What Makes a Miracle?

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In the grotto of St. Patrick’s Basilica in Ottawa, Canada, a display featuring a statue of Father McGivney encourages prayer and devotion to the Knights of Columbus founder.
In the grotto of St. Patrick’s Basilica in Ottawa, Canada, a display featuring a statue of Father McGivney encourages prayer and devotion to the Knights of Columbus founder.

Since Venerable Father Michael McGivney is at the stage of the canonization process in which a miracle is needed for him to be beatified, the Guild often receives questions about what exactly is needed for a miracle to be accepted. What standard does the Vatican use in declaring some events miraculous and others not?

A book could be written on the subject, but to put the issue in simple terms, what the Vatican is looking for in most cases is a physical healing that cannot be explained by medical science. Let’s look a little more closely at the whole process of “making a miracle.”

The first thing to understand is that only God can perform a miracle, since a miracle is understood to be a suspension of the created natural order. When we say that Father McGivney needs a miracle for beatification, what we mean is that a proven miracle must be attributed to his intercession before God.

With that important fact understood, we are ready to walk through the process of how a proposed miracle is brought to the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Step one is identifying a possible miracle for which people close to the situation prayed to a sainthood candidate — in this case, Father McGivney. The Congregation for Saints considers almost exclusively extraordinary physical healings and recoveries, since those incidents usually have verifiable facts such as medical tests and records, as well as objective and widely accepted measurements for diagnosing a serious condition and declaring a person healed. Examples of non-medical miracles that have been approved by the Vatican congregation include cases of survivors walking away unscathed from accidents that should have been fatal, such as falls from a church ceiling and mountain climbing mishaps. Certainly, there are other types of miracles that involve moral, psychological and spiritual phenomena, but physical healings are easier to investigate and prove in an objective, scientific manner.

How would we identify a possible miracle through Father McGivney’s intercession? Someone must report it. We cannot stress this enough. The only way for the Guild to learn about a possible miracle is for someone with knowledge of the case to report it to us. So Knights, their families and anyone devoted to Father McGivney must be on the lookout for possible miraculous healings.

Next to consider is how a possible miracle would be attributed to Father McGivney’s intercession. There has to be positive evidence that people close to the event truly prayed exclusively to Father McGivney for the miracle. Again, this is why the Guild constantly urges prayer to Father McGivney, especially in cases of serious illness. When you know someone is facing a serious medical condition, start praying for a miraculous healing and ask family, friends and council members to do so too.

So let’s say we have an extraordinary physical healing of someone who prayed exclusively to Father McGivney (and Mary), as did all those close to him. We now have a strong case that is worth investigating.

The initial investigation would be conducted by the vice postulator of the canonization cause in New Haven, who will interview people close to the case, including doctors. If there is a general sense that there is no apparent scientific or medical explanation for the healing and that Father McGivney was exclusively invoked, then the evidence will go to the cause’s experienced postulator in Rome. If the postulator finds that the case is strong enough, he will send a request to the bishop of the diocese where the possible miracle occurred, asking him to form a tribunal to conduct an official inquiry into the case.

The diocesan tribunal is a formal ecclesiastical court, convened under the local bishop, that calls witnesses, gathers testimony, collects medical records and other supporting documents, and ultimately makes a judgment on whether to refer the case to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. Once the case reaches the congregation in Rome, it is reviewed by experts in canon law, medicine and theology who meet in separate panels to examine and discuss the evidence and then vote whether or not to approve the case as a miraculous healing that involved the intercession of Father McGivney. The case would then go to a board of cardinals and finally to the Holy Father, whose approval is needed for the acceptance of a miracle.

Join. Pray. Report.
The process is long and painstaking for good reasons. The Church does not want to declare as miraculous any event that may later be called into question. We hope and pray that a miracle will finally be attributed to the intercession of Venerable Michael McGivney. You can help the process with the simple formula: “Join. Pray. Report.” Join the Guild. Pray the Prayer for Canonization daily. Report any extraordinary healings.

Together, we will move the cause forward.