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.

Juan Pablo's Helping Hand

Floribeth Mora couldn't sleep that night and watched television instead. The special edition of La Nación, with a black-and-white photo of the pope giving his blessing, was lying on top of Mora's TV.

"In the morning, I looked at his picture in the newspaper. I heard a voice. Yes, it was a male voice. Yes, it was in Spanish. It said: 'Get up and have no fear.' His two hands emerged from the photo." Mora has told the story many times. She weeps every time she tells it.

She is an attractive and serious woman, and yet she lacks the penetrating radiance common to those who have been in contact with the dead. Her husband Edwin, who used to sell auto parts, now runs a security company with his sons. The youngest son, who looks like a punk rocker, serves us tamales.

"I stood up and said: 'Sí, Señor.' I was able to go into the kitchen. I felt a little better. I felt an inner warmth. I was convinced that I was healthy, even if my body was saying the opposite. My Juan Pablo," says Mora.

Her headaches subsided and eventually disappeared. In July, Dr. Vargas was astonished to see his patient return to his office with no symptoms. He says: "When I saw the scans, I initially thought it was the wrong CD. I could see no signs of an aneurysm. It looked like a completely normal artery, even after the catheter examination. It was my impression that something had happened here. I haven't found anything like this in the literature."

Juan Pablo had helped.

For Mora, there was no need to discuss the miracle any further, and the world would never have learned about it if a certain Father Dariusz Ra had only brought along some Polish sausage from Krakow, or perhaps some vodka. But the priest had felt that something very special was needed.

In Rome, Ra had become friends with another priest, Donald, when they were both students at the Pontifical Gregoriana University. Father Dariusz was from Silesia, and Father Donald was from Costa Rica. "Dariusz wanted to visit me, spent a few days at the beach and see the volcanoes. He asked if he could bring me anything. I had no idea," says Donald. In any event, he expected his friend to turn up with some Polish sausage instead of blood -- papal blood. Although it was only a drop, it was the blood of John Paul II, together with a certificate in Latin, which read: "Ex Sanguine Beati Ioannis Pauli Papae."

The Making of a Miracle

"That was the first peculiarity," says Donald Solana, the priest at the church of Nuestra Señora de Ujarrás in Paraíso, a neighborhood in the city of Cartago. Wearing a short-sleeved shirt, he smiles broadly and easily. "The blood of a pope -- here in Costa Rica. I am always amazed anew by our Lord."

And that was only the beginning. Without that drop of blood in the luggage of Father Dariusz, there would be no canonization on April 27, 2014, nor would there be a square at the Vatican soon to be named Piazza San Giovanni Paolo II. That's because miracles don't just fall out of the sky. Miracles are made.

The drop of blood that the visitor from Krakow had brought along in his luggage was dried on a piece of material and enclosed in a brass container. It was from the last blood sample taken from John Paul II as he was dying.

Stanislaw Dziwisz, who is now the Archbishop of Krakow, was the pope's private secretary at the time and had inherited the ampoule. In addition to being viewed as the trustee of John Paul's spiritual estate, Dziwisz has a monopoly on the distribution of the former pope's blood, which he dispenses at his discretion around the world, contained in various reliquaries.

"The hospital ampoule was not thrown away, but was wiped clean with one of the pope's old chasubles. And my friend Dariusz…," says Father Donald, pausing to savor the moment, "… had brought us some of it."

Some 3,000 pilgrims came to see the drop on the first day. On the second day, Father Donald thought about moving up the date of a planned expansion of his church.

The intercessory prayers of the day are already piling up in a basket in front of the relic. "Ensure that my son gets the job at the town hall," reads one note, while another reads: "Help me, Juan Pablo, I'm in such great pain."

In strict accordance with canon law, Father Donald isn't permitted to collect such entreaties. Someone who has been beatified can only be worshipped in his native country -- Poland, and not Costa Rica, in this case. Father Donald's drop of blood will only be transformed into the blood of a saint on April 27, when its value will suddenly increase, not unlike a work of art being auctioned at Sotheby's.

A Call to Costa Rica

"One day this señora turned up after the church was already closed. She was weeping and she was determined to see our drop of blood," says Father Donald. "I let her in. She said something about a cure, and that John Paul had saved her. My friend Dariusz wrote down a web address to which she could send her story." After that, says Father Donald, the woman's name slipped his mind.

"We certainly had a few dozen interesting, potential miracle cases in reserve," says Slawomir Oder, the man in charge of the former pope's file in Rome. "My secretary gave me the email from Señora Floribeth. There was no vanity there. On the contrary, she was a simple and beautiful soul whose only thought had been for her family. And John Paul II had always been near and dear to the family. So I made a call to Costa Rica."

Father Donald received the call at 7 a.m. one day in April 2012. Monsignor Oder introduced himself as the postulator of the cause of John Paul and quickly got to the point: "Find Señora Floribeth Mora. We need her."

It took the priest a moment to remember the woman who had come to his church in tears. With the help of someone he knew at the phone company, he managed to track her down at her home in Tres Ríos, on the outskirts of San José. "The Vatican sent us $1,200 to have Floribeth examined in a private clinic," says Father Donald. "The result was the same: There was no aneurysm. I sent the scans to Rome by DHL."

The machinery of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints had been set in motion. Too many people were waiting for a miracle. And certainly not just because they were sick.

In Washington, for example, a "Blessed John Paul II Shrine" had been built for $75 million, but the expected crowds of visitors had failed to materialize. The operators, a pope-loving brotherhood called the Knights of Columbus, were planning to quadruple the size of their exhibit space once John Paul's canonization was announced. According to a spokesman, the organization is now hoping to be able to present pilgrims with a blood-spattered piece of the former pope's robes from the day of the attempted assassination.

In Poland alone, 19 churches have already been consecrated in the name of the former pope. There are study centers, pilgrimage sites, museums and commemorative paths on every continent. And since the beatification, everyone has been waiting for the same thing: sainthood. The real thing. The miracle.

No Longer Needed

On Oct. 17, 2012, Floribeth Mora boarded an airplane for the first time in her life. Father Donald accompanied her to Rome, where a room had been reserved for her at the Gemelli Hospital, on the same floor where the pope, her Pope Juan Pablo, had stayed after the attack. The Congregation for the Causes of Saints had made all the preparations.

Perhaps Mora already sensed at the time that her private miracle was about to be transformed into something else, something much larger that would have little to do with her anymore: a global miracle. As a souvenir, she bought a snow globe with a tiny St. Peter's Basilica inside.

She was given the same unpleasant and prolonged tests as in Costa Rica: ultrasound, CT, catheter diagnosis. The tests made her so ill that an excursion to Assisi had to be canceled. At some point Mora just wanted to go home. And by then, she was no longer needed.

"It isn't the miracle that makes the saint," explains Slawomir Oder, the postulator of the cause. "It's merely the final confirmation" -- God's watermark, so to speak. "Every miracle requires a legal configuration," says Oder. "The church must have definitively determined that, after a person with a reputation for sanctity was turned to in prayer, an act of God occurred for which there is no scientific explanation."

In other words, the miracle is subjected to a technical inspection of sorts. A panel of theologians examines whether a sincere and deliberate prayer actually took place prior to the miracle.

Before that can happen, a panel of doctors is convened, pursuant to Section 2.14.1) of the "Divinus perfectionis Magister," which reads: "The claimed miracles, for which a written document has been prepared by the rapporteur appointed for this purpose, are examined by a group of experts (if cures are involved, a group of doctors); their statements and conclusions are described in a precise report."

Although he cannot provide the names of the doctors involved, says Postulator Oder, this much he can say: "They are authorities who are not necessarily close to the church."

When Father Donald received another phone call from the Vatican in November, the voice on the other end informed him that everything was "tutto bene!" The doctors had found no scientific explanation for Mora's cure. "It was indeed a miracle," says Monsignor Oder. "The doctors had ruled out spontaneous healing. The aneurysm was in a part of the brain that couldn't be operated on. There is neither a thrombus nor a scar, nor is there any evidence of a different path the blood could have taken. It's as if the aneurysm never existed."

Another Version

The case was clear, for the postulator, for the cardinals and bishops of the Congregation, and for Pope Francis. On July 5, 2013, the Holy See announced that the pope had recognized by decree the miracle required for canonization.

Without access to all of the scans, it is difficult to say what really happened in the right temporal lobe of Floribeth Mora Díaz.

Since the pope's death, there had been so many alleged miracle cures that there was practically a competition over which miracle would be selected by the Vatican. Brazil, Mexico and Poland, as well as Bolivia, were all in the running. So why did the Vatican choose Floribeth Mora from Costa Rica?

The local archbishop, Hugo Barrantes, sees the case as "a message to the secular state" of Costa Rica, which was in the process of decriminalizing artificial insemination. "A miracle is no random intervention by the Lord," says Slawomir Oder, who ought to know. "It always comes with a deeper message. In the case of Señora Floribeth, it is a message for life and the family."

There is also another version of the story.

"We didn't want it to be a nun, because a nun had already been involved in the beatification," says Daniel Blanco, chancellor of the diocesan curia of San José in Costa Rica. The official report on the miracle of San José bears his signature. "The case was very much strengthened by the fact that it was from Latin America, where John Paul II is very popular. And that she was a mother in the prime of her life."

Besides, says Blanco, Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz -- the Archbishop of Krakow and the source of Father Donald's relic containing the blood of the former pope -- had shown a keen interest in the case. "In the final phase, he called almost every day to ask how much progress we had made." Progress with the miracle, that is.

On April 27, 2014, Rome will be overflowing with pilgrims once again, when a new name is added to the list of saints: Saint Karol.

Father Donald Solano will have renovated his church by then. He has already had new business cards printed for the church. They now include the word "shrine."

Dr. Alejandro Vargas, the first doctor in the case, says that patients now come to him just to touch his hand. Recently, as he was performing a difficult surgery using a microscope, there was so much blood that he had to operate blindly. He says that he sensed that "someone took my hand, and the bleeding stopped."

Today Mora always sits in the front row during mass. Some people from Bosnia recently came to her house to ask for her blessing. It is still something of a mystery to her that they have made her Juan Pablo into a saint; that her name will soon be mentioned in every language; that millions of people will think about the miracle that took place in her head.

Mora's life has thoroughly changed in only one respect: It is continuing. But what happens if another aneurysm forms in her brain? "Under canon law, it would be a completely new illness," the postulator said. A new miracle would then be required -- or a better doctor.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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