At this point, I think it’s safe to say that almost every story written about the Vatican decision to recognize the sainthood of the Blessed John Paul II (and, in a surprise of timing, John XXIII) is going to include a phrase or two about the former pope performing a miracle of healing, or words to that effect.
Trust me, I am well aware of the fact that many Catholics use language, from time to time, saying that this or that person was “healed by” prayers “to” a particular saint. At this point, however, I guess the big question is whether journalists should strive to include at least one passage in these stories that actually discusses what Catholic doctrine says about saints, intercessory prayers and miracles.
Please ponder this less than perfect analogy. By now, in the post-Sept. 11 age, most journalists are aware that the term “jihad” has a rather complex meaning. While many Muslims consistently use this term in reference to “holy way,” the actual definition of the word means “struggle” or “effort.” One online dictionary states both parts of the equation thusly:
1: a holy war waged on behalf of Islam as a religious duty; also: a personal struggle in devotion to Islam especially involving spiritual discipline
Now, I think most editors would consider it wrong if a reporter wrote a story in which the term “jihad” was frequently used and never paused to explain what this doctrinal term truly means for believers in the Muslim faith, as well as mentioning how the term is commonly used in reference to armed struggle. In other words, journalists should — to help readers fully understand the reference — describe precisely what Muslims believe about this term and this concept.
At this point, maybe that’s the most we can hope for with the concept of divine healing in response to the intercessory prayers of the saints. One more time, here’s a word on the basics, care of Father Arne Panula of the Catholic Information Center here in Washington, D.C.:
“What must be stressed is that we pray for a saint to intercede for us with God. Actually, it’s more accurate to say that we ask the saint to pray ‘with’ us, rather than to say that we pray ‘to’ a saint,” he said.
“You see, all grace comes from the Trinity, from the Godhead. These kinds of supernatural interventions always come from God. The saint plays a role, but God performs the miracle. That may sound like a trivial distinction to some people, but it is not.”
With that in mind, let’s look at two different wordings in a new Reuters report about John Paul II. The first is a classic example of how some Catholics talk about this phenomenon. This is long, but it’s important to see all the details:
(Reuters) – Suffering a potentially fatal swelling in the brain, Costa Rican grandmother Floribeth Mora says a voice spoke to her through a photograph of the late Pope John Paul II, miraculously curing her and sealing the late pontiff’s sainthood.
The Vatican said on Friday Pope Francis had approved Mora’s cure as the requisite second miracle for the sainthood of John Paul II, who led the Roman Catholic Church from 1978 to 2005. …
According to Mora, she drifted off to sleep in the early hours of May 1, 2011 after watching a mass on television to mark the beatification of John Paul II, who died in 2005. She says she prayed to the late pope to heal her, and when she awoke, her eyes fell on a picture of him she had on top of the television.
“I woke up when I heard a voice that said ‘get up,’” Mora, now 50, said on Friday at the Roman Catholic Church’s administrative offices in San Jose, showing the clipping. “I was alone in my room, I only had this clipping that was published around those dates to commemorate John Paul II’s papacy.”
“I had it in front of me and I heard a voice again that said ‘get up’ and I looked at his photo and saw his open arms and I heard a voice that said ‘be not afraid’ and I said ‘Yes Lord,’” she added between tears, a golden rosary hanging around her neck. I went to my husband and he asked me what I was doing and I just said ‘I feel fine, I feel fine, I feel fine.’”
You can see both understandings of this doctrine in this passage, built largely on what we must assume are accurate quotes from this Catholic believer.
I would ask this, concerning the crucial paraphrase. We are told that she “prayed to the late pope to heal her,” yet her response to the supernatural voice that addresses her is “Yes Lord.” I wonder: Is it proper to address a saint as “Lord,” or is she acknowledging that the ultimate authority in this healing is God?
At the very end of the same story, the Reuters team states the equation this way in reference to an earlier healing:
Before he was beatified, the late John Paul had already been credited with asking God to cure a French nun of Parkinson’s disease, the same malady he himself had suffered from.
This wording is very specific and I know few who would question it. Note that the late pope had “already been credited with asking God to cure a French nun” of Parkinson’s disease.
At this point, I think the key is to see if journalists include (a) any reference in these stories to God being the source of the claimed healing, with (b) God acting in response to the prayers of the saint.
And what should journalists avoid? Here is a textbook version of that, care of The Daily Beast:
On May 1, 2011, the late pope John Paul II was beatified as a precursor to sainthood after being credited for miraculously curing a French nun of Parkinson’s disease. On that day, the family of a severely ill Costa Rican woman reportedly prayed to the beatified pontiff for her recovery.
The bottom line: John Paul II miraculously cures someone. The late pope did the curing.