Sister Marie Simon-Pierre was a soft-spoken nurse in the south of France when her life was changed by what the Vatican has decided was an answered prayer.
She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2001 and, with other nuns in France and Africa, immediately began prayed for healing. However, her symptoms worsened after the death of Pope John Paul II in April of 2005. That was when Simon-Pierre and her supporters began seeking the help of the pope, who suffered from the same disease in his final years.
Simon-Pierre awoke on the morning of June 3, 2005, with her hands steady and no other signs of the incurable neurological disease.
“It is the work of God, through the intercession of Pope John Paul II,” she told reporters in 2007. “I came across a sister who had helped me tremendously and I told her, … ‘look, my hand is no longer trembling.’ John Paul II cured me.”
Last week, Pope Benedict XVI signed a decree confirming that this “scientifically inexplicable” change in her health can be attributed to the intercessions of John Paul II, meaning that his predecessor can be called “blessed” and, thus, has moved closer to recognition as a saint.
While scientists debate what did or did not happen, journalists have struggled to clearly describe an event that is rooted in an ancient and modern mystery. Simply stated, what does it mean to say believers can ask saints to pray on their behalf during the trials of daily life or in times of crisis?
Father Arne Panula has faced this kind of question many times, especially as director of the Catholic Information Center a few blocks from the White House.
In press reports, this mystery is reduced to an equation that looks like this — needy people pray to their chosen saints and then miracles happen. It’s that simple. The problem, stressed Panula, is that this is an inadequate description of what Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and some other Christians believe.
“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.”
When describing this process to non-Catholics, especially to Protestants who are critical of the church, the priest offers a metaphor from — believe it or not — local government.
There is this citizen, he explained, who has a problem. His sidewalk is so messed up that it has become dangerous. This citizen can, of course, call city hall and seek help. It would also be appropriate to directly call the mayor. However, this particular citizen also has a good friend, or perhaps it is even a loved one, who works in the mayor’s office. Why not ask for this close friend to intercede, as well?
“That is what intercessory prayer is about,” said Panula.
The problem is that some people, Catholics included, tend to omit a key element when describing this mysterious process. They spend so much time talking about the intercessory role of the saints that they forget to mention the reality that unites Catholics and other believers — their belief that it is God who, in the end, hears prayers and performs miracles.
The key is the word “intercessor,” which is often used, but rarely explained, in reports about John Paul II, Mother Teresa and others who are being considered as possible saints. An “intercessor” is a mediator who works with others, helping them find favor with a higher authority who has the power. The bottom line is that it isn’t the intercessor who acts on their behalf.
Leaving God out of this picture, said Panula, “has become part of our culture, today. It’s one thing for journalists, to describe the process that leads to the beatification of John Paul II. They may not mind that. But it’s something else to write that there is a God who loves us, who is concerned about our welfare and who hears our prayers and those of his saints.”