Miracles, in the sense of phenomena we cannot explain, surround us on every hand: life itself is the miracle of miracles.
A miracle is a form of religious experience, essentially an event without a rational explanation attributed to the divine. What I first remember learning about miracles as a boy in grade school. Religious instruction, Christian, was part of the public school curriculum in Ontario in the mid-1960s when I started school. My first grade teacher, Miss Boss, read bible stories to the class every morning before we started the day’s lessons. If memory serves, I was most impressed by the story of the loaves and fishes. A year later, at junior school in England, one of the teachers, Mrs. Checketts, told us the story of Jesus raising a girl from the dead. As Mrs. Checketts related the story to us, “He called to her spirit “Talitha koum!” (which means “Little girl, I say to you, get up!”) and she was returned to life.” Again, I was duly impressed, but as I grew older I began to wonder about the veracity of these accounts and of miracles in general. I have come to wonder, also, just how common is it for people to continue to believe in miracles and how a miracle is identified in the present.
Belief in miracles persists in the present and is widespread as a poll of 2,250 adults surveyed online between November 13 and 18, 2013 carried out in the United States by Harris Interactive indicates 72 % of those surveyed believe. The poll results show a widespread belief in miracles, but does not define what the respondents believe is a miracle. Miracles are viewed from a variety of perspectives in accordance with the doctrines of many different faiths. The understanding of what is a miracle with which I am most familiar comes from my Roman Catholic background. Though I am no longer practicing Roman Catholicism, I continue to wonder when I hear of what are held to be miracles by the Church.
In Roman Catholicism a miracle is defined as an event:
outside, or beside, nature when natural forces may have the power to produce the effect, at least in part, but could not of themselves alone have produced it in the way it was actually brought about. Thus the effect in abundance far exceeds the power of natural forces, or it takes place instantaneously without the means or processes which nature employs […] A miracle is said to be contrary to nature when the effect produced is contrary to the natural course of things.” (Catholic Encyclopedia)
In addition, “miracles are signs of God’s Providence over men, hence they are of high moral character, simple and obvious in the forces at work, in the circumstances of their working, and in their aim and purpose.” (Catholic Encyclopedia)
The Roman Catholic Church investigates claims of miraculous events, particularly claims of miraculous healing, and most are dismissed as unfounded. Many claims (approximately 35 per year) of miraculous healing come from pilgrims who visit the Marian shrine at Lourdes. These claims are investigated by the Lourdes Medical Bureau (Bureau des Constatations Médicales), an official medical organization, within the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes. Its mandate is to send medical investigations of apparent miraculous cures associated with the shrine of Lourdes to the International Medical Committee of Lourdes (Comité Médical International de Lourdes). The Roman Catholic Church makes the final determination as to whether or not there has been a miraculous healing. Before this happens the following criteria must be met:
- The original diagnosis must be verified and confirmed beyond doubt
- The diagnosis must be regarded as “incurable” with current means (although ongoing treatments do not disqualify the cure)
- The cure must happen in association with a visit to Lourdes, typically while in Lourdes or in the vicinity of the shrine itself (although drinking or bathing in the water are not required)
- The cure must be immediate (rapid resolution of symptoms and signs of the illness)
- The cure must be complete (with no residual impairment or deficit)
- The cure must be permanent (with no recurrence)
To date there are sixty-nine instances in which these criteria have been met, the most recent in 2013 when Bishop Giovanni Guidici of Pavia declared that the healing of Mrs. Danila Castelli, who made her pilgrimage to Lourdes in 1989, was “prodigious-miraculous” in character. Mrs. Castelli suffered from high blood pressure and tumors were found near her bladder which led to a series of surgeries between 1982-1988 including a hysterectomy and the removal of part of her pancreas to no avail. Following her pilgrimage and immersion in the sacred baths at Lourdes, Mrs. Castelli reported “an extraordinary feeling of well being.” (as cited in CNA) The investigation of her claim by the Lourdes Medical Bureau and the International Medical Committee of Lourdes took twenty-three years before concluding at the final meeting on the matter in 2010 , where more than 100 doctors and nurses, led by Dr. Alessandro de Franciscis concluded “this lady was judged, indeed certified cured in a way unexplained by current medical scientific knowledge.” (as cited in CNA)
That Mrs. Castelli recovered from the illness that plagued her is welcome news. She, her family and friends have reason to be very happy and thankful, but was this actually a sign of God’s Providence over men? For the faithful it is most certainly the case. This is entirely a matter of faith and is something that can never be proven. While I am left in wonder when confronted with events such as these, a seemingly genuine miracle, I am not convinced there is anything divine behind it. I am happy for those who, like Mrs. Castelli, who recover from a serious illness in a manner that cannot be explained by current medical scientific knowledge, and rather than scoff or try to disprove it I am inclined to recall the adage, never look a gift horse in the mouth, and leave it at that.