Saturday, March 29, 2003

Church examines
Damien’s ‘miracle’

Doctors are unable to explain
a woman's delivery from cancer

By Mary Adamski

"It's a miracle." Even in this age of science, it's a common expression. It's a sign of hope and faith in the divine, or at least a nod to the notion that humans aren't in control of everything.

But "miracle" is not a determination that a medical professional or even an ecclesiastical authority is likely to be comfortable in making.

Nevertheless doctors and priests began meeting this week in a formal tribunal in Honolulu to scrutinize a possible miracle. The question before them is this:

Mrs. K, of Oahu, had cancer in both lungs in September 1998, a diagnosis established by biopsy and X-rays. She postponed treatment while she made a pilgrimage to Kalaupapa to pray for healing. At the grave of Father Damien DeVeuster, the 19th-century missionary to leprosy victims, she prayed that he would intercede with God on her behalf. A month later, an X-ray showed that the malignant mass had shrunk, and within five months it disappeared. The cancer has not returned. Was that a miracle?

Mrs. K believes that it was. She wrote to Pope John Paul II about it, setting in motion a process in the ponderous bureaucracy of the Catholic Church. Her point was not to seek personal attention -- indeed, she has prevailed on church and medical folks to protect her privacy. Her desire, like that of Damien's myriad fans around the world, is to have the cure officially accepted as a miracle.

That is the final requirement for the church to canonize Damien as a saint. The priest, who died in 1889 of leprosy after serving Kalaupapa residents for 16 years, was declared "Blessed Damien" by the pope in 1995.

The retired educator was 69 when her journey of healing began. She told her story this week to the tribunal convened by Honolulu Bishop Francis DiLorenzo. Her devotion to Damien is rooted in family history; one of her grandparents was sent to the Molokai peninsula that was the place of banishment for Hansen's disease patients until the development of sulfone drugs led to the end of quarantine in 1969.

Her story of faith has extraordinary scientific backup. Her case of "spontaneous regression of cancer" was documented by Dr. Walter Chang in the October 2000 edition of the Hawaii Medical Journal. In technical language backed up with X-rays, Chang described the case for his medical peers, commenting only briefly that the inexplicable cure "was attributed, by the patient, to the intercession of Father Damien."

"She had absolutely no treatment, not even a diet," Chang said in a recent interview. The Honolulu surgeon said he was "a witness to this remarkable event," but the word miracle is not in his vocabulary. His article explored possible scientific bases for spontaneous regression in this and three other cases. He wrote that he had never heard of spontaneous regression in this particular type of lung cancer.

"The doctor's report brings credibility," said the Rev. Joseph Grimaldi, who was named by the bishop to head the investigative committee. "There was no scientific explanation for her cure."

The panel will interview other medical specialists, as well as family and acquaintances of the woman for insight into her faith and devotion to Damien. Sitting with Grimaldi are the diocesan chancellor John Ringrose, a layman and canon lawyer; Dr. Philip Jones, a non-Catholic physician who has worked at Kalaupapa; the Rev. Robert Maher, a Capuchin priest; Netty Peiler and Kathy Sniffen as notaries.

The 4-year-old case got charged with a new urgency last year by the interest of the international religious order to which Damien belonged. The Rev. Emilio Vega Garcia, who is stationed in the Rome headquarters of the Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary, is in Hawaii to prod the process along in his role as procurator. Local Sacred Hearts Sister Helene Wood was commissioned vice postulator.

Chang said he has already compiled Mrs. K's medical records, which Vega Garcia presented to Dr. Franco DeRosa, physician and professor at the University of Rome. "He saw the evidence and said it was solid evidence," said Chang. "But as I comment in my report, it is difficult if not impossible to prove connection between prayer and cure."

The local tribunal will be expected to make a judgment about the religious aspect. Not only are they asked to determine if the reported cure was extraordinary in nature and occurred without any possible medical or scientific explanation, they are also expected to venture an opinion about whether the person cured had a particular devotion to Damien that corresponded with the change in medical condition.

"It is like the pope calling and asking these Hawaii people, 'What do you think about it?'" said Vega Garcia.

The priest from Rome said he will urge Hawaii residents to get involved in the grass-roots sainthood cause. "When I was in Kalaupapa, I told them, 'You have to write to the Holy Father.' It is important to communicate in this way that there is interest in Father Damien."

There are at least 800 sainthood causes already pending before the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which will receive the local report and set it for further scrutiny by theologians and medical professionals.

"Everything could be simplified if people manifested interest," Vega Garcia said.

"I think Father Damien has a difference. In the whole world he is known."

That is a fact that is underscored each day at Kalaupapa. At least two dozen visitors make the trek to the remote spot daily, said the Rev. Joseph Hendriks, Catholic pastor at the settlement. "Last week, 29 people from Tahiti walked down from the pali, and 14 people were here from Japan. I talked to a student from Zimbabwe and a man from Iran."

Grimaldi said: "There is already a great deal of respect for Father Damien around the world. A lot of people believe in his power.

"The church is very slow when it comes to the extraordinary," Grimaldi said. "It will be slow in declaring this a miracle ... to be sure this is a reality.

"The church emphasizes that holiness is achieved through ordinary means of life. God works through us in ordinary ways. It's much harder to go day in, day out, following the way of the Lord."

The Catholic Church's process of making a saint has evolved through the centuries from a time when legendary heroes and martyrs were accepted without much verification. On June 13, 1992, Pope John Paul II approved an 1895 cure as a miracle as required for Damien's beatification, the step before canonization.

In that case, a French nun, Sister Simplicia Hue, 37, was dying of a long intestinal illness. After she began a novena to Father Damien, symptoms of the illness disappeared overnight on Sept. 11, 1895. She lived for 32 more years.

Her story, and the cause for Damien's sainthood, languished without attention for decades, in part because of politics in the Sacred Hearts religious order, which wanted its founder to be named a saint first.

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