Holy Smoke (and Mirrors)

By Ed Neumann, September 4, 2011

“Santo subito!” chanted the crowd that filled St. Peter’s Square following the funeral of Pope John Paul II in 2005. “Sainthood immediately!” It wasn’t long before thousands of “medical miracles” were reported, claiming attribution to the dead pope’s intercession. One such, a French nun reportedly cured of Parkinson’s disease after praying for JP’s help, was deemed miraculous by the Vatican-appointed medical panel. Pope Benedict signed the decree to beatify John Paul for this miracle and his “heroic virtues” – this despite the hero’s atrocious handling of the sex abuse scandal. It seems the recently deceased pope is indeed on the fast track to sainthood.

But what does it really take to be canonized a saint? One must be dead, considered venerable, and have interceded in at least two miracles. If martyred for one’s faith, however, only one miracle is required. In his 26 years as pope, John Paul II himself declared over 300 saints, more than all 264 of his predecessors combined! After his death, the Vatican issued new rules to urge more caution and, dare I say it, skepticism, when evaluating subsequent postmortem miracles. There are now roughly 10,000 listed saints, and judging from the fanciful tales which accompany some of them, skepticism seems to have been in short supply.

Beheaded martyrs known as cephalophores, for example, purportedly carried their own heads around after death. One of these, St. Denis, walked six miles while his decapitated head preached the gospel. St. George slew a dragon, St. Patrick chased the snakes from Ireland, and centuries after his death, St. Augustine was seen swooping down from the clouds to save a child who had fallen from a balcony. All perfectly believable, right?

Other embellished phenomena investigated after a would-be saint’s death include:

  • Incorruptibility – The desiccated, mummified head of St. Catherine of Siena (d. 1380) has yet to decay!
  • Liquefaction – St. Januarius of Naples’ dried blood liquefied every year on the day of his death.
  • Odor of Sanctity – St. Teresa of Avila’s grave emitted a sweet fragrance for 9 months after her burial.

Supposed miracles during the saint’s lifetime are also taken into account:

  • Levitation – St. Joseph of Cupertino had a tendency to float during prayer.
  • Stigmata – St. Francis of Assisi exhibited the five wounds of Christ (it was said they bled freely during Mass)
  • Bilocation – Padre Pio appeared in two places at once, truly leading a double life.

And who could forget the St. Aquinas story: It is claimed that on his death bed, when asked what he’d like for dinner, Thomas replied, “I would eat fresh herrings”. But herring was not a fish native to that region of the Mediterranean. And the fishmonger who was making his rounds said he only had sardines. But when the piscine purveyor opened his basket, lo and behold, it was full of herrings! Such anecdotes, though suitable for the tabloids, are hardly compelling evidence of sanctity.

Later arose the idea of Patron Saints, who specialize in handling the entreaties of certain select groups. There are patron saints for alcoholics, ugly people, repentant serial killers, and even dogs. Oddly enough, the patron saint for prostitutes is none other than jolly old St. Nicholas himself. That’s right, Santa is there for the Ho, Ho, Hos!

There were also saints who were anything but saintly in life. Saints Thomas More and Robert Bellarmine burned many a heretic; St. Olga ordered hundreds murdered in Kiev; and St. Cyril, patriarch of Alexandria, had killed or banished thousands of Jews and competing sects of Christians.

Even some theologians admit that many venerated saints never existed. For instance, there is no historical evidence for Saints Veronica, Christopher, Cyprian, Urho, or Santa Muerte, the skeletal saint of Death. Some of these non-historical saints were even based on earlier pagan gods, such as Saints Cosmo and Damien, who were the mythical Castor and Pollux, and St. Brigid who was named for a Celtic goddess.

So is John Paul II truly Blessed? An independent medical panel has stated that the nun may have had a neurological disorder that, unlike Parkinson’s, can resolve spontaneously but that is often misdiagnosed as Parkinson’s. And just last year it was reported that she had fallen ill again. It would appear the “miracle” is still in dispute.

The acts of the saints range from the highly unlikely to the laughably ludicrous. In modern times, perhaps the majority of us are no longer inclined to buy into the more far-fetched canards, and surely none but the most deluded would believe every reported deed.

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