How the Vatican verifies miracles.

Answers to your questions about the news.
Oct. 22 2003 7:01 PM

Is Mother Teresa's Miracle for Real?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

On Sunday, Pope John Paul II beatified Mother Teresa of Calcutta, bringing her one step closer to sainthood. To be beatified, in most cases, a person must have performed a miracle from beyond the grave; on Oct. 1, the Vatican certified that Teresa, who died in 1997, had miraculously cured one woman's cancerous tumor sometime in 1998. How does the Vatican certify a miraculous cure?

It's a two-step process. To even be considered, a potentially miraculous cure must be instantaneous or sudden, complete and permanent, and without apparent scientific explanation. When reviewing such cures, the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Vatican office that oversees sainthood applications, first turns potential miracles over to the Consulta Medica. This board, established by the Vatican in the mid-1900s, is made up of about 100 renowned Italian (and Catholic) physicians. Traditionally, a panel of five Consulta Medicadoctors will review the putative miracle, examining any available CT scans, X-rays, and medical reports. At least three of the five must agree that the hand of God has prevailed where science faltered.

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Following a thumbs-up from the Consulta Medica, a panel of cardinals and priests will then convene to determine whether the cure came as a result of praying to the saintly candidate. If evidence of healing prayer exists, the miracle is approved, and the panel issues a declaration saying so.

In keeping with tradition, Teresa's miracle has sparked deep skepticism. Monica Besra, a Bengali woman from a remote Indian village, was reportedly suffering from a malignant ovarian tumor when she went, in 1998, to a hospice founded by Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity. Nuns at the mission reportedly placed a medallion with Teresa's image on Besra's abdomen, and the tumor disappeared.

Indian physicians who treated the woman, however, told a reporter from the Times of London that during the nine months before she arrived at the hospice, Besra had received drugs to treat tubercular adenitis, and that the tumor was actually a tubercular cyst. The treating physicians say they were never contacted by Vatican officials.

Bonus Explainer: The current pontiff streamlined the process of beatification and canonization in 1983 to produce a larger and more diverse pool of possible saints. Now martyrs—those killed because of their Catholic faith—can be beatified even if they don't perform a miracle. However, all beatified individuals must stage a certifiable miracle before being made a saint. (Pope John Paul II, incidentally, has put the new rules to good use: He's canonized 464 saints, more than all his predecessors in the last four centuries combined.)

Explainer thanks Professor Patrick W. Carey of Marquette University and Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times.

Charles Duhigg is a reporter for the New York Times, based in New York, and the author of the book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.

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