Pope John Paul II's Canonization: The Making of a Miracle
Pope John Paul II will be canonized in April. A woman from Costa Rica experienced a stunning recovery from a brain aneurysm after praying to the late pontiff. Her story provides a unique look at the Vatican's miracle workshop.
There is a place in Rome where miracles are collected and examined, inspected and screened, and purged of all thirst for glory or pagan superstition. It is called the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
The Vatican's outpost in the Lateran Palace is on Piazza Giovanni Paolo II. The marble street sign, a more recent addition, will have to be redone soon, when a mason chisels the word "San," or "saint" into the sign. That will occur by no later than April 27, when Karol Wojtyla, aka Giovanni Paolo II, will be declared a saint in Rome, only nine years after his death. Rarely has the Vatican been in such a hurry to complete a canonization. John Paul II was a global pope, and now he is to become a saint of the 21st century, a global saint.
He has already been beatified. But to attain the second level of godliness, sainthood, another miracle, one that has been officially examined and cannot be explained by the laws of science, is required.
The necessary research is undertaken at the office on Piazza Giovanni Paolo II. Slawomir Oder, 53, is the "postulator" of "Causa Ioannis Pauli." He handles the red tape surrounding the canonization, acting as an intermediary between Heaven and earth, a sort of central collecting point for evidence, witness testimony and reports of miracles. His staff has inspected all of the writings of Karol Wojtyla, from an early play called "The Jeweler's Shop" to the words of his last, almost inaudible address.
The monsignor is a representative of the new Poland, multilingual, efficient and, most recently, sporting a neatly trimmed goatee. He looks like someone who could be managing a tech start-up. His office on the fifth floor of the Lateran Palace is filled with files, images of popes and souvenirs from his travels. A glass case next to the door contains a white cap and a pencil case. Monsignor Oder answers the question before it is even asked: "Yes, they are originals." He points to a round reliquary, which contains a piece of material with gray spots on it. "They are from the day of the assassination attempt," May 13, 1981. It's the most valuable item in his collection.
Oder's office is also responsible for the management of relics, which are divided into three classifications. The most valued are parts of John Paul's body, which include mostly hair or blood. Second are "contact relics," or clothing and accessories the deceased pope once wore. Finally, items that came into contact with a contact relic also make the list.
A Wondrous Story
There are currently about 400 "first-class relics" in circulation, and about 40,000 second-class relics, which consist almost exclusively of nine square-millimeter snippets of one of the pope's chasubles.
The number of third-class relics is potentially infinite, following the homeopathic principle whereby substances are effective, even in the greatest possible dilution. However, as Oder is quick to point out, such relics are not to be used as a talisman. A relic, he says, is no good-luck charm, but rather an object of meditation and a window into the faith. "Take a few," says the monsignor.
The "Positio," or final report, is kept in the safe. One copy was given to Pope Francis, while the original remains in Monsignor Oder's safekeeping. The Karol Wojtyla file weighs about four kilograms (nine pounds) and consists of four volumes, bound in apostolic eggshell-white material, and comprising a total of 2,709 pages. The file is titled "Positio super vita, virtutibus et fama sanctitatis," or "Report on the Life, Virtues and Reputation of Sanctity." The report includes, for example, the testimony of a certain Dr. Helmut Kohl (the former German chancellor), as well as that of the Dalai Lama and about 100 other contemporaries. Oder has visited all of them in the last few years. Each of those interviewed, if Catholic, was asked to swear upon his or her soul that he or she was telling the truth.
The "Positio" also contains a long, wondrous story that unfolded three years ago and 10,000 kilometers away, or, to be more precise, in the right temporal lobe of the brain of Floribeth Mora Díaz.
The house of Mora's family is on a steep street on the outskirts of San José, where the Costa Rican capital gradually gives way to the rain forest. Mora -- 50, wearing tight, red stretch jeans -- is a grandmother nine times over. She has constructed an altar on her veranda, a colorful, shimmering private shrine, complete with plaster cherubs, Sacred Heart candles, and printouts of prayers for John Paul II, who will soon be Saint John Paul II. "My saint," says Mora; there is no doubt that her claim is correct.
On April 13, 2011, Señora Mora was convinced that her head was about to explode. She could no longer feel her left leg and she was constantly vomiting. Her doctor had diagnosed Mora with "migraines," but she refused to believe him.
Her husband, Edwin Arce, took her to the emergency room at the Hospital La Católica in San José. He was determined that only the best would do for his wife, and La Católica was the best hospital in the city, despite the fact that some of the patients were admitted in handcuffs, owing to the prison located right around the corner.
A Positive Omen
The neurologist who evaluated Mora was Dr. Alejandro Vargas, a doctor so young, attractive and clever that he could easily be taken for a telenovela actor. Before Vargas operates on a patient's head, he likes to say: "With the help of God, vamos " Mora decided to interpret his words as a positive omen.
"My head felt like it was swollen, I didn't even dare to sneeze. The doctor gave me a contrast agent and did his examination. Then he told me I had an aneurysm" -- a bulge in the wall of a blood vessel. Aneurysms are not unusual in individuals over 50, especially when they are somewhat overweight and have hypertension.
"Her blood pressure was very high. She was suffering from a fusiform aneurysm," Vargas would later write in his report. "It could have been clamped, but the problem is that we don't have the technology for that. An operation was too risky."
Mora's aneurysm looked to be located in a region of the brain that was inaccessible to the surgeons. "Dr. Vargas said that he couldn't clamp the blood vessel," Mora relates. "He said that if he operated, I could fall into a coma or become permanently paralyzed. He told me there was nothing he could do."
Mora remembers how a priest came to administer her last rites. Dr. Vargas recalls that he had only said that nothing could be done for Mora in his hospital. "This type of case is certainly operated on in Mexico or the United States. I prescribed anti-hypertensive medication for the señora, as well as a sedative. After all, the aneurysm hadn't ruptured. There was still hope."
But Mora didn't think so. She had a problem in her head, one that not even the best doctor in Costa Rica could solve. She was in tears as her husband Edwin drove her back to Tres Ríos. "I called my brothers so that they could get the family together. I wanted to tell them they should always stick together, even without me, and that their mother had only a month left to live." Mora wept for three days and took the pills Dr. Vargas had prescribed. In between bouts of weeping, she prayed.
One of her children occasionally came into her room and tapped her to see if she was still alive. She had been sent home to die. It was what she would later say to every priest she encountered, to the archbishop and to anyone else who would listen.
The Only True Miracle
From a purely dogmatic standpoint, miracles make the church a little uncomfortable. God doesn't need to prove his omnipotence in the form of patients whose missing limbs suddenly reappear. The only true miracle is the resurrection of Jesus.
To Pope Benedict XVI, reports of farmers strolling across their village pond were just as suspect as the cult of Padre Pio or the apparitions of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the lame and sick go for salvation. The veneration of saints is no substitute for health insurance.
But people want miracles. A world without the possibility of the impossible would be like a lottery without a grand prize -- an empty world, a world without God. It's the reason people want saints. To the faithful, saints are like touchable, practical versions of God.
This sentiment explains why devout Catholics began chanting "Santo subito!" (Italian for "saint now!") shortly after Karol Wojtyla's death. On the day he died, "we perceived the fragrance of his sanctity, and in any number of ways God's People showed their veneration for him," said Benedict XVI, as he proceeded to beatify his predecessor in record time, after only six years of examination.
On May 1, 2011, the day John Paul II was beatified, one and a half million pilgrims came to Rome. Newspapers worldwide published special issues to commemorate the event, including La Nación in San José, Costa Rica.
But there is a difference between beatification and sainthood. Only a real saint has his own holiday, and only his relics can be worshipped everywhere, no matter what documents turn up in the future. Only a saint remains a saint until doomsday and beyond.
However, a "fragrance," no matter how strong, is not enough for sainthood. The rules can be found in the papal bull titled "Divinus perfectionis Magister." They state that it is not sufficient to have led an unblemished and virtuous life, or even to have wrestled down communism. Canonization requires a confirmed miracle.
The notion that he was capable of miracles was already attributed to John Paul II in the course of his beatification. In 2005 Marie Simon-Pierre, a nun from Puyricard in France's Provence region, claimed that she had been cured of Parkinson's disease by merely invoking the deceased pope.
According to the rules, simple martyrdom, such as death by assassination, would be sufficient for beatification. But a miracle is required for canonization, provided the pope enforces the rule. What's more, the miracle must have taken place after beatification. In the case of John Paul II, that would be anytime after May 2, 2011.
- Part 1: The Making of a Miracle
- Part 2: Juan Pablo's Helping Hand
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