The Vatican’s strategy to make up for shrinking numbers of the faithful in the traditional catchments of Europe and the West has energised the Catholic Church in India, but the process of canonisation, mandating two miracles, has nevertheless led to a controversy over the archaic practice, centred on medical as well as theological grounds.
On October 13, as Pope Francis conferred sainthood on Thrissur-born Mother Mariam Thresia, the founder of the Congregation of the Holy Family, the Kerala chapter of the Indian Medical Association (IMA) sat specially to seek an explanation from Dr V.K. Sreenivasan, a neonatologist at the Amala Institute of Medical Sciences in Thrissur, for reportedly “certifying the miraculous cure of a newborn afflicted with a seemingly incurable primary pulmonary hypertension”.
The child reportedly recovered dramatically after its parents prayed to Mother Thresia from the hospital bed in 2009.
“Dr Sreenivasan, who travelled to the Vatican as a witness, has to tell us what specific markers he had found in the child’s condition to claim supernatural healing. We come across many instances of a cure, often very rare and medically the least anticipated. But to call them miracles is outside the pale of medical ethics”, says Dr N. Sulphie, the IMA state general secretary.
Dr Sreenivasan remains tightlipped, but colleagues at Amala Hospital commend him as a highly “ethical person”. The medical fraternity is divided. Many believe that the IMA has no business to seek an explanation because clinicians encounter many instances of curious cures, albeit medically inexplicable. If the neonatologist has merely stated the inexplicable factor, the IMA has no cause to intervene. But if he had called it a miracle, implying divine intervention, he is on shaky ground. Many dramatic cures belong to the realm of the marvellous and wondrous, defying prognosis. But miracles are not the domain of medicine, so goes the argument.
Beyond the propriety or otherwise of the doctor’s certification rises the question whether miracles are inevitable in the decision to anoint saints when science opens up new frontiers, explaining what had hitherto remained inexplicable.
Traditionalists resent any dilution of the concept of miracles. Bishop Michelle Di Ruberto, once the emeritus secretary of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, is on record saying that a miracle is an “event that goes beyond the forces of nature, which is realised by God outside of what is normal in the whole of created nature by the intercession of a servant of God or a blessed one…We can make mistakes, deceive ourselves. Miracles, instead, can only be realised by God, and God does not deceive”. That’s the argument for a flawless culmination of the process of canonisation.
The criticism from within the Church against miracles is centred on the legacy of saints, hailed as iconic examples rather than miracle workers or intercessors. The fullness of heroic lives of virtues, as witnessed by fellow humans, should be sufficient for their veneration as role models. Miracles are merely the interpretation, attributing divinity to causes mortals espouse.
Says Fr Paul Thelakat, the chief editor of Light of Truth: “I do know that the Church has strict procedures with respect to miracles and relics, but I may suggest a real rethinking from the theological and scientific point of view two items in canonisation, namely the necessity of two miracles and relics. It is time to have a cultural, theological and pastoral re-evaluation of the meaning and the relevance of relics in our times”.
The Vatican eyes the Third World for its harvest of souls as the craze for saints in the West is on the wane, quite a far cry from the epoch of frenzied demands for saints and their relics in medieval times.
India, home to Christianity for centuries, has survived the paradox of being without a saint for nearly 2,000 years. The first Indian saint was Gonzalo Garcia, a martyr, canonised in 1862. Out of a total of six saints in the country, five were canonised after 2000. Kerala may be the cradle, and accounts for four out of the six, with seven more in the canonisation queue.
The saint-less drought in the country is sought to be explained thus: Every society and religion has its own saints and holy men and women.
Heroic saints may be few. What is true is that the church in the south of India did not have the money and the wherewithal to fund canonical procedures for getting a few of their own proclaimed as saints. Often, this proclamation of saints becomes an issue of prestige and dignity for the community, diocese or the religious congregation concerned. All saints in Kerala belong to the influential Syro-Malabar rite while the Latin and Syro-Malankara rites are yet to have their own. That is tantamount to the clout wielded by the respective rites.
Historically, the Church in the East had remained beholden to the Vatican. It was in 1875 that the clergy, till then governed by Syrian bishops sent by the Eastern Church in Babylon, what is today Iran and Iraq, urged Rome to send a bishop who spoke English. The seven priests who petitioned Rome for an English-speaking bishop were treated almost as heretics by the Carmelite bishop of the Padravado system and were expelled from their monasteries.
The Church in the West was replete with such histories, especially the burning at the stake, branding its critics as heretics. The tradition of intolerance prevails at different levels even as the Vatican imparts redemption in distant lands. One can’t escape the paradox. Was it not a committee of bishops, who condemned Joan of Arc as a witch and ordered her execution and nearly four centuries later canonised her?
The Church, of late, racked by exposes on its paedophile priests, seeks atonement and undertakes huge payouts. But its professed sense of compassion misses victims. Five nuns of the Missionaries of Jesus, who stood up to the alleged predator, Bishop Franco Mulakkal, are on the streets.
The official Church is seen to be with the persecutor, leaving victims to wilt under the yoke of no sympathy. Arguably these are signs for the Church to redeem the flock even as it chases miracles to uphold holiness.