Meaning of Miracle
The word “miracle” can be defined strictly or loosely.
1. Strictly, the word “miracle” refers to an observable, marvelous event outside the ordinary course of nature that, without divine intervention, is beyond the power of all created nature to effect.
The first thing to note about a miracle is that it is an observable event or something that happens in the visible world and, therefore, is perceptible by our senses. A miracle must be a sensible event or an event that can be witnessed; otherwise, it cannot be identified by us as a miracle. For example, the changing of water into wine by our Lord during the wedding feast in Cana (John 2:1–11), was a sensible event seen and witnessed by those who served at the feast. It was a true miracle. But the changing of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of our Lord in the Eucharist, which has sometimes been called a “miracle,”—indeed, the “miracle of miracles,”—is not a miracle in the strict sense because there is no sensible evidence of this substantial transformation. The transubstantiation in the Sacrament of the Eucharist (where the substance is changed but the accidents of the bread and wine remain) is not a sensible event and cannot strictly be called a miracle. Similarly, the conversion of a great sinner may be a wonderful supernatural event, but it is not what would strictly be called a miracle. For the transformation of a repentant soul, although caused by God, is not in the order of observable nature but in the order of grace.
The second thing to note about a miracle is that it is a marvelous event, an event that excites awe and wonder. However, not every observable, wonderful event is a miracle. Indeed, the world is full of wonders, from the birth of a new life to the dawn of a new day. But all of these events are not miracles. A miracle is not just a wonderful event, but an event that is unusual, extraordinary, or that happens outside the ordinary course of nature. The birth of an infant is a wonderful event, but it is part of the ordinary course of nature, so it is not a miracle.
The third thing to note about a miracle is that it is an event that is beyond the power of all created nature to effect and, therefore, is something that can be accomplished only with God’s assistance or intervention. For, creatures naturally work according to established laws, whereas a miracle happens as an exception to nature’s laws. Only God, the Author of nature, can make exceptions to nature’s laws. He alone can impede or amplify the effects of secondary causes, or even produce their effects without them. He alone can extend the power of nature to accomplish something beyond what it is naturally capable of or to produce actions that proceed in the opposite direction from nature’s ordinary course. For example, the restoration of life to a corpse is a miracle because a corpse naturally tends toward decomposition or decay. For life to be restored to a corpse, God would have to intervene because life can only be restored to a corpse when nature’s effects are altered and reversed. This is something that creatures cannot naturally do. Not even angels or created spirits can alter the proper effects of natural things.
The Raising of Lazarus
A painting by Carl Heinrich Bloch (1834-1890)
Now, a miracle does not necessarily do away with natural causes, nor does it destroy nature when it impedes or accentuates nature’s proper effects. In His power, God can alter the proper effects of creatures without destroying their nature or operation. For example, burning is the proper effect of fire, but God can impede that effect without destroying the nature of fire itself. This is how Moses saw a bush that was not consumed by fire on Mount Horeb (Ex 3:1-2). The nature of the fire itself was not altered, and the flames did not lose their power to burn. But the burning effect on the bush was miraculously suspended. This is what is meant when it is said that a miracle can alter a creature’s proper effect without destroying the creature’s nature or its operation.
A miracle does not destroy nature or its power. Neither does it destroy the order of nature or nature’s laws. The laws of nature are, indeed, necessary because things operate according to their essence (Agere sequitur esse). But this is a contingent necessity because creatures are contingent beings. The natural order can be made subordinate to a higher order dictated by God’s higher purposes. God’s intervention consists in altering the effects of secondary causes so that, without violating the nature and operations of creatures, the effects serve a new order in God’s design. In a healing miracle, for example, the proper effects of nature’s operations serve a new order—call it the order of God’s mercy—which requires that the cure be done instantly rather than gradually to provide relief and end the misery. Therefore, although natural causes are still at work, they produce wonderful effects that, without God’s assistance, would be beyond their natural powers to accomplish.
One final remark must be made regarding the notion of a miracle. A miracle is usually a rare event because it involves processes that are outside the ordinary course of nature. But the rarity of the event itself is not what essentially constitutes the miracle. If God were to restore life to a corpse every day, then resurrection would become commonplace, yet each instance would still be a miracle, for the phenomenon is beyond the power of unaided creatures to effect.
2. In a less strict sense (or speaking loosely), the word “miracle” may also be used to refer to any marvelous event in the supernatural order or the order of grace, or to any extraordinary event in the sensible world that is due to the work of angels or created spirits. For example, the rolling back of the stone that covered Christ’s sepulcher might be called a “miracle” because the stone was very heavy (Mark 16:3–4). We know from St. Matthew that this was the work of an angel (Matt 28:2). Therefore, it was a “miracle” only in the loose sense since the spectacular event was done by an angel. A miracle in the strict sense is something beyond the capacity of any creature, including angels or spirits, to accomplish.
Kinds (or Classes) of Miracles
Miracles in the strict sense are traditionally divided into three classes based on how they surpass nature's powers.
1. A first-class miracle is a wondrous fact that so exceeds the power of created nature that natural forces could in no wise produce or explain it. For example, the simultaneous occupation of two bodies in the same place at the same time (called “compenetration”), is a first-class miracle. We have an example of this miracle when our Lord passed through closed doors (John 20:19).
Appearance of Christ at the Cenacle (John 20:19)
Watercolor painting by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902)
Image source link: marysrosaries.com
2. A second-class miracle is a wondrous fact that nature can produce, but not in the subject (person or thing) in which the fact is produced. The resurrection of the dead, such as the raising of Lazarus to life (John 11:1–44), is an example of a second-class miracle. Nature, after all, can give life, but not to a corpse.
3. A third-class miracle is a wondrous fact that nature can effect in the subject in which it is produced, but not in the manner or mode in which it is produced. For example, nature usually heals diseases, but the instantaneous or sudden cure of a disease outside the gradual healing process of nature would be a third-class miracle. There is an example of this miracle in the man who was instantly healed of his leprosy by Christ’s bidding (Matt 8:1–4). Likewise, the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast in Cana is an example of a third-class miracle. For, although substances in nature do change, substantial change is ordinarily accomplished by a series of accidental changes that predispose the subject to the reception of a new form. Paper does not instantly crumble into ashes but is converted slowly through a process of combustion. The sudden transformation of paper into ashes would be a third-class miracle, and so would be the instantaneous change of water into wine.
Possibility of Miracles
Although many modernists deny the possibility of miracles, the truth is that miracles are entirely possible, both intrinsically and extrinsically.
Something is said to be intrinsically possible when there is nothing about it that could prevent it from existing or becoming actual, or when there is no self-contradiction in the very thought of it. Now, miracles are events in nature that involve no inherent contradiction. Therefore, they should be regarded as intrinsically possible. For example, there is no inherent contradiction in the restoration of sight to a man born blind. The fact that the cure happens suddenly offers no difficulty at all. For, although nature ordinarily operates according to established laws, the order of nature and the laws of nature are not necessary but contingent effects, and they are, therefore, capable of being altered according to God’s free causality. Nature and nature’s laws are merely created effects; as such, they are completely subject to God’s Will and have no right to demand that they be left unchanged or unaltered. Also, God in His power can produce or suspend the effects of creatures and secondary causes, so that He can produce instantaneously what it would take secondary causes to effect gradually and cumulatively. For this reason, even first-class miracles are possible. For example, although bodies are naturally impenetrable—this being the natural consequence of their quantity—this property is a created effect that can be suspended by an all-powerful God, thus making the compenetration of bodies possible.
A thing is said to be extrinsically possible when a power exists that can cause it to be actual. Indeed, a thing or event may be intrinsically possible in itself, but unless there is a power that can cause it to be realized, the thing or event is still extrinsically impossible. In the case of miracles, however, which are, by definition, events that are divinely produced, their extrinsic possibility is immediately established when God’s existence is recognized. Yet, there are still many who deny the extrinsic possibility of miracles while accepting God’s existence. For, although they do not see miracles as being outside God’s power to effect, they see these as contradicting God’s intelligence and wisdom. They say that God has established the laws of nature from eternity, and it would seem contrary to His wisdom to make frequent “corrections” to His supposedly immutable will by producing miracles that are exceptions to nature’s laws. The simple response to this objection is that God, who established the order of nature from eternity, has also decreed the exceptions to the natural order from eternity. Therefore, miracles do not violate His immutable will. Nor do miracles constitute a depreciation of God’s intelligence and wisdom, for God manifests His infinite wisdom, not only in the ordinary work of nature but also—and in a more awesome way—in those marvelous events that He causes to happen outside the ordinary course of nature.
The reasons given above expose the error of those who reject a priori the reality and even the simple possibility of miracles. It also shows the folly of those who seek a natural explanation for every miracle in Holy Scripture, thinking that miracles are impossible.
Knowability of Miracles
Some admit the possibility of miracles but deny that miracles can be known for certain. According to them, there is no way of telling whether a marvelous event was the work of God or the mere result of heretofore unknown natural forces. They claim that one must first have a complete and comprehensive knowledge of nature and all its laws before one can declare that a certain event surpasses the power of nature to produce.
First of all, the appeal to “unknown natural forces” or “hidden powers of nature” to give a natural explanation to a supernatural event is a weak argument. Consider the miracle of Lazarus’ rising from the dead. If nature has hidden operative powers that could restore Lazarus’ life to his dead body, then why did these mysterious powers work only after Christ called him? That these powers began to work only at Christ’s bidding was itself a miracle that needed to be explained, and the hidden force theory fails to explain it.
Second, the “unknown natural forces” cannot account for a phenomenon that happens outside the ordinary course of nature unless these forces operate extraordinarily (that is, these forces must operate outside, beyond, or contrary to the ordinary course of nature). If indeed these kinds of forces exist, then they could not possibly be natural forces, because natural forces obey nature’s laws. Also, to assert that nature has forces that do not obey nature’s laws is to say that nature as a whole has no consistent set of laws. This is unacceptable, for it leads to the destruction of all physical sciences, which are built on a consistent set of laws.
Finally, indeed, we must first have a complete knowledge of nature and its laws to know what nature positively can do, but it is not necessary to have a complete knowledge of nature and its laws to know what it cannot do. For example, it is not necessary to know everything about creatures to know that a contingent being cannot create or that life cannot come from non-life. For this reason, it is possible to have certitude—even metaphysical certitude—regarding some first-, second-, and third-class miracles that require God’s creative act or His immediate power over creatures for their occurrence. Below are some cases that illustrate this point.
Christ’s entering the cenacle after the resurrection while the doors are shut clearly surpasses the power of material creatures. And one does not need to have an exhaustive knowledge of physics to know this. Bodies are naturally extended in space on account of their quantity. This spatial effect of quantity had to be suspended in one of the bodies for two bodies to be present in the same place at the same time. No natural body can remove from itself the proper effect of its quantity. This is a power that belongs only to God, who is the first cause of all bodies. As a result, Christ's entrance into the cenacle after His resurrection is a metaphysically certain first-class miracle.
Another example of an event that exceeds the power of created nature is the restoration of life to a corpse or the restoration of sight to a man born blind. One does not have to be a biologist or a doctor to know that immanent activity (such as life and knowledge) cannot come from inanimate matter, since no effect can be greater than its cause. The restoration of vital activity to inanimate matter would require the action of God, who alone has immediate power over life and the soul. Again, this is an example of a metaphysically certain but second-class miracle.
The changing of water into wine (during the wedding feast at Cana) is also an event that exceeds the power of created nature to effect. Again, one does not have to be a chemist or have profound knowledge of the physical sciences to know this. Because it involves the cessation of one being (the water) and the emergence of a new being (the wine) without any previous accidental dispositions of the subject. The sudden emergence of a new being or form from the potency of prime matter is an effect that can be produced only by God, who is the first cause of all beings. Therefore, this is another example of a metaphysically certain but third-class miracle.
Marriage at Cana
Watercolor painting by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (1836-1902)
Image source link: marysrosaries.com
All the examples above illustrate that deep scientific erudition is oftentimes not required, but that common sense and philosophical insight are all that is required to recognize a true miracle. The man born blind, whom Christ healed, recognized the miracle at once, and all he said in support of the miracle done to him was this: “From the beginning of the world it hath not been heard, that any man hath opened the eyes of one born blind. Unless the man were of God, he could not do anything” (John 9:32–33).
While some miracles are known with metaphysical certitude (because their occurrence would require God’s creative act or their denial would involve violating some ontological principle, such as “no effect can be greater than its cause” or that “being cannot come from non-being,” etc.), there are also some miracles that can be known only with probability. These miracles are typically third-class miracles that involve sudden healing from a serious disease, or “miracles” (in the loose sense) that could have been due to the power of good spirits. These phenomena may need thorough investigation by professionals (physicians, doctors, and other specialists) and by Church officials to establish their credibility as miracles.
The Reality of Miracles
Miracles are not only possible and knowable, but they have also occurred and, as a matter of fact, still occur. However, saying that miracles have occurred does not mean that they have always been accepted. Even during the time of Christ, many witnessed His miracles, but some rejected them and refused to believe in Him. The Pharisees, after hearing the testimony of eyewitnesses, planned to kill Him instead (John 11:53). For a listing of the miracles performed by Christ, click this link.
The act of accepting a marvelous event as the work of God or a wonderful event as a miracle does not result simply from seeing the evidence. It is more a work of grace in our souls. Some are not ready to accept the religious obligations and consequences arising from that acceptance, so they refuse to cooperate with grace and reject the miracle at a huge risk to their souls. Often, the rejection of a miracle does not result from a lack of evidence but from a moral fault. Thus, in the First Vatican Council, our Holy Mother Church made this explicit statement:
“If anyone shall have said that miracles are not possible, and hence that all accounts of them, even those contained in Sacred Scripture, are to be banished among the fables and myths; or, that miracles can never be known with certitude, and that the divine origin of the Christian religion cannot be correctly proved by them: let him be anathema.” Denzinger #1813
Present-day theologians, who tend to “demythologize” the Bible by regarding its miracle stories as pure fantasy, would be well-advised to recall the above statement from Vatican I.
Now, in addition to the many miracles mentioned in Holy Scripture, God has performed other miracles in the centuries following Christ’s death. The following categories of miracles will be described below: Eucharistic Miracles, Marian Miracles and Apparitions, Incorrupt Bodies of the Saints, and the Stigmata. Although not exhaustive, this list represents a sampling of the numerous miracles reported in the Catholic Church. Since these are extra-biblical miracles, there is strictly no obligation to believe them, even if they had been investigated and approved by the Church. However, if there are reliable witnesses and/or evidence regarding the actual occurrence of these miracles, then they should not be easily dismissed or taken lightly. Indeed, if one happens to be an eyewitness to the miracle, the refusal to believe could be sinful, for our Lord condemned those who had seen His works but had not believed (Matt 11:20-24).
The so-called “Eucharistic Miracles” comprise a group of miracles that point to the truth of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Some of these miracles, such as the Hosts of Siena, Italy, are quite simple. In this particular miracle, the consecrated Hosts, which had been recovered three days after being stolen by thieves, did not deteriorate and have remained fresh since they were stolen in August 1730. Another astonishing Eucharistic miracle on record, which happened in the 8th century, is the famous Miracle of Lanciano. According to the report, the miracle happened during Mass when a Basilian priest, who was struggling with his unbelief in the reality of transubstantiation, uttered the words of consecration. To help strengthen his faith, God changed the bread and wine into real flesh and blood right before his eyes. Weeping for joy, the priest invited the congregation to come to the altar and see the miracle that just happened. The news of the event quickly spread, and the archbishop ordered an investigation. The testimony of the witnesses was recorded, though none of these records have survived. But although the records of the original miracle are now lost, belief in the miracle continues because the flesh and blood, which have since been kept in a reliquary, have not decomposed and have remained intact to this day. Over time, several physical examinations had been made of the relics, the most recent being that performed by Dr. Odoardo Linoli in 1971. Dr. Linoli concluded that the flesh was a piece of human heart tissue and that the blood was real blood, type AB. For a summary of his findings, see The Eucharistic Relics of Lanciano in Biologic Research. Incidentally, the Miracle of Buenos Aires, Argentina, which happened when Pope Francis was still the Archbishop of the place, was remarkably similar to the Miracle of Lanciano in that consecrated Hosts turned into human Flesh and Blood. For this and other Eucharistic miracles reported around the world, see http://www.therealpresence.org/eucharst/mir/engl_mir.htm.
Bread Turns into Real Flesh
Photo by AFC Photo
CC BY-SA 3.0 license: commons.wikimedia.org
Wine Turns into Real Blood
Photo by AFC Photo
CC BY-SA 3.0 license: commons.wikimedia.org
Some remarks regarding the Miracle of Lanciano:
First, the examination of the relics by a physician strengthens our faith in the miracle, but it does not strictly prove it. Dr. Linoli could determine that the tissue was human flesh and the globules of blood were real blood, but he could not determine that these used to be bread and wine. The only ones who could attest to that were the eyewitnesses to the miracle. For many of us who are not eyewitnesses to the event, the Miracle of Lanciano will always be a matter of faith. However, the fact that the flesh and blood defied deterioration for 1300 years is itself a matter to think about, for that seems to have no natural explanation either. So, while the Miracle of Lanciano is not a demonstrated fact, the relics still point forcefully to the truth of Christ’s Real Presence in the Eucharist.
Ordinarily, the transubstantiation that happens during Mass cannot be sensibly perceived because, although the bread and wine are substantially changed into the Body and Blood of our Savior, the accidents of the bread and wine remain unchanged. Therefore, it was said that transubstantiation is ordinarily not a miracle (see #1 above, Meaning of Miracle). In the case of the Miracle of Lanciano, however, the transubstantiation is sensibly perceived because the accidents of bread and wine were likewise converted into the accidents of Flesh and Blood after the words of consecration were uttered. Therefore, the event was a true miracle.
In the Miracle of Lanciano, a part of the Host becomes a piece of heart tissue, while the wine turns into blood. However, St. Thomas notes in the Summa Theologiae, Part III, Q.76, Art. 8, that the sensibly perceptible body of Christ (including all its parts, organs, tissues, and blood) exists definitively only in heaven. Therefore, the apparent accidents of heart tissue and the apparent accidents of coagulated blood in the Miracle of Lanciano should not be regarded as true accidents of Christ's real body and blood. They are no different from the accidents of bread and wine, which do not become accidents of Christ’s substance after transubstantiation. Just as in ordinary transubstantiation, God simply conserves the accidents of bread and wine without these becoming accidents of Christ’s body, so in the Miracle of Lanciano, He conserves the accidents of flesh and blood without these accidents becoming accidents of Christ’s bodily substance. This does not mean that the appearance of flesh and blood in the miracle is nothing but a big lie. It is not a deception because Christ continues to be wholly and substantially present in the sacrament, which is precisely what this miracle is intended to indicate.
Finally, the Miracle of Lanciano, just like all Eucharistic miracles, is not the basis of our faith in the Real Presence. The basis of our faith is the word of our Savior, who said, “This is My body; this is My blood.” We believe this truth because our Lord said it, not because a miracle has demonstrated it.
MARIAN MIRACLES AND APPARITIONS
The Miracle of the Sun (Fatima, Portugal) Among the many miracles attributed to Mary, the Mother of God, the miracle that happened at Fatima, Portugal, on October 13, 1917, is the most spectacular. Unlike other miracles witnessed only by a few individuals, the miracle at Fatima was witnessed by about 70,000 people, and the event was documented with photographs and eyewitness accounts published in newspapers and journals following the event. The reason so many people witnessed the event was that it was announced days before its actual occurrence. It is the only miracle in the world that was pre-announced. The nature of the miracle itself was not announced, but the Blessed Virgin promised that a great sign would be given on that date. At noon, the miracle began: the sun appeared to spin around in a mad whirl, throwing rays of different colors across the sky, then it approached the earth as if falling from the sky. Many were terrified, but nobody’s eyes were hurt from staring at the sun; in fact, some experienced healing. The whole miracle was just an apparition, not observed or reported by any astronomical observatory, but observed by the people even from miles away. See The Day the Sun Danced.
A photostatic copy of a page from Ilustração Portuguesa, October 29, 1917, showing the crowd looking at the "miracle of the sun"
Image source link: commons.wikimedia.org
Certainly, God performed the miracle to give credibility to the Blessed Virgin’s message. Her message was very simple. She asked us to do penance and to stop offending God anymore. Also, the Virgin Mary gave three secrets to Lucia, Jacinta, and Francisco, the three shepherds to whom she originally appeared. The first secret was a vision of hell, the place where unrepentant sinners go. The second secret included a request for the Church to consecrate Russia to her Immaculate Heart and to practice the First Saturday Devotion. The third secret, which was expressed in symbolic fashion or imagery, seems to warn the Church of a looming crisis that could be spiritual (a crisis of faith), material (cataclysms or man-made disasters), or both. Although the vision or imagery of the Third Secret had been disclosed by the Vatican, many prelates believe that the Virgin Mary's explanation of the vision, which is a big part of the Third Secret, was not disclosed. See, for example, Archbishop Vigano's testimony and interview.
In addition to the Fatima apparition, there are other Marian apparitions and miracles that have been reported around the world, some of which have also been recognized by the Vatican. See Vatican-recognized Marian Apparitions.
Healing Miracles of the Immaculate Conception (Lourdes, France) On February 11, 1858, a Lady appeared to a 14-year-old peasant girl named Marie Bernarde Soubirous (otherwise known as “Bernadette”) in the grotto of Massabielle, near Lourdes, France. The Lady was dressed in white, wearing a rosary and a blue sash around her waist. In that apparition, the Lady invited Bernadette to pray the rosary with her and asked her to come again to the grotto on another day. She appeared to Bernadette 17 more times in this series of apparitions. (See the Apparitions at Lourdes for a more detailed account.) On her February 21st visit, she asked Bernadette to pray for sinners. On February 25, she told Bernadette to “drink from the fountain and bathe in it.” Bernadette knew there was no fountain at Massabielle, so she just started digging a hole around her. She then noticed that the ground she was standing on was moist and that water had started to rise slowly from it. She drank from the small pool that just formed and washed her face with the muddy water, which made her appear crazy. But water continued to gush out of the hole that she had started, and the next day the small pool of water had become a stream. Some skeptics say that perhaps that spring of water had always been there. However, it is still remarkable that it appeared only at the command of the Lady. On March 25, the Lady finally revealed her name to Bernadette, saying, “I am the Immaculate Conception.” To this day, the stream at Massabielle continues to flow, but more significantly, the water from the stream has since been the source of many miraculous cures. It appears now that the apparitions, as well as the cures, were collectively Heaven’s confirmation of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception that Pope Pius IX defined just four years earlier.
Since 1882, a Medical Bureau within the Sanctuary of Lourdes has begun to collect data and investigate reports of miraculous cures at Lourdes. The bureau was inundated with such reports. Over time, extremely stringent criteria were developed to rule out healing cases that could be attributed to natural causes or merely psychosomatic factors. Unbelieving doctors and doctors from other faiths were allowed to participate in the investigations. In 1947, an International Medical Committee, consisting of experts in various fields of medicine, was also established to further review the records from the Medical Bureau and to decide which cases may be declared to lack a natural explanation. This two-tiered approach resulted in thousands of reported cures being dismissed either as lacking sufficient evidence or as “remarkable but not unexplainable” by natural causes. In spite of the rigorous approach taken by the medical community, there are still, to date, 69 healing cases that the International Medical Committee has declared unexplained by the current state of medical science. For a list and brief description of these unexplained cures, see Miracles 1–20, 21–40, 41–60, 61–68, and 69.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Image on the Tilma (Mexico City, Mexico) On December 9, 1531, the Virgin Mary appeared to a 57-year-old peasant named Juan Diego while he was walking near Tepeyac Hill (later to be called Villa de Guadalupe), a suburb of Mexico City. The Virgin, who identified herself as “the mother of the true God who gives life,” asked that a church be built at the summit of Mount Tepeyac in her honor. When Juan Diego reported the apparition to the archbishop, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the archbishop at first did not believe the apparition. But when the Virgin instructed Juan Diego to go back to Archbishop Zumárraga and insist on the request, the archbishop asked for a miraculous sign to establish the Virgin's identity. Juan Diego went back to the Blessed Virgin and gave her the archbishop’s message. The Virgin Mary then instructed him to pick up some roses for the archbishop at the summit of Mount Tepeyac. When Juan Diego returned with the roses, the Virgin Mary arranged the flowers at Juan Diego’s tilma, which was a burlap-type cloak, and asked him to hand the tilma with the flowers to the archbishop. Then on December 12, when Juan Diego opened the tilma in front of Archbishop Zumárraga, the flowers fell on the floor, and both of them, together with some others, saw the magnificent image of Our Lady of Guadalupe printed on the tilma. See The Story of Guadalupe: Luis Laso de la Vega’s Huei tlamahuicoltica of 1649, a book that may be borrowed from archive.org. The original image is shown below on the right. The current image, with later additions, is shown on the left.
Our Lady of Guadalupe
Image source link: miraclehunter.com
The story of the apparition quickly spread throughout Mexico, and in the next seven years, it was responsible for approximately eight million conversions to the Catholic Faith among the Aztec Indians of Mexico. However, the miracle is not the conversion of millions, but the tilma itself. To this date, science has not explained how the image was produced on Juan Diego’s Tilma. The Tilma is currently enshrined in the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.
Like the Holy Shroud of Turin, the Tilma of Juan Diego was regarded with skepticism by many naysayers. Many say that Juan Diego is only a legend and that the Tilma is just a 16th-century painting. However, the Vatican commission established on October 28, 1998, was able to prove the historical authenticity of Juan Diego. Among the proofs submitted was the Escalada, which contained a death certificate for Juan Diego. This proves that Juan Diego was a real person and not a legend. See Codex Escalada on Wikipedia.
Some amazing facts reinforce the credibility and miraculous origin of the Tilma. Among these are the following:
The material fiber of the Tilma, which normally disintegrates in 15 to 30 years, has lasted for over 490 years now.
Infrared photography showed no sketching under the image.
Although the image has been retouched several times, the original image in the portions that have not been retouched shows no signs of brush strokes.
Recent studies (2009–2013) also indicate the authenticity of the image on the Tilma. There is no need to repeat here the description of the advanced tests (thanks to modern technology) that had been used to establish the authenticity of the Tilma. One can find them well documented here: Historiography of the Apparition of Guadalupe, Parts XII and XIII.
INCORRUPT BODIES OF THE SAINTS
The “miracle of incorrupt bodies” refers to a class of phenomena observed among some saints whose dead bodies (or body parts) had not fully decomposed but had remained intact and flexible for a far longer time than is normally expected. Without embalming or artificial mummification, many buried human corpses would completely dissolve (at least the tissues, if not the skeletons) in 1–12 years, depending on how the corpse is buried—whether in air, underwater, in soil, or in a coffin. Yet, the bodies of some saints have been observed to remain intact and flexible for several decades after death, even without the aid of artificial preservation or under conditions that should hasten decomposition. Provided there exist no other natural conditions or causes that could halt or delay a corpse’s decomposition, this phenomenon is outside the ordinary course of nature and may be regarded as a miracle. This phenomenon is frequently interpreted as God's endorsement of the sanctity of the person whose body (or body parts) was discovered preserved for a longer period of time than expected.
The Catholic Church has many examples of holy men and women in whom this miracle has been observed. Two of these are described below.
St. Charbel Makhlouf was a Maronite monk who died in 1898. In accordance with the rules of his Order, his body was not embalmed and was buried without a coffin. There was a bright light that surrounded his tomb for 45 days following his interment, so a decision was made to exhume the body—an event that took place 4 months after the saint’s death. When the body was exhumed, the ground was saturated with water because of the frequent rain, but Charbel’s body was found intact and floating on mud in its flooded grave. One would think that a corpse would have at least started dissolving in such a wet environment, but surprisingly, the body was quite preserved. After being cleansed, the body was placed in a wooden casket in a corner of the monastery chapel, where it remained for decades. In 1927, the incorrupt body was meticulously examined by two physicians, and documents were drawn. The body of Charbel remained intact and flexible until the time of his beatification in 1965 (a period of 67 years). Natural decomposition had begun since then, and by 1976, only his skeletons remained. See St. Charbel Makhlouf.
St. Bernadette Soubirous, the girl to whom the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared at Lourdes, died on April 16, 1879. Her body was not embalmed in any way before burial, but it was found incorrupt when exhumed in 1909, 1919, and 1925 and examined by doctors. Unlike the body of St. Charbel, St. Bernadette’s body still lies intact at the Chapel of St. Bernadette (formerly known as the Chapel of St. Gildard) in Nevers, France. See The Body of St. Bernadette of Lourdes
Bernadette Soubirous (died 1879)
Original photo by Roock at pl.wikipedia; modified by Rabanus Flavus
CC BY-SA 3.0 license: commons.wikimedia.org
There are many more examples of saints to whom God granted this “miracle of the incorrupt body.” The two saints cited above are chosen here because they are relatively recent and because ample documentation was made to substantiate the miracle. The saints, in whom the miracle of the incorrupt body has been observed, have sometimes been referred to as “The Incorruptibles.” That is appropriate in one sense because the bodies of these saints had successfully resisted corruption, at least until the miracle was officially recognized. However, as the example of St. Charbel shows, the miracle is often just a temporary state of preservation. An incorrupt body eventually decomposes as well. Even St. Bernadette, whose body is still wonderfully preserved, needed a covering of wax on her face and in her hands to hide superficial damage to her skin and outer tissues and to make her look presentable to the viewing public. Through this miracle of delayed decomposition, God merely wanted to show a sign that He was pleased with the holiness of the saint. It was never His intention to perpetually entertain us with a corpse that is always fresh-looking like Snow White in a glass coffin.
One needs to be cautious when passing judgment about the miraculous state of an incorrupt body. Since the exposure of the corpse to air, moisture, and the environment has a lot to do with the rate of its decomposition, some dead bodies naturally dissolve faster than others, while others remain preserved for a much longer time depending on the characteristics of the burial vault or ground. One should not hastily declare that a miracle has occurred just because a corpse was preserved for 20 or 30 years. Some human corpses have remained naturally preserved for years—even for centuries!—just because they happened to be situated in environmental conditions that delayed decomposition or favored preservation. One example is Otzi the Iceman, who froze to death around 3345 B.C. and whose body was still well preserved in ice when it was discovered in September 1991—after 5,336 years! When there is a natural explanation for a dead body’s extended preservation or delayed decomposition, the body is simply regarded as naturally preserved and is not regarded as a miraculously incorrupt body. The body of the unpopular Pope Boniface VIII, who made many political enemies during his pontificate because of his ideas regarding the supremacy of the pope over temporal rulers, was found intact 302 years after his death. Yet he was not a canonized saint, and the Church did not regard the state of his well-preserved body as a miracle. There was a natural explanation for his well-preserved body: He was placed inside a cool, dry, and airtight three-coffin vault so that even his vestments did not decompose.
Of course, bodies that have been deliberately and artificially preserved, embalmed, or mummified cannot be considered miraculously incorrupt either. This is the reason why the bodies of holy men and women, which had been embalmed before burial, are not considered miraculously incorrupt even when their bodies are found preserved years after their deaths. A good example is the body of Pope John XXIII, who died in 1963 but whose body was found well preserved when it was exhumed in 2001. Because his body was embalmed before burial, the Vatican denied that there was anything miraculous about his well-preserved body. Likewise, the much-publicized body of the Buddhist monk, Hambo Lama Itigelov, which was reported to be intact after being dead for 75 years, cannot be regarded as supernatural, for there is evidence that his body was desiccated with huge amounts of bromine salt before it was buried.
Because dead bodies can be artificially or naturally preserved, it is not impossible to find well-preserved corpses among Catholics who were not ideally saintly (such as Pope Boniface VIII) or even among non-Catholics (such as Lama Itigelov). For this reason and due to the widespread availability of preservation techniques, the Vatican does not automatically consider bodily preservation miraculous. Nor does the Church consider bodily preservation sufficient proof of sanctity. But, for that matter, the Church does not regard the decomposition of a person’s body as indicating the person’s lack of sanctity either. There are far too many saints—including the popular St. Therese of Lisieux—whose bodies began to decompose shortly after death.
Saying that bodily preservation can be accomplished artificially or that it can sometimes be explained naturally does not mean that genuine cases of miraculous bodily preservation do not exist. But to distinguish miraculous from natural or artificial preservation, it is necessary to see how the incorrupt bodies of the saints differ from artificial and natural mummies.
The incorrupt bodies of the saints are generally firm but flexible. The surgeon who examined Bernadette’s body wrote that her muscles were “supple and firm.” This characteristic has also been observed in other incorrupt bodies. In fact, it was its flexibility that made it possible to reposition the body of St. Catherine of Bologna to a sitting position twelve years after her death (Joan Carroll Cruz, The Incorruptibles, Chapter 46). In contrast, embalmed and mummified bodies are so rigid and dry that merely bending an arm would break the ligaments. The reason embalmed bodies are also stiff is that blood and other body fluids are usually removed and replaced with embalming fluid during the process of embalming, and this stiffens the tissues to delay decomposition.
The incorrupt bodies of the saints usually still have their internal organs in a good state of preservation. The surgeon, who cut a part of Bernadette’s liver, remarked that its remarkable softness after so many years “did not seem to be a natural phenomenon.” Artificial mummies (such as the Egyptian mummies) usually have no more brains or internal organs because they were removed in the process of mummification. The reason the internal organs are removed is that they are usually the first to decompose. People today merely embalm their dead relatives rather than mummify them. Unlike mummification, embalming slows but does not stop the dissolution of the body. Unless an autopsy will be performed, it is customary to leave the brain and internal organs in the embalmed body. However, the embalming also dries and stiffens the organs to delay their putrefaction. Modern techniques of embalming have improved significantly, so that embalmed bodies today can be preserved for much longer periods than just a few weeks. On record is the body of 2-year-old Rosalia Lombardo, who died in 1920 but still looked like a doll when it was photographed in 1982. However, a photograph taken in 2009 shows that Rosalia, too, was already beginning to show signs of decay.
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The incorrupt bodies of the saints usually do not have a foul smell. They are either odorless, like St. Bernadette’s body, or fragrant, like the body of St. Catherine of Bologna. The pleasant odor, which has been noticed in the bodies of St. Catherine of Bologna, St. John of the Cross, and many other saints, has sometimes been called the “odor of sanctity.” In contrast, artificial mummies usually smell like chemicals, while naturally preserved mummies, if removed from the original environment that contributed to their preservation, would putrefy quickly and emit an unpleasant odor.
The incorrupt bodies of saints are also often observed to be moist. The body of St. Charbel, from the time of his first exhumation until his beatification, was observed to exude an odorless, serum-like fluid (which looked like a mixture of sweat and blood), due to which healing miracles had been reported. When the physician examined St. Francis Xavier's body one and a half years after his death, he found blood when he inserted his finger into a wound on his body. The incorrupt bodies of other saints, such as the Venerable Mother Mary of Jesus (a companion of St. Teresa of Avila), transpired a mysterious oil, which many believe was responsible for the heavenly aroma, known as the “odor of sanctity.” In contrast, embalmed bodies and natural mummies are quite dry and have no blood or other body fluids.
The above characteristics of the incorrupt body are observed only for as long as the miracle lasts. As stated previously, the “miracle of the incorrupt body” is only a temporary state of preservation. Eventually, the incorrupt body will also become rigid and dry, just like a natural mummy. Some will even decompose completely into a mere skeleton. Once the miracle of the incorrupt body has been officially recognized, the saint is already regarded as “incorruptible,” although it is to be understood that the incorruptibility here is a temporary one. And once it is observed that the decomposition has started, the Church permits the use of artificial methods to delay further decomposition of the saint’s body (which is classified as a first-class relic). In some cases, the body is cut up, and the relics are distributed to various churches for veneration by the faithful.
It would be easy for skeptics and naysayers to close their eyes on the special attributes of the incorrupt body and reject the miracle altogether. However, the skeptic also needs to explain how the bodies of the “incorruptible” remained preserved under conditions that should have accelerated rather than delayed decomposition. St. Charbel’s body was not embalmed, and it was not in a coffin when it was buried. Also, the burial ground was found wet when the body was exhumed. Any other body buried under those conditions would have started decomposing within days. Why his body remained preserved four months after his death is a mystery that the skeptic has to explain. In some cases, such as St. Paschal of Baylon (1540-1592), the body was purposefully covered with a thick layer of quicklime before burial to hasten decomposition and thus prevent unpleasant odors from repelling the faithful at the shrine, but his body remained preserved when it was exhumed eight months later. Science has yet to find a natural explanation for these and other related phenomena.
The so-called stigmata refer to the marks or wounds on the bodies of the saints that duplicate or represent the wounds suffered by Christ during the crucifixion. Not all saints are favored with this miracle. The first saint reported to have received this was St. Francis of Assisi (1181–1226), who bore the wounds of Christ in his hands and feet and on his side. Since then, many other saints have received the stigmata, but not all of them received the same number and type of wounds. St. Rita of Cascia (1381–1457) received only one wound on her head, which corresponded to one of the head wounds that Christ suffered from the Crown of Thorns. Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774–1824) at first received only the wounds from the Crown of Thorns but later received them also in her hands, feet, and side (the Five Wounds). Before receiving the five wounds, she even received the “mark of the cross” on her chest, which also bled. See The Life of Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, #20, 26-28, 59.
Some say that the first stigmatic was St. Paul rather than St. Francis, on account of what he said in Galatians 6:17: “From henceforth let no man be troublesome to me; for I bear the marks of the Lord Jesus in my body.” While it is certainly possible that St. Paul also received the stigmata, there is no evidence from the writings of the Fathers of the Church that the early Christians understood Galatians 6:17 in that sense. See, for example, St. John Chrysostom’s Commentary on Galatians, Homily 6, verse 17. It is more likely that the “marks of the Lord” that St. Paul was referring to were merely the wounds he received from the many beatings and stonings he suffered for Christ’s sake. See 2 Cor 11:25 and Acts 16:11–24.
The stigmata are representations or signs of Christ’s wounds and suffering on the cross. Christ allows these wounds to be reproduced in “victim souls” whom He chooses to participate in His passion. From the testimony of both the stigmatists and the observers, the stigmata are usually granted at a time when the soul is deeply engaged (even ecstatically) in the meditation or contemplation of Christ’s passion. But, of course, God can put any soul into this state of prayer at any time that He wishes, even when the soul is not actively meditating. For example, St. Padre Pio of Pietrelcina (1887–1968) was hearing confessions when he saw a vision of a heavenly Being who caused a visible wound on his side.
In what way do the stigmata differ from ordinary wounds, and why are they considered miraculous? There are many differences, but the most significant are the following:
The stigmata are different from ordinary wounds or sores because they appear spontaneously, do not get infected when left alone, and heal when treated. These alone would give reason to call the phenomenon a miracle, for wounds do not ordinarily appear in the body for no reason, and they generally suppurate (or form pus), respond to medication, and heal. This is not the case with the true stigmata. When skeptics accused the twentieth-century stigmatist, St. Padre Pio, of faking his wounds by applying carbolic acid to his hands, his religious superiors denied him access to carbolic acid and put him under strict observation. A medical professional, Dr. Amico Bignami, thought that he could cure Padre Pio’s wounds if the Padre could not get his hands on any carbolic acid. The authenticity of Padre Pio’s stigmata was then medically proven when the wounds failed to heal and bled even more copiously when the application of carbolic acid was prevented. See The Truth about Padre Pio’s Stigmata.
The stigmata appear to bleed abundantly and periodically, usually on liturgical days commemorating Christ’s passion or on Fridays. Ordinary wounds do not bleed according to the liturgical calendar, nor do they bleed abundantly and periodically. Yet, recurrent and abundant bleeding is commonly observed among stigmatists. One well-documented case was that of Louise Lateau (1850 – 1883), who also received wounds from the Crown of Thorns in addition to the Five Wounds. Her condition was meticulously examined and recorded by Dr. Ferdinand Lefebvre in a book. In this book, Dr. LeFebvre describes the bleeding from the onset of the hemorrhage on Thursday to its cessation on Friday afternoon. He observed Louise week after week and described in detail what the wounds looked like before, during, and after they had bled. He even examined and described the composition of the blood based on observations from a microscope. Dr. LeFebvre’s work was valuable, for he transcribed his observations, not only of the stigmata but also of Louise’s physiological reactions during her ecstasy. See Louise Lateau of Bois D’Haine – Her Life, Her Ecstasies, and Her Stigmata – A Medical Study.
Louise Lateau in Ecstasy, 1869
A painting by François Sodar
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While wounds of a pathological nature (such as those of leprosy) appear randomly on the body, the stigmata generally appear only in the known locations of Christ’s wounds: the hands and feet (where He was nailed to the cross), the side (where he was pierced by a centurion’s lance), and the head (where He was crowned with a crown of thorns). Most stigmatists had their stigmata in these locations. However, there have been reports of stigmatists, such as Teresa Neumann (1898 – 1962), who also showed stigmata on the shoulder (from Christ’s carrying of the cross) and on the back (from the scourging). However, these additional wounds have not been observed in all stigmatists. The nature and number of stigmata are not the same in all stigmatists, although they are all signs of Christ’s suffering. For example, Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich also received the “mark of the cross” on her chest, which was a sign of Christ’s crucifixion although not exactly one of the wounds of Christ. Yet, this wound also bled recurrently in the commemoration of His passion and, therefore, is numbered among the stigmata. Also, her side wound was on the right side, while Louise Lateau’s side wound was on the left. St. Padre Pio did not have the wounds from the crown of thorns, but he suffered a painful shoulder wound that Blessed Emmerich did not have. So, the wounds of the stigmatists are not all the same, and they should be regarded primarily as mystical reflections of Christ’s suffering and not as exact reproduction of the wounds of Christ. The wounds differ among different stigmatists based on their individual reactions and sensitivity to Christ's passion in which they all participate.
The above three characteristics of the stigmata have been observed in almost all stigmatists. For this reason, these general characteristics can be used to distinguish the fake from the authentic stigmata. In addition to the above general characteristics, however, some stigmata exhibit additional marvels, although these have been observed only in some stigmatists:
In some cases, the blood from the stigmata would follow the path of Christ’s blood on the cross, regardless of the position of the stigmatist. Since Christ was crucified in an upright position, the blood on His feet, for example, naturally traveled toward the toes. But if the stigmatist is lying down, the blood still travels toward the toes, thus opposing gravity! This marvelous phenomenon was observed and documented by at least one stigmatist, Maria Domenica Lazzari. See the Letter of the Earl of Shrewsbury to Ambrose Lisle Phillips, Esq., p. 33. The same was also observed in the blood from the wounds around her head when she was lying down. Instead of flowing down to each side of the face as gravity would have it, the blood from the wounds flowed along her face as if she were upright. See the Testimony of the Visitors to Maria Domenica Lazzari.
In other cases, the blood at the hands and feet coagulates to form the head and tip of the nails of the crucifixion. This was observed in the stigmata of Saint Francis of Assisi, as Saint Bonaventure himself narrates in his Life of Saint Francis of Assisi, Chapter XIII, par. 3. Some critics thought that this description by Saint Bonaventure was either pure exaggeration or mere figurative language. However, the same marvel was recently observed in another stigmatist, Teresa Neumann. See the description of Teresa Neumann’s stigmata in The Stigmata and Modern Science, where the author quoted the written testimony of several doctors who examined the wounds.
Stigmatisation of St. Francis of Assisi, 1325
Painting by Giotto di Bondone (1276-1337)
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Some doctors have argued that the stigmata are not miraculous or supernatural because wounds and body marks, they claim, can be made to appear on the surface of the body by a process of self-hypnotism or autosuggestion. Indeed, there is a natural link between the body and the mind; for example, anxiety could cause excessive sweating. So, it was claimed that the stigmata of the saints were nothing more than psychosomatic effects of the saint’s profound meditation on the Passion. It has been said of Saint Padre Pio that when this idea was brought to his attention, he simply answered, “Look at a picture of a bull. Concentrate on it, and try to identify yourself with it by thinking deeply that you are a bull. Do it for two weeks and see if horns will grow from your head.” That might just be a story, but it is funny because there is a great deal of truth in it. Indeed, there has been no clinical evidence that autosuggestion has produced the stigmata of the saints. The experiments carried out by some researchers merely showed that autosuggestion could cause some swelling and reddish sweat, but that is nowhere close to the bleeding wounds of the stigmatists.
That the mind and the imagination also played a role in the stigmatization of the saints may be admitted. For, as was said earlier, miracles do not totally dispense with the action of natural causes. The reason the stigmata are miraculous is not that there are no natural causes at work, but because natural causes alone, unaided by God’s action, cannot produce the features of the true stigmata, such as the tearing of the tissues (open wounds) and abundant and recurrent bleeding. This is why the stigmata are not found in neuropathic patients who exhibit superficial marks on their bodies as a result of autosuggestion. Theirs was a purely natural phenomenon. The stigmata of the saints have a divine cause. Now, the following is also important: most stigmatists are also ecstatics, and they often receive and reactivate the stigmata during their ecstasy. During this time, their mind and imagination are most active (as Dr. LeFebvre discovered in Louise Lateau), even if their external senses are suspended. They perceive in their soul the sufferings of our Savior, which are then physically reflected in their bleeding stigmata. The nature and number of their stigma, therefore, vary, as do the revelations they receive, according to their individual sensitivity and receptivity to the reality they behold in their contemplation of Christ’s passion.
As shown above, miracles are not only possible and knowable but also factual. There is much evidence showing that miracles have happened, but their acceptance is a different story. There are many skeptics and unbelievers in the world who will always challenge the fact that a miracle occurred. Whereas in the past the credulity of ordinary peasants and common folk was a concern regarding the quick acceptance of marvelous events as miracles, today the skepticism of enlightened and highly educated people has become the concern for the quick rejection of the same events as miracles. Often, the rejection of miracles does not arise from a lack of evidence but because the recognition of miracles entails an obligation to accept the religious implications of the miracle. The acceptance of a miracle requires the rectitude of the will (righteousness) and cooperation with grace (piety).
Strictly, one does not need to be an eyewitness to recognize a miracle. It is sufficient for righteous and pious people to have credible witnesses to the marvelous event. This attitude is especially important when it comes to accepting the reality of miracles, such as Christ’s resurrection, for example. Present-day Christians cannot be witnesses to this miracle. They know of the resurrection of Christ only from the testimony of the evangelists and the Apostles. Some naysayers will quickly reject the New Testament narratives because, they say, these were written by His disciples. They insist that the testimony of Christ’s disciples cannot be regarded as unprejudiced and objective. However, this is a lame excuse. The question to ask is not whether the New Testament writers were disciples or not. The crucial question to ask is, Did the New Testament writers tell the truth? John the Evangelist faced persecution, and the other Apostles suffered death as a guarantee of their truthfulness.
In the movie, The Song of Bernadette, an apt remark was made: “To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.” This remark is justified because faith is predicated on both righteousness and piety. To one who is righteous and pious, no explanation of a miracle is necessary because the judgment of common sense is enough. To the unrighteous and impious, no explanation of a miracle is possible because even strong evidence will be rejected.