one because he wanted Christians around the world to have as many role models as possible — for different professions, ages, personalities, etc. As a result, a large number of the canonization processes mentioned by Duffin have at least 2 miraculous healings in support.
- Duffin’s list is incomplete since Duffin only examined cases up to 1999. Plenty of canonizations occurred between 2000-2020.