Signs and Wonders

When I was in high school, my mother, a lifelong Methodist, became a fervent charismatic, something of which my father thoroughly disapproved. As a family we attended the nondenominational Scottsdale Bible Church, but during the week Mom would take me to charismatic meetings. With my mother I once attended a small gathering of charismatics to listen to the preaching of Frances and Charles Hunter, and to watch as they “healed” several of those present suffering from leg-length discrepancy. I guess no more serious ailments were afflicting those present that day. There was a great hoopla and a cacophony of tongues, and everyone went home happy.

I’m not claiming that God never used Frances to heal anyone – I simply don’t know that. But I do know that on that day no one was healed, yet we pretended that several had been. And that was not unusual, nor was it of evil intent. Our hungry hearts yearned for God to manifest His power in our sight. We simply loved God so much that pretty much everything had to be viewed as a “miracle.” To think otherwise was evidence of a lack of faith.

That wore thin after a while. I began to realize that some of the vaunted “healings” among charismatics were most likely cases of medically unsophisticated individuals being told by their doctor that he had seen “something” on an x-ray, something which might just be an artifact, but which needed further investigation because, although highly unlikely, he could not completely rule out (worst case scenario) cancer. Said individual, who heard the doctor say, “Blah, blah, blah, blah, CANCER” requests prayer for the “cancer which was found on the x-ray.” Fervent prayer ensues. Said individual returns for further tests, and it turns out that the “something” seen on the first x-ray isn’t there anymore, having been merely an artifact as the doctor suspected. Said individual, however, returns to his church utterly convinced that he has been healed of “the cancer that my doctor told me he saw on the x-ray,” and reports the “miracle” to the congregation who believe it without questioning, not wanting to be accused of a lack of faith. In my few years as a charismatic (and in my mother’s many years – she was involved right up until progressive dementia made it impossible to attend church), neither of us was ever confronted with a medically documented miracle among the “healings” reported in our midst. And that was a lotta “healings” over the course of a lotta years.

Obviously not all Protestants fall prey to this theology. In fact, some swing the other way. They are cessationists, claiming that miracles went out with the apostles. Calvinist cessationist B.B. Warfield, in his Counterfeit Miracles, sought to debunk Catholic claims of miracles, and fumed against the “exploitation” at Lourdes, inexplicably drawing into his argument the writings of the atheist French physician Émile Zola to show that the healings at Lourdes are but a fraud (Zola was actually a witness to a miracle at Lourdes, the healing of
Marie Lemarchand, yet declared, “Were I to see all the sick at Lourdes cured, I would not believe in a miracle!”). Warfield, though a Christian, was apparently of the same persuasion as Zola. “Lourdes does not register her failures,” he groused, claiming that the fact that more Catholics are left uncured after a visit to Lourdes than receive healing is somehow proof that the whole thing is a hoax – though Warfield was undoubtedly familiar with the passage in Acts 12 where Sts. Peter and James are arrested. The church prayed fervently for them both; Peter was miraculously released from prison by an angel, and James was executed. According to Warfield’s logic, that episode demonstrates a 50% failure rate on the part of the early church and its prayers, and thus by his reasoning the Good News was a hoax as well.

In my final Protestant incarnation I was a Baptist, and took the middle road. I had trouble buying into cessationism. I believed that God still healed people. Didn’t the Gospel of Mark tell us that “These signs shall follow them that believe; they shall lay hands on the sick, and shall recover”? I didn’t think that charismatics were wrong to expect miracles. Miracles just didn’t, in my opinion, seem to be forthcoming among the charismatic assemblies with which I or my mother were associated. Despite my disenchantment with charismatic “healings,” I nevertheless remained convinced that God can and does work miraculously in this world. When we were regaled with occasional tales of healings on the mission field, I believed that those might not have been mere rumors and exaggerations. I knew that God the Holy Spirit was still at work in our day.

I just didn’t have any documented proof of that.

Now, consider this announcement from late last year:

Today, 20 December 2012, Pope Benedict XVI received in a private audience Angelo Cardinal Amato, S.D.B., prefect of the Congregation of the Causes of the Saints. During the audience, the Holy Father authorized the Congregation of the Causes of Saints to promulgate the following twenty-four decrees regarding [among other things]:

A MIRACLE, attributed to the intercession of Blesseds Antonio Primaldo and 800 Companions, laypersons of the diocese of Otranto, killed in odium fidei on 13 August 1480 in Otranto (Italy); cult confirmed on 14 December 1771; martyrdom recognized on 06 July 2007

A MIRACLE, attributed to the intercession of the Blessed MarÍa Laura de Jesus Montoya Upegui (in religion, Laura of Saint Catherine of Siena), founder of the Congregation of the Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Virgin Mary and Saint Catherine of Siena; born on 26 May 1874 in Jericó, Antioquía (Colombia) and died on 21 October 1949 in Belencito, Medellín, Antioquía (Colombia); beatified on 25 April 2004

A MIRACLE, attributed to the intercession of the Blessed Anastasia Guadalupe García Zavala (in religion, María Guadalupe), cofounder of the Handmaids of Saint Margaret Mary and of the Poor; born on 27 April 1878 in Zapopan, Jalisco (Mexico) and died on 24 June 1963 in Guadalajara, Jalisco (Mexico); beatified on 25 April 2004

Yeah, right – would have been my charismatic response. As a Protestant I just KNEW that those Catholic “miracles” were bogus. Obviously bogus. Since the Catholics had their theology all messed up, I reasoned, there’s no way God doesn’t work real miracles in a charismatic assembly but does work them when Catholics pray. Impossible.

Today the above-mentioned two women and one large group of men are being canonized by Pope Francis. The story of why one of them, Laura Montoya, is being declared a saint is a good illustration of the work of the Holy Spirit, the work that I as a charismatic was looking for, the work that I as a Baptist was still longing to see, in the Catholic Church today:

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic (CNS) — In early January 2005, Carlos Eduardo Restrepo, a Colombian anesthesiologist suffering from lupus and a severe infection in his thorax, faced death.

His family and friends were preparing for the worst. He was given last rites. But then an image of Blessed Mother Laura Montoya appeared to him, he said.

“I remember it very well. In the moment, I was calm. I prayed to her: Help me get through this and it will allow you to get to the altars,” he told the newspaper El Colombiano.

Restrepo survived and was cured of his disease.

“If this wasn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is,” he said.

Pope Benedict XVI recognized it as a miracle last year, making it the second miracle attributed to Mother Montoya. In 1994, a Colombian woman, Herminia Gonzalez Trujillo, who had been hemorrhaging due to uterine cancer, was cured after praying to Mother Montoya.

Mother Montoya will be the first Columbian saint, with two thoroughly impressive, modern-day, physician-documented miracles under her cinture. From a Protestant perspective, kind of hard to explain.

Since becoming a Catholic, I have REVELED in the miracles leading to the canonization of various saints. These appear from time to time in newspapers and magazines, all documenting that the cures simply cannot be explained from a medical standpoint, and that they occurred after Catholics petitioned various “servants of God” for their prayers. One of the most extraordinary recent cases was the healing of an American boy, Jake Finkbonner, leading to the canonization of St. Kateri Tekakwitha. Jake himself tells the story on his website:

We thank the doctors at Children’s Hospital for all that they did to save my life. I wouldn’t be here without them. I also thank all the people that prayed for me. Obviously, God heard their prayers. This decision to canonize Blessed Kateri is something that the Vatican and the Pope declared, based on testimonies given by parishioners, my family and my doctors. Congratulations to the Catholic Church and the Native American culture in the canonizing of the now Saint Kateri.

My scars came in 2006 when I was just 5 years old. I was playing basketball for the Boys & Girls club, it was the last game of the season and the last minute of the game. I was running down court with the ball, I stopped in front of the hoop to shoot when I was pushed from behind. I flew forward and hit my mouth on the base of the portable basketball hoop. Lurking on the surface of that base was Strep A, also known as the “flesh eating bacteria” or Necrotizing Fasciitis. When I hit my mouth, my tooth pierced the inside of my lip and from that small pierce is where the Strep A entered into my body. By the next day I was fighting for my life. I am so thankful to the doctors at Children’s Hospital in Seattle that saved my life.”

Jake’s skin was being eaten away by the bacteria, and the decision was made to invoke the prayers of then-Blessed Kateri, a Native American (Jake’s dad is a Native American) whose skin was scarred from smallpox. The necrotizing fasciitis just disappeared.

And there are more signs and wonders. One miracle is necessary for the beatification of an individual, and one for canonization, so let’s take the case of the recently canonized Australian saint, Mary MacKillop:

Miracle #1: Veronica Hopson, 1961

”I went to see [my doctor] because I was tired and lazy and because of the bad cramp I was getting, because of the transparency in my hands and because everyone kept telling me I didn’t look well,” Mrs Hopson told the Vatican when it was investigating MacKillop’s life and works.

”He arranged for me to go into hospital. At that time I did collapse and couldn’t do any work at all.” She was diagnosed with acute myeloblastic leukaemia and told ”death was the evident outcome”.

”I thought she had perhaps a month to live,” said her haematologist, Redmond Dalton.

The nurses believed she was ”beyond prayers”. Her husband, Allan, told the Vatican: ”The doctors told me not to expect anything.”

Mrs Hopson went home to die on November 17. Her marriage was confirmed in a Catholic ceremony on the same day.

A month later she was back in hospital, sicker than before and with excruciating abscesses in her left arm and right thigh.

Veronica Hopson recovered completely and went on to give birth to six children. She credits the prayers of the nuns invoking the aid of Mary MacKillop for her healing, and so does the Vatican.

Miracle #2: Kathleen Evans, 1990s

“My name is Kathleen Evans. I’m married to Barry. I’m a mother of 5 and a grandmother of 20 including 2 great grandchildren. I come from the small town of Windale in Lake Macquarie. In the 1990’s, I was diagnosed with a non small carcinoma in my right lung.

After x-rays and scans were taken, my GP sent me to a heart, lung surgeon. He put me in hospital for a biopsy. The surgeon explained that he hoped to remove my right lung as my youngest child was only 13. And by taking the lung out, it might give me 5 or 6 years to see him through high school. What he found was that the cancer was very aggressive and had spread into my glands. He was concerned that one of the glands was too close to the aorta. He also asked for an x-ray of my head to be taken. He found that a secondary had started at the bottom of my brain. This put paid to any operation.

I was then sent to a chemotherapist who gave me no hope of the chemotherapy working.

The next step was radiotherapy, only to be told that any ray treatment would help with the side effects and perhaps give me a couple more weeks at the end. For this to happen, I would have to go to the hospital for 10 consecutive days. I was too sick for that. Besides the odds were just not worth it. I was only given a couple of months at the most to live. So I said thanks, but no thanks. I went back to my doctor and asked him to see me through until the end. All this took 1 month.”

A friend gave Kathleen a relic of Mary MacKillop which she wore night and day. Family and friends asked Blessed Mary for her prayers, and Kathleen began to feel better. She was eventually declared cured by her doctors, and was alive to see the 2010 canonization of the saint whose intercession she believes led to her recovery.

Three female saints, five medically inexplicable cures. But now, to give holy men their due, the canonization miracle of St. Juan Diego:

On May 3, 1990, in Mexico City, nineteen-year-old Juan José Barragán suffered from severe depression and, wanting to commit suicide, he threw himself from the balcony of his apartment, striking his head on the concrete pavement thirty feet below, despite his mother’s frantic attempts to hold onto him as she cried out to Juan Diego for help. The young man was rushed to the nearby hospital, where the doctor there noted his serious condition and suggested that the boy’s mother pray to God. To this, the young man’s mother replied that she already had prayed for Juan Diego’s intercession. For three days, examination and intensive care continued, and physicians diagnosed a large basal fracture of the skull – a wound that normally would have killed at the moment of impact, and even now destroyed any hope of survival or repair. Given the mortal nature of the wounds, on May 6 all extraordinary medical support was ceased, and young Juan José’s death was thought to be imminent. But that same day, Juan José sat up, began to eat, and within ten days was entirely recovered, with no debilitating side-effects, not even so much as a headache. In the scans, the doctors could see clear evidence of the life-threatening fracture, but to their surprise they noticed that the bone was mended, with the arteries and veins all in place. Astonished, they requested more tests by specialists for second opinions, only to have their original assessment confirmed. Impossible, unexplainable, it was declared a miracle.

A cause for canonization very dear to American hearts is that of Venerable Fulton Sheen. Will this be the miracle that brings him to beatification?

“One year ago today I delivered my son, a stillborn. For a moment he was placed in my arms quiet, blue, and limp. The midwife and her assistant then took him from me and began CPR. They could not find a pulse. He did not breathe. Because we were at home (it was my third, planned homebirth) 911 was called.

While CPR was continued and we waited for the ambulance my husband took water and baptized him using the name we had agreed upon, James Fulton. I remember sitting on the floor saying, “Fulton Sheen, Fulton Sheen, Fulton Sheen” over and over again in my head. I suppose it was as close as I could come to a prayer; I suppose it was my way of asking Archbishop Sheen to interceded for my son.

The paramedics came and rushed James away. In route, as they tried to restart his heart, they gave him two doses of epinephrine by lines in the shin bone. Neither worked and one leaked out, turning his whole right leg – from toe tip to buttock – black and blue and purple. In the ER the doctors and nurses worked on him for another 18 minutes or so. A nurse practitioner told me she wanted James’ mother to be able to hold him alive for a little bit. Five minutes, an hour – she just wanted my son to be alive long enough for me to say good-bye.

They did a sonogram of his heart. It fluttered but it didn’t beat. A nurse held his foot; she later told me it was cold, like the expression “cold and dead”. He was intubated and getting oxygen, but there was no way that the chest compressions were adequately circulating the oxygen to the brain and other organs. Following the orders of the on-call neonatologist they stopped working on him so they could call time of death.

My little boy, James Fulton, 9lbs and 12oz, had been without a pulse for 61 minutes.

Everyone stopped working. And then his heart started.”

Although it was apparent that James Fulton would live, physicians held out no hope that his life would ever be a normal one. Both an EEG and an MRI showed brain injury from lack of oxygen. The family and everyone who knew them continued to pray, invoking Fulton Sheen’s intercession:

Eternal Father, You alone grant us every blessing in Heaven and on earth, through the redemptive mission of Your Divine Son, Jesus Christ, and by the working of the Holy Spirit. If it be according to Your Will, glorify Your servant, Fulton J. Sheen, by granting the favor I now request through his prayerful intercession – that James Fulton’s body heals and functions normally and that he is spared any brain damage. I make this prayer confidently through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

And God heard the prayers of His servant. James Fulton Engstrom is a normal, thriving toddler with no sign of brain damage.


But true.

Don’t get me wrong – I believe that God can and does work the occasional miracle among Protestants, and even for unbelievers who need that extra push towards Christianity. But my persistent belief that miracles must be out there despite the fakery and false hope of my past experience has been validated by the miracles of the saints. The claims of the Catholic Church are thereby validated as well.

There was recently exciting news concerning the canonization of Blessed John Paul II, who is one step away from being declared a saint. The miracle which led to his beatification was the healing of Sister Marie Simon-Pierre, a French nun suffering from Parkinson’s. A second potential miracle is apparently under consideration, and rumor has it that he may be canonized as early as October.

And when he is canonized, I’ll be grinning from ear to ear. Miracles do happen.

I knew it!


On Ascension Sunday

Deo omnis gloria!

Photo credit: Stained glass window in the southern section of the ambulatory, close to the Lady’s Chapel. Depicted is the raising of Dorcas by Saint Peter in the upper section with the inscription Peter said Dorcas arise and she opened her eyes, and the release of the Apostles from prison by an angle (Acts 5:19) with the inscription I was in prison & ye came unto me. Created by Heaton, Butler & Bayne in 1889. By Andreas F. Borchert

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