How does the Vatican screen miracles? With great care, as it turns out, using doctors and scientists who don't know they've been hustled into the Vatican's saint-making - or unmaking - skunk works.
One doctor unwittingly called into the canonization cause was Jacalyn Duffin, 60, a hematologist who is Hannah professor of medical history at Ontario's Queen's University. She describes herself as "an atheist who believes in miracles - these were inexplicable events."
Her canonization adventure began in 1987, after she wrote her dissertation on the invention of the stethoscope. A fellow hematologist in Ottawa asked her to cast her professional eye over 400 bone marrow slides from a leukemia victim. Dr. Duffin knew nothing else about the case - it was a "blind" review - and assumed her report would be used in a medical lawsuit.
After examining the first few slides, she concluded three things: That the samples were from a woman, that she had myeloblastic leukemia, the most aggressive type known, and that she, poor thing, was dead. But as she delved into the whole range of samples, covering 18 months, a highly unusual pattern emerged. "It was treatment, remission, relapse, then remission, remission, remission," she said.
Dr. Duffin's report could offer no reason for the remission and she jokingly suggested that it was a miracle. She later found out that the patient had survived and that - no joke - her examination was done on behalf of the Vatican miracles-screening team. The patient was Lise Normand, from Gatineau, Que., (who is alive and well today). When she was ill, Ms. Normand had prayed to Marie-Marguerite d'Youville, the founder of the Sisters of Charity of Montreal in the early 18th Century.
Another miracle had already been attributed to Marie-Marguerite, which the Vatican employed for her beatification, which is the second step in the canonization process in 1959. Ms. Normand's inexplicable cure was the second. Marie-Marguerite became Canada's first native-born saint in 1990, when she was canonized in Rome by Pope John Paul II. Ms. Normand and Dr. Duffin attended the ceremony and stood together.
Dr. Duffin called the experience a "turning point" in her life and she decided to research miracles. She buried herself in the Vatican archives, where she read amazing stories of cancerous tumours melting sway, lame children suddenly walking, nearly dead babies coming to life. What started as a simple exercise in blood analysis resulted in a book, published in 2009, called Medical Miracles: Doctors, Saints and Healing in the Modern World. It both added to the canon of medical history and revealed just how closely medicine and religion worked with one another for centuries.
She researched the miracles used to support 1,400 canonizations over four centuries, up to 1999. The vast majority of them, she says, qualified for the genuine thing if you take the most common definition of a miracle: A remarkable event, typically a healing, which science cannot explain. "As these miracles rolled by, I saw that the Vatican was being scientifically thorough," she said in an interview. "The files were brimming with medical testimony and when new science arrived, it was put to use."
She did uncover one silly "miracle" that made her laugh.
It was about a 17th Century Italian man, referred to as the "Capitano" in the documents, who took an after-dinner stroll with his friends in Civita Capellana, just north of Rome. He lifted his right arm to rudely blow his nose with his finger, exposing his chest.
At that precise moment, the thunder of an arquebus - a heavy, muzzle-loaded firearm - startled the crowd. The Capitano collapsed, bleeding from a wound just above his heart. A surgeon was summoned. He probed the gory mess and found a small, dented medal. On one side was an image of the lamb of God, on the flipside an image of Pope Pius V (1504-1572). Against all odds, the bullet had hit the medal, preventing it from ripping apart the thorax. The man lived.
As it turned out, it appears the Vatican's investigators thought the alleged miracle could be better defined as sheer dumb luck. Dr. Duffin's research suggested that other miracles were found to grease Pope Pius's journey into sainthood, though she doesn't know for sure.
She was not involved in studying the miracles attributed to Brother André who is to be canonized on Oct. 17. But saints, miracles and medicine are still close to her heart and academic life. The working title of her next book, as yet unpublished, is: Medical Saints in a Post-Modern World.