Historical Sketch of Canonization


The Process Regarding Miracles


Amongst those who are outside the pale of the Church considerable confusion of thought prevails in this most important matter; to many it would seem as if the whole subject was mysterious, as if human reason had to be put aside and the very existence of miracle could only be accepted on the ipse dixit of ecclesiastical authority. They do not understand the power by which a miracle is wrought, and at once they deny that God has intervened in doing the wonder. They deny the fact because the manner of its existence is mysterious. But, turn we where we will, we cannot escape mystery. There are mysteries of nature as well as mysteries of grace. And it would be folly to deny the existence of a truth because the imagination is bewildered in conceiving it, and we cannot understand how it comes into being. No one, no matter how well versed in science, comprehends how the rose tree clothes itself in all the glorious bloom of summer, and yet who will resist the testimony of the senses that it is an actual reality blessed with objective existence. And so in the supernatural world, the power by which Our Lord healed the sick, calmed the tempest, and raised the dead to life, is mysterious, the fact that He wrought these wonders is plain to all the world.

To the Catholic, on the other hand, miracles are facts of history and biography, and capable on evidence of the most rigorous proof. Restoring the dead to life is a conspicuous example; and here the miracle is one which can be proved just as clearly and as easily as the natural occurrence of death itself. That we may know as certain that death has taken place it is sufficient to know that the subject once lived and now lives no longer, and this knowledge can be acquired without any special skill or training. To prove the miracle of raising the dead to life nothing more is necessary. To be certain this wondrous transformation has taken place, all that is required is to know, as in the case of Lazarus, that the subject was certainly dead and afterwards throbbed with new given life. When these two facts are established it is borne irresistibly upon the mind that the change is wrought by the special intervention of God.

It is of Divine Faith that the miracles of Our Lord and His Apostles and all the miracles recorded in Holy Writ are true, and it is a matter of faith that miracles never cease in the Church. Beyond this every Catholic is, for the most part, free to accept or reject any professed miracle. In particular cases he may not have sufficient evidence to convince him ; he may have doubts as to the fact or its miraculousness. "I may believe," says Cardinal Newman, "in the liquefaction of St. Pantaleon's blood, and believe it to the best of my judgment to be a miracle, yet, supposing a chemist offered to produce exactly the same phenomena under exactly similar circumstances by the materials put at command by his science, so as to reduce what seemed beyond nature to natural laws, I should watch with some suspense of mind and misgiving the course of his experiment, as having no Divine word to fall back upon as a ground of certainty that the liquefaction was miraculous" ("Grammar of Assent," p. 193).

If, however, there is question of those miracles approved for beatification or canonization a different attitude of mind is expected from the loyal Catholic. Though the Church does not claim infallibility in these decisions still her judgments should be received by the faithful with respect and reverence. And looking to the work of the Process as above described, the numbers of witnesses examined, and their character for special skill and integrity, having regard also to the careful manner in which the evidence is afterwards sifted by impartial critics, there is no doubt but the findings of the Process are, humanly speaking, entitled to grave consideration and respect.

To show more clearly the nature of this inquiry, and the extreme care with which it is conducted, one or two particular miracles will be given in detail to which the Church has set the seal of her authority. They are taken from the Official Records of the Holy See, which are preserved in the Archives at Rome, and are open to inspection by everyone. These examples have been selected, not because the evidence in their favor is stronger than usual, but because they are of comparatively recent occurrence. The first is one of the two miracles wrought after his beatification through the intercession of Blessed Alphonsus de Rodriguez and accepted by the Holy See for his canonization.

It is recorded in the "Acta S. Sedis," Vol. XX., p. 475, and consisted in the instantaneous and perfect cure from cancer of Sister Mary Alphonsus Gallis, a professed nun in the Convent of Antwerp. She was examined by various medical men of the highest integrity and ability. The unanimous conclusion of these experts was that this religious was suffering from cancer, and their decision was rendered still more conclusive from the fact that the father and some other relatives of the religious died from the same malignant disease. The sickness had already progressed so far that her life was despaired of, and, when the time of dissolution was deemed close at hand, the other sisters in the convent joined her in a Novena seeking the intercession and patronage of Blessed Alphonsus Rodriguez. On the last day of the Novena, December 8th, 1863, when she had received the Blessed Eucharist, she felt herself so strong that she at once rose from her bed of sickness, and, clothing herself unaided, walked with a firm step through the various parts of the convent proclaiming aloud the wondrous miracle which God had wrought in her favor. Immediately she took part in the arduous exercises performed by the other sisters of the community, and she was still in the enjoyment of perfect health in the year 1887, twentyfour years after her miraculous escape from death. Numbers of witnesses, some of them inmates of the convent, and many residing beyond the convent walls, bore ample testimony to the reality of this miracle. No element was wanting that was calculated to bring conviction to the candid mind.

Another and very remarkable instance of miraculous power may be given which was exercised by God in the United States of America. The circumstances of the case are given at length in the "Acta S. Sedis," VOl XXII., p. 395 This miracle is one of the two accepted by the Holy See as wrought, after his beatification, by the intercession of Blessed Peter Claver of the Society of Jesus. The beatification of this saintly Jesuit took place in the year 1857, and the miracle in question was performed in 1861, four years afterwards.

Ignatius Strecher was a pious Catholic German, who, like so many of our own countrymen, was compelled to seek a livelihood in the United States. He was employed in a soap factory in the city of St. Louis, and one day, whilst engaged at his work, he met with a dreadful accident, in which an iron bar pierced his chest causing serious injury to his breastbone. In a short time he was found to be suffering from caries of the breast bone, a gangrenous eating away of the bony substance. This ulceration soon spread to the ribs on the left side, and before long the lungs became affected and the invalid showed manifest symptoms of consumption. A medical examination of the sputum gave testimony of the presence of this dread disease, and the violent and persistent cough from which the patient suffered furnished further evidence in the same direction. The numerous doctors who examined him were unanimous in the belief that he was afflicted with pulmonary consumption and caries of the breast bone; and they were unanimous also in the conviction that, from the nature and extent of the disease, there was absolutely no hope of his recovery.

In these sad circumstances the wife of the invalid, moved by the recollection of the wonders wrought through the intercession of Blessed Peter Claver, earnestly exhorted her husband to recommend himself to the prayers and patronage of the beatified Jesuit. This advice he carried out with the utmost earnestness and devotion, and, feeling somewhat stronger, he betook himself to the church of Father Weninger, where, on touching the relics of Blessed Peter, he was instantly cured. And so complete and thorough was his recovery that, without the slightest effort or inconvenience, he at once undertook the most severe labors, and continued in the same occupation for many years in the enjoyment of perfect health.

This miracle was of the most public character. Living in St. Louis, a very large city, the illness of the man was very widely known; the severity and hopelessness of the disease were attested by many of the most eminent medical men; and finally, his instantaneous restoration to health excited a sensational degree of interest in the locality. The ecclesiastical examination, conducted by the late illustrious Cardinal Ledochowski, took place immediately after the occurrence, when the facts were still fresh in the memory of all. Numerous eyewitnesses of every grade of society were closely examined, and their depositions carefully collected were sent off to Rome for final decision. When the evidence was thoroughly sifted by the Roman authorities it was at length decided that the recovery of the poor German workman was an undoubted miracle. It will have been seen that, in the two examples here given, one patient was miraculously cured from cancer, and the other from consumption; and of all the diseases to which humanity is liable these are the two which seem to have most completely baffled all the efforts of human science.

An important question here arises, and it may be asked why is it that, in spite of all these signs and wonders, people go on in their ordinary course of living, and the world fails to turn to account the miraculous aid bestowed upon it. It is not recorded that, on the occasion of these remarkable miracles, any considerable section of the population in either Belgium or America became converts to the Catholic religion. The people went along their accustomed way in pursuit of wealth and pleasure, struggling for commercial prosperity and supremacy, and for the most part utterly deaf to the supernatural voices all around them. That this spiritual torpor and insensibility should continue to prevail amongst any body of people notwithstanding the special public and miraculous intervention of God in their midst, seems an impossibility and contrary to the ordinary tendency of human nature. It would seem that, if a miracle was clear and evident, like the miracle of Josue, for example, when he made the sun to stand in the Heavens, the Whole world would repent and turn from the ways of evil.

And yet there is the very highest authority for stating that such a view is utterly erroneous. In the 16th chapter of the Gospel of St. Luke we read the parable of the rich man and Lazarus as set forth by Our Lord Himself. The rich man died and was buried in hell. And he implored Abraham, whom he saw afar off, that he would send Lazarus to his father's house to testify to his five brethren lest they also should come to that place of torments. "And Abraham said to him: They have Moses and the prophets, let them hear them. But he said: No, Father Abraham; but if one went to them from the dead they would do penance. And he said to him: If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they believe if anyone rise again from the dead." Here then it is stated, on the supreme authority of Our Savior, that, if a man came back from the awful tortures of Hell, and appearing suddenly in the midst of his own godless relations and friends, told them, in a voice which should curdle their blood, of the anguish and suffering he had gone to inherit, even such a warning would not move them to repentance. It is no news to them that the wicked will be punished for all eternity. They will not repent even now; for those who have resisted the warnings of the prophets enforced by the miracles of the Old Testament will not be persuaded even if one should rise from the dead. This is an awful thought, a thought that is full of salutary lessons. The parable of Our Lord throws a flood of light on the question proposed above: Why is it, if miracles are so certain in our own time, that they do not produce a mighty revolution in the world?

The truth is, there exists a complete disproportion between our weak fallen nature and the tendencies and aspirations of the supernatural. And such is the corruption of the human heart, that when once hardened by evil habits and the indulgence of wicked passions it is almost impossible to change it. When our Lord raised Lazarus from the dead the miracle was _ public, evident and widely known, and yet the Pharisees were not converted by it. So far from being converted they even entered into a design to put Lazarus to death in order to get rid of a man who was a living witness and reproach to their incredulity. In the same wicked spirit they attributed other miracles of Our Savior to magic, to the prince of darkness, to the fraud of His disciples. And, looking round upon the world today, do we not see malefactors severely punished. sometimes with the death penalty, and yet this does not prevent the commission of fresh crimes? Every day we see persons continuing to lead lives of extravagance, of drunkenness, of sensuality, with all the sad inevitable consequences of their wickedness staring them in the face. It is too, much then to expect that the miracles of our own day would produce immediate and visible results of a revolutionary character when no such effects are recorded as arising from individual miracles of Our Lord Himself.

But, though miracles are not allsufficing, they are extremely useful and valuable in the supernatural order. Miracula pro infidelibus has become an axiom in the language of the Church. Miracles give the proper sanction and ratification to the preaching of Divine revelation. But to those who have accepted the Faith additional means of grace are essential for the due observance of the law. Communion with God, the Holy Sacraments of the Church, humble and persevering prayer, these are some of the other aids to which the faithful must have recourse in the ordinary dispensation of Providence.

The Church will, at all times, continue to fulfill her Divine mission and preach the Gospel to fallen humanity. And the miracles worked by her children in every age and clime will be held up to the world as a beacon leading the tiring ones to the harbor of Salvation. Though the conversion of the world is not yet, it is no argument against the existence of miracle. Grace works in secret, and its effects are often hidden from the sight. The Spirit breathes where He wills and mankind will be converted in the appointed time. Meanwhile, we must admire the marvelous wisdom and care with which the Church conducts the inquiries into the existence of miracles. Looking at the matter from the purely human point of view, and abstracting altogether from the promise of the Holy Ghost to preserve His Church from error, it seems impossible for the honest inquirer to resist the force of the evidence in favor of those miracles which have been sealed with the approbation of the Holy See.

Return to Contents

Return to Homepage.