Moving Away from Miracles

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Miracles were not a topic I expected to surface during our parish mission last month. But Father Tim referenced them with easy comfort.

“I’ve seen so many miracles in my fifteen years here,” he said. “Changes of heart, real conversions.” What, he implied, could be more miraculous?

Which brings us to the subject of canonization.

Supernatural miracles, long required for canonized Catholic saints, have had a storied role in the history of sainthood. Post-death miracles were mandated as a way of verifying that the potential saint was a friend of God and not a fraud or magician, and that her current address was indeed heaven.

In the centuries prior to John Paul II’s papacy, at least four miracles were required for sainthood, but in 1983 the pope lowered the requirement to two: one to be beatified, and a second to become a canonized saint. (Martyrs need only one miracle total.)

Pope Francis has gone still further, lifting the requirement for a second miracle for Pope John XXIII and dispensing the miracle requirement entirely for three other new saints.

Might the Church be moving toward eliminating the requirement for miracles? I hope so, for both theological and practical reasons.

Catholic theology of the saints is thin, essentially comprised of a few paragraphs in Lumen Gentium, some scholarly articles, and a few books. But those sources agree in ascribing three major roles to saints: companions/friends, examples of Christian life, and signs of Christian hope.

None of those roles require the miraculous.

Granted, part of the friend/companion role is saints’ intercession on our behalf, and this is usually when a saint’s miracles occur. But saintly intercession is rarely about the supernatural. When I ask for the prayers of saints, I seek the miracles Father Tim spoke of: conversion of heart, rejuvenated hope, perseverance in love. We can retain the value of intercessory prayer without demanding the supernatural.

There’s significant practical benefit to dropping the miracle requirement as well. Lumen Gentium describes saints as those who live out holiness in the concreteness of life, who demonstrate that holiness can flourish even in the unlikeliest of places.

Unfortunately, a perusal of canonized saints would have us believe that holiness flourishes largely in men’s religious orders and almost never in family life.

That disparity has many causes, but one is the cost of the canonization process, which runs somewhere around $250,000. Religious communities who want their founders recognized by the universal Church can scrape together the money. Cash-strapped laypeople and dioceses? Not so much.

Eliminating the requirement for miracles would remove the costs associated with those miracles’ verification and would make it more feasible for laypeople to be put forward as potential saints by their diocese or other supporters.

Perhaps Pope Francis’ recent dispensations will turn out to be the exception. But if they are a portent of the future, expect future saints to be greater in both number and diversity, and expect our Church to be stronger as a result.

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3 thoughts on “Moving Away from Miracles”

  1. I obviously have no idea what reasons Pope Francis had behind waiving John XXIII’s second miracle, but I’m reluctant to think this is the start of a new trend.

    Waiving of miracles is not unusual historically. Equivalent Canonization, a process by which the Pope proclaims a person a saint by adding them to the list of Saints without going through the formal process has a long history in the Church. In the 20th century it was often used for saints who causes had become stalled for many years. Pope Benedict XIV added several saints through this method without miracles. St. Thomas Moore was canonized in 1935 without a miracle. Pope Benedict XVI added St. Hildegard through the same process without the miracles. Pope Francis canonizing St. Peter Faber is another example. Quite a few more examples can be found over just the last 100 years. John XXIII wasn’t an equivalent canonization, since he just had his miracle waived, but it follows in this tradition.

    But there general theme for all of them, is that they are generally well known figures (at least in their region), have generally been dead a long time (John XXIII is a bit of the exception, but he did have one miracle), and have a well established “cult.” So, it’s possible that Pope Francis was just following this tradition with John XXIII (and several other saints he has made recently).

    I agree we need more lay saints as examples. Married couples, parents, single people, etc.

    But, I think the great challenge for lay saints is building the fame needed to get people interested in starting the process. And once the process is started, lay people often don’t have a long paper trail attesting to their sanctity, especially those who weren’t martyred. This can make proving their faith more difficult. Maybe, I’m a pessimist, but I think the challenge of lay people establishing sufficient “fame” for a “cult” or veneration of them to take place is a much greater challenge than the miracles.

    One thought about the non-supernatural miracles – those are important to the canonization process. They don’t count towards the required miracles. But those trying to get a person canonized do collect stories of when you have prayed for the intercession of a saint for a particular cause and the prayers appeared to have been answered. They are part of the required process of documenting that a person has “cult” or a following among the faithful.

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