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Questions miracles raise

  • 04 November 2010

In the 1970s Latin American theologians began to explore the connections of faith to a public world marked by great injustice. Some of them initially criticised such popular expressions of faith such as devotions, fiestas and processions. They saw them as sentimental and preoccupied with individual salvation to the neglect of the call to change an unjust world.

For a while a gap opened between popular religion and the more focused account of faith given by the educated. But as theologians began to study the popular experience of faith more deeply, they came to see its complexities and its resources for developing a more just society. The coverage of Mary MacKillop's recent canonisation disclosed a similar tension between popular expressions of faith and more reflective accounts of religion. The tension was reflected in different ways of viewing sainthood.

The criteria for the canonisation of Catholic saints include three elements. Saints must have lived in ways that totally embodied their faith, and so be appropriate models for imitation. A pattern must have developed of people praying through them to God. And authenticated miracles, usually healings, must have been associated with prayer through them.

Most educated Catholics give priority to the heroic and exemplary life of saints and see them as models to be imitated. They also find the emphasis on miracles unhelpful because it suggests that God intervenes at will in the natural world. Instead of remarkable cures, they emphasise moral miracles inspired by the saint's example. The courage people find in suffering, conversion from a vicious to a virtuous life, and enthusiasm in the service of others are seen as more remarkable.

Generally, too, they downplay prayer to the saints because asking for things can assume a manipulative view of prayer and a God who responds in crude ways to our requests. We pray more purely when we give thanks to God and entrust lives into God's hands.

These attitudes echo those of the broader culture. They were seen in the media coverage of Mary MacKillop, particularly of miracles, the most dramatic part of the story of her canonisation. But when ordinary Catholics were asked to speak of the miracles claimed for her,