A young, dying heart and the prayers of JPII

News reports that involve claims of the miraculous can get a bit messy (as we saw the other day in a story about India), since reporters often hesitate to quote the views of believers without a touch of snark. At the same time, it’s possible to veer the other direction and fail to report the practical, physical details that can be verified about what did or what didn’t happen in any particular case.

When in doubt, quote the believers accurately, then quote the skeptics accurately. And try to doubt the doubters to the same degree that you doubt the believers.

I’ve had a story in my GetReligion folder of guilt for a while that illustrates several pieces of this puzzle. It’s a human-interest story from The Baltimore Sun that effectively mixes the human and what may be the super-human. Both halves of the equation show up at the very top of the story:

Born with half a heart and abandoned in a village west of Beijing, nobody believed Liu Fang would survive long after being adopted by a Baltimore County family. Even the Bartlinskis, deeply religious Catholics, expected the girl’s lungs would fail even if her heart could be repaired.

Two years later, as the 5-year-old girl awaits a cardiac transplant, her parents, a Catonsville school and the family’s parish are literally praying for a miracle. … If the girl, who now goes by Teresa, is strong enough to survive the surgery, her parents will ask the Roman Catholic Church to proclaim her healing a miracle to be used toward the declaration of sainthood for the late Pope John Paul II.

If a miracle occurs — it would apparently be one of just five investigated by the Archdiocese of Baltimore in 200 years — the incident would involve an inexplicable healing of her lungs. The Bartlinskis are working with church officials to document the medical and spiritual evidence, including morning prayers by the children at St. Mark School.

Needless to say, faith language and imagery weaves in and out of this entire report. However, the key challenge in this story is to explain the details of the medical challenges faced by Teresa and her family — the details that will be linked to the investigation of her case by Catholic officials.

The bottom line: It has been hard for Teresa to get a new heart because doctors keep ruling that her lungs are too damaged, thus making her a poor risk for a transplant. Her heart condition — hypoplastic left heart syndrome — is considered terminal.

This family has lots of faith and lots of love, but the finances are getting thin. Suffice it to say that this family is trying to walk its talk, when it comes to helping needy children.

On a recent day, the child — named for Mother Teresa, the late Catholic nun and Nobel Peace Prize recipient — finished stacking wooden blocks on the dining room table and bounded into the living room to play with her sisters. An oxygen line trailing behind her allows her to breathe, but leaves enough slack for her to move around the house. She’ll turn 6 on Christmas Day.

She’s one of five special needs daughters Ann and Ed Bartlinski have adopted from China since 2004. The girls join the couple’s four biological children, three sons and a daughter. The couple said they’ve cashed in their retirement funds, exhausted their savings and gone into debt to bring the girls home, spending as much as $40,000 on each adoption.

And then there is the family’s Polish heritage and the spiritual ties to the Blessed John Paul II. This is the tricky territory that requires careful reporting:

They’re also getting support of the spiritual kind. The children at St. Mark School have prayed for Teresa’s healing every morning for two years.

The family made up prayer cards that ask specifically for the specific intercession of the late pope, who was beatified after the Vatican declared that a French nun had been cured of Parkinson’s disease with his intervention. For Blessed John Paul II (as he is now known) to be named a saint, at least one more miracle must be ascribed to him. …

The Catholic church’s process of declaring a miracle — an instantaneous occurrence that cannot be explained by science — is a rigorous investigation of scientific and spiritual evidence, including medical documentation, such as X-rays and testimony from doctors.

Diane Barr, chancellor for the Archdiocese of Baltimore and a civil and canon lawyer, said any possible miracle must be investigated by local church authorities and then submitted to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The process is veiled and the results of the investigation are not public. …

That’s good to know, but why should anyone outside the church trust an investigation by the church itself?

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest, contributing editor of the Catholic weekly America and author of “My Life with the Saints,” said the Vatican sets a high bar for confirming a miracle — “probably higher than most of us would set it.”

An ailment healed by a miracle cannot recur, voluminous proof must be submitted for both the illness and the cure, and its occurrence cannot be attributed to anything other than divine intervention, Martin said. The doctors called on by the Vatican to investigate an alleged miracle are often not Catholic and sometimes non-believers, he said.

As always, I wish that the Sun team had been a bit more careful in describing Catholic teachings about healing and prayers to — actually “with” — the saints. It is crucial to remember that the church believes it is always God alone who performs miracles. The church, however, does believe that it is appropriate for believers to ask the saints to pray with them under these kinds of circumstances. The saint “intervenes” through prayers, while God performs the miracle.

In the end, however, this particular Sun piece got way, way more right than it got wrong. Considering the newspaper’s recent track record on religion, and Catholicism in particular, this feature story was, in its own way, kind of a journalistic miracle.

Also, for those seeking an update on Teresa’s condition, click here. She is still awaiting a transplant, after one opportunity fell through. Many continue to pray, including — the family believes — a Polish pope for whom the prayers to the throne of God are a local call.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.


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