Miracle caused by mere memory of John Paul II?

Miracle caused by mere memory of John Paul II? June 21, 2013

There has been another development in the canonization case of the Blessed John Paul II, which means it’s time for another round of news stories that — to one degree or another — mangle what Catholics and members of other ancient churches believe about prayer and the saints.

Before we get going, here is a handy doctrinal reminder: For Christians, only God can perform miracles. Here’s how Father Arne Panula of the Catholic Information Center here in Washington, D.C., explained it to me in 2011:

“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.”

Now with that in mind, check out the lede on this quick online story from The Atlantic:

The Vatican has reportedly “approved” a second miracle that can be attributed to the memory of Pope John Paul II, opening the door for him to become a full saint faster than anyone in recent history. The Vatican won’t reveal the details of the miracle just yet, but it allegedly concerns the “extraordinary healing” of a woman in Costa Rica, who recovered from a brain injury after praying to the deceased pope. A similar healing miracle was attributed to John Paul in 2011, giving him the two miracles required to reach full sainthood.

Whoa, that contains at least one totally new twist on the usual errors.

What in the world does it mean to say that the “memory” of Pope John Paul II was the cause of a miracle? Later on in the same paragraph, we have the more familiar error — the part about the healing talking place after someone “prayed to the deceased pope.”

Meanwhile, a loyal GetReligion reader who studies all things Catholic noted some other quirks.

Why the strange quotation marks around “approved”? What does it mean to be a “full” saint, as opposed to a “half” saint? Is this brain injury a “similar” miracle to the earlier healing from Parkinson’s disease? Really? Is there a chart?

The other more subtle, and common, errors in this case are two-fold. First, the word “intercession” is missing. Second, it sounds like the Blessed John Paul II actually performed the miracle, not the Triune God of the Christian faith.

It’s common for journalists to get at least part of that right, which is greatly to be preferred. Note this language in a piece from The Huffington Post.

VATICAN CITY — Pope John Paul II has moved a step closer to sainthood.

A Vatican official says a commission of theologians approved a miracle attributed to his intercession, clearing a key hurdle. The case now goes to a commission of cardinals and then Pope Francis. John Paul’s canonization is possible in autumn to coincide with the 35th anniversary of his election, though the official said Wednesday on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to reveal details about the case that it may be too soon.

Good use of “intercession,” but this again begs the question. The Blessed John Paul II offered his prayers, but to whom, or rather, to Whom?

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14 responses to “Miracle caused by mere memory of John Paul II?”

  1. tmatt,

    In answer to your last question, the to Whom is pretty clear to most Americans. There is no need to waste space with further explanation.

    Catholics, lay and clergy, muddy the linguistic waters when they use pray to and pray with interchangeably. Search for “Pray to Virgin Mary” and a bazillion websites come up, most created by Catholics for Catholics. Likewise a search for “Pray to St. Benedict”. People state that they make vows to saints, which, again, sounds like they are praying to rather than with. It’s unreasonable to expect reporters, many of whom are non-Catholics to make a distinction not made and apparently not well understood by Catholics themselves.

    • The water is also muddied when the person taking a travelling statue of Our Lady comes to my parish and, in his presentation, states that Catholics “worship” her. One can only facepalm. (As a convert, saints and Mariology were an issue I had to resolve and be certain about before I could make that Tiber leap.)

  2. I understand your reluctance on “pray to” and the preference for “seek the intercession of.” Theologically, it reflects a more accurate modern use of the language, but I think it is a matter of current usage rather than a hard and fast rule.

    We need only look at Shakespeare to see it used otherwise. How often do we hear one character or another say, “I pray you…” or as Viola says to the Captain in Act 1, Scene 2 of Twelfth Night, “I prithee, and I’ll pay thee bounteously…”

    A little closer to our own time, as I typed “I pray you…”, the end of Gilbert & Sullivan’s The Pirates of Penzance came to mind. After Ruth has disclosed that the orphaned pirates “are all noblemen who have gone wrong,” Major-General Stanley sings to the Pirate King, “I pray you pardon me, ex-Pirate King.”

    In other words, “pray” was used as a synonym for “ask” or “request.” It’s still used that way in legalese. When or how the change in popular usage as solely a theological term and one that means a request given only to God took place, I don’t know. But English literature is rife with examples of the other usage, and it’s still used in legalese.

    Yet, I do have a problem with “prayed to the deceased pope.” Praying to a dead pope just sounds wrong, because it is wrong. I don’t pray to dead people. It calls to mind Jesus’ rebuke to the Saducees about the resurrection, “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”

    • Language is also shifting. In Shakespeare’s time, the word “doubt” meant merely to “think” (it being a cognate of the German word “Denken”, meaning “to think”). The word “misdoubt” meant what we now mean by “doubt”. When it shifted, I don’t know.

    • Well no actually its only wrong if you have removed portions of the bible that clearly portray such tradition, which Jesus , as a faithful Jew would have condoned. Luther removed portions of the bible which disagreed with his theology including prayers for and to the dead. Furthermore the new Testament is clear about the Church in heaven and on earth being in communion, alive together. The dead in heaven are NOT dead. Pope John Paul is not a dead man. He is alive in heaven and therefore just as available to ask to pray for us as is you local pastor , neighbor or spouse.

  3. Regarding “full saint” – I agree it’s an awkward phrase, but I think I understand why they went there. If Pope John II is a Saint, he became one when he died. Just like many people’s sweet old grandmothers might have. I haven’t heard of anyone that believes God waits around on the church to declare someone a saint before letting them in… what is under discussion is the canonization of a saint, the church recognizing and putting it’s official stamp on a truth that already was. So while “full saint” is not the best way to describe that, I find it less awkward than saying that “Pope John Paul II has moved a step closer to sainthood.” Best would be “Catholic church moves a step closer to recognizing the sainthood of Pope John Paul II.”

  4. Sari–I’ve never heard of making vows to a Saint. Vows are made to God. Benedictines follow the rule of Benedict and Franciscans follow the rule of Francis, but the individual’s vow is to God. Someone may see the saint as a model of discipleship, but the saint isn’t the person to whom the vow is made. A vow to saint sounds like a false oath to me. Am I misunderstanding you? Are you talking about a practice of folk piety? Danny Thomas made a promise to Saint Jude, and some people make promises to other Saints in return for their intercession–but I don’t think those promises are considered a vow.

    • Luther’s “Saint Anne help me, I will be a monk!” could be considered “a vow to a saint”.

    • Here’s an online example, one of many:

      “My mother named me Benedict from a vow she had to St Benedict

      my mom lost a baby boy as it was being born and before I was born she
      prayed and had a vow to St Benedict that if I was born and lived my name
      would be Benedict and she always told me to pray to St.Benedict and I
      always do.”


      Other individuals on the same thread ask St. B to bless them, to help them divine the direction of their lives, etc. So, it seems that many Catholics do, indeed, pray to the saints, take vows, etc. that might be more correctly addressed to G-d.

      Btw, I chose the name at random. The number of people who pray *to* the Virgin Mary is astounding.

      • From the Catholic perspective that’s a promise, not a vow. It is a non-binding promise. Vows are binding. Vows are entered freely, with full knowledge and consent. The kind of thing you are talking about are promises made in fear, anxiety and desperation–God doesn’t hold us to it. We are held to our vows. Even if you make a promise to honor a Saint, it is in gratitude to the Saint for praying WITH you to God. In a vow you are saying: if I fail to follow through may I be damned. People may say they are “taking a vow” but they are using the word colloquially.

  5. To Sari, and to all,

    The unfortunate truth is that many Catholics, many Christians in general I imagine, do not know or practice their religion well. As a convert to Catholicism, I know that many converts in the last 20-30 years have been poorly catechised. Further, in the early years of immigration of Catholics to the U.S. many were poorly educated people. The priests tried to explain things religious in as simple terms as possible because they assumed (wrongly, I think) that their congregation could not comprehend complex ideas. Then you add the attitude of parishoners that priests never were wrong–bingo! (pun intended) What you end up with is generations of Catholics immitating their parents who say “pray to” a saint, rather than “pray with.”

    I wonder, are their other religions where the average, dare I say “common,” member mis-understands his/her faith? Sari, surely there are members of your congregation, or other congregations you know, that are not precise when they talk about your faith. I believe, too, that many Muslims would tell us that some of their number have ideas about their faith that are wrong.

    To imitate a GetReligionisto we all know, I’m just saying…

    • True. My impression is that most self-styled-mainline Protestants around me when they say “God” mean only the Father, and think of “God” and “Jesus” as separate beings.

    • Absolutely, Richard. Most articles pertaining to Judaism make me cringe, either because of what a Jewish person said, how it was misrepresented by the media, or (usually) both. There’s plenty of ignorance to go around.

      My point was that we cannot blame the media for making the same mistakes made by a large percentage of members of any religion, including mine.

    • I agree. I hear a lot of Catholics speaking of “praying to saints” and having saints perform miracles. Even a lot of saints’ lives from the Middle Ages on use this kind of language in ways that can be vague about who exactly is performing the miracle and where the power lies. This isn’t just a problem of outsiders not understanding Catholic doctrine, or poorly catechised lay people. The history of Catholic doctrine and practice on saints is plagued with the human problem of our tendency to idolatry. (Perhaps I should add that having grown up Presbyterian I see no less of a tendency in Protestant churches. We just tend to focus our idolatry differently – on living preachers or our own documents like the Westminster Confession.)