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Martyrdom and other revolutionary miracles

Mary MacKillopMary MacKillop's prospective sainthood has brought miracles into public discussion. Reports of contemporary local miracles make interesting human stories. But they also provoke the ire of those who see them as mumbo jumbo and further evidence of the irrational character of religious faith.

The points and counterpoints in this debate are predictable. But another angle may be found in an apparent oddity in the processes of saint making.

Martyrs do not require miracles to qualify for inclusion in the public worship of the Catholic Church. They need only evidence that they died for their Christian faith. But other candidates for sainthood do need miracles, as well as evidence that they have lived lives consistent with deep faith. Miracles are broadly understood as events that are associated with prayer and are not susceptible of a natural explanation.

This intriguing difference between martyrs and other saints illuminates the place of miracles in the Catholic tradition. In it the martyr's death is equivalent to miracles worked through the saint. Both point to a rent in a world that is declared to be self-enclosed.

The Roman world of the first Christian martyrs was politically enclosed. The sacred and the political were joined in the worship of the Emperor. The Roman imaginative world was one in which the public welfare depended on the tight union between the empire and religion.

Christianity, like Judaism, challenged this with its faith in a God whose claims and favour could not be locked into Imperial institutions. The central story of Jesus Christ was of a death at the hands of the Imperial authorities and a Resurrection that made his scattered followers the kernel of God's people. They represented the new way of living that God had opened through Christ's death and rising.

To the Roman authorities this faith located Christians as a set of outsiders who gave communal allegiance to a God beyond the Empire and so tore the tent that housed the sacred.

This view led the Roman authorities to persecute Christians, offering them the choice of recanting their  allegiance to Christ or face torture and death designed to destroy their dignity and their humanity. Christians saw the death of martyrs as a demonstration of the power of their God who gave martyrs strength to endure being hacked to bits. They saw it as a vindication of the Church in its belief in a God whose claims and ways of acting lay beyond the control of the State. The martyrs by their death symbolised that rent in an apparently sealed world.

The miracles associated with faith and prayer also tear open a world that is seen as self-enclosed and whose possibilities are narrowly defined. In daily experience the world is enclosed by the forces of fate, like plague, famine and the contingencies of sickness and health. These tend to restrict our hope and sense of what is possible. Our world can also be limited by imaginative frameworks that limit reality to what we can perceive, and restrict our hopes to the ways in which we can make the visible world work for us.

Miracles open a gap in the canopy that we build over our world. They point to a more mysterious reality and to incalculable possibilities that arise from the recognition of a God on whom the world depends. The lives of saints, miracles and all, point to that deeper reality of a God who transcends the world and analysis of it. Miracles associated with faith are symbols of God's presence and power within the world.

Seen from this perspective both miracles and the deaths of martyrs are symbols. They point to something beyond themselves. The twin qualities of miracles are that they are human events that are out of the ordinary and that they occur within the context of faith. For Christians who accept that faith they disclose a God who is intimately active in the world. Miracles do not demand that others believe in their God, although they do invite them to reflect whether their imagination of the world may be too circumscribed.

If miracles are seen as symbols, the questions about whether they really exceed the powers of nature will appear tired. Their verification demands simply that healings should be beyond our present power to analyse or to replicate. It does not demand that scientific reflection will never be able to explain or replicate them.

Central to the miracle is the context of faith within which the extraordinary healing is situated. Without that they are no more than an unusual event. But even unusual events lead us to ask questions.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Mary McKillop, saint, martyr, miracle



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Existing comments

If as we believe God is beyond space and time then God's knowledge of our prayer exists too from the beginning of time. I do not expect God to break his laws of nature but wonderful things DO happen as a result of prayer and in the lives of those who have really given their lives to God coincidences happen frequently. With the growth in our knowledge of the workings of nature however it becomes more and more difficult to call anything a miracle.

Patricia Ryan | 04 February 2010  

"Miracles open a gap in the canopy that we build over our world." YES. Martyrdom as a miraculous rejection of apparently sealed-up structures. THANKS.
And long may Eureka Street puncture gently the canopy.

Katie | 04 February 2010  

I have found the claims of the latest miracle in this instance beyond odd ... reeks of superstition ... certainly we need to ask questions ... why are miracles so exclusive and directed to the few ... what about the rest of us ... where is the justice???

Judy | 04 February 2010  

I am sure that we must look to the New Testament for guidance. The early Church saw healing ministries as part of the Gospel. With the revival of healing ministries in churches in recent years we should not see "Miracles?" as exceptional but God working in his creation through human agents,. We all have different gifts that can be cultivated in the service of God. those involved in healing ministries have to be careful that they do not encourage personality cults that reduce healing to magic. Saints themselves are usually humble and don't expect such recognition.

John Ozanne | 04 February 2010  

Dear Judy, Miracles appear to happen to people with a complete trust in God. They merely keep asking for a saint to intercede for them but are prepared to accept the outcome, whatever it may be. In leaving the situation entirely in God’s hands, they are also willing to humbly accept that God will bring about the best outcome and turn a negative into a positive. They accept that God allows suffering, because it is only through suffering that we can mature and grow.
Jesus himself explained why miracles are also not always granted: it is because humans are not conducting their lives sincerely and honourably: for example, in their scepticism, they choose to “have a bet each way” or they have a self-centred attitude of “but what about me?”

Maybe it is time for humans for a complete re-think.

Matt | 04 February 2010  

Every Catholic and most Christians have to believe in the Creed which includes a couple of miraculous things like the resurrection of the dead, Jesus conceived by a spirit called the Holy Ghost, born of a Virgin Mother, his ascension into heaven. Then the bible tells us a few more like walking on water, feeding multitudes with a few loaves,turning water into good wine. The real miracle is that we can believe all that and some of our leaders say Global Warming is all crap! Mary MacKillop is a saint by her life story, that's enough.

jack kennedy | 04 February 2010  


As a teacher in a thelogical faculty, how can an intelligent man believe in religious miracles required for sainthood when in his papacy John Paul II created nearly 1500 sainthoods or beatifications, almost all from countries with an Italian/Hispanic heritage. Other European countries almost nil and of course Africa and Asia ignored. Then we have the founder of Opus Dei created a saint. How can these compare with martyrs for the faith??? When are the Jesuit (amongst others) martyed by the Mugabe regime going to be created saints or at least blesseds?

philip | 04 February 2010  

Thank you for explaining the significant differing means that our saints are proclaimed. Teaching students about the martyrs is often a difficult process as we often agree with the students when they say that some of the martyrs were just plain crazy and in todays society would be locked up. I acknowledge that some of the saints survived terrible suffering in the name of God and deserve to be saints I do query the rationalisation even at the time where we have people declared saint for self flagellation or abstinence of food. These people in my eyes are not true martyrs as they did not do anything rational in the name of God.

Mary MacKillop lived a giving life that excelled any other at her time and achieved to her personal detriment education for so many. Why does she even need miracles in her name to qualify? Testimony and knowledge of achievement should be enough. Is the Catholic church trying to make up for its past errors in handing out Sainthoods. I see people like Moira Kelly as a saint in the making for her actions and deeds! Why should she have to have miracles after her death when she is making them happen now?

Cheryl Walker | 04 February 2010  

Three things trouble me about all this. A God who is closer to us and our needs than anyone else - the God I believe in - does not need the intercession of even the most saintly of persons, such as Mary MacKillop for God to act. Nor is it possible to change God's mind. Prayer, as I see it, is a way to change us, not God.

Secondly, it diminishes God to attribute 'miracles' to a saintly person. Saint Mary would want to lead us closer to God: to focus our attention on God, not herself. This is what I admire most in our Aussie saint. How would she view all this fuss about 'her' miracles?

Thirdly, I can't get past the comment that these miracles make it look as though God takes God's attention off the millions of people dying of starvation and poverty in our world, while God concentrates on one or two first world people who have a desperate need. Does it mean we Aussies so desperately need an official saint that God will go to such lengths to help the Church give us one?

John O'Donnell | 05 February 2010  

Thank you Andrew for a thought provoking and illuminating article, and everyone else for a the lively discussion that followed.

We cannot afford to settle for too small a God, or for God the disinterested spectator, nor can Christians claim that God does not intervene in human affairs at all, for the Incarnation is central to our faith. Throughout history God has worked through human beings in a variety of ways. The silent transformative work of the Holy Spirit in a believers heart/soul is one way. One purpose of this human-divine co-operation is to keep the rumour of Divine reality alive, perhaps? Surely this is one of the greatest contributions the Martyrs and Saints make to the community: keeping God on the agenda.

'Unworthy' Saints may well have been proclaimed by fallible humans; this does not detract from the holiness of those whose lives radiate God's love and mercy.

Saints and Martyrs are an encouragement and inspiration to faithful Christians and a reminder to the secular world that God is God.

Pirrial Clift | 06 February 2010  

A balanced view of miracles and what the Catholic Church required for Mary McKillop to be declared a saint! Many value miracles as a daily phenomenon of their religious practice and many others reject miracles as outside scientific proof. This view points to a God within our prayers and beyond our present understanding. So keep praying for divine intervention as if everything depended on it and at the same time keep working as if everything depended on on our efforts for social justice.

John Shervington | 06 February 2010  

Thank you so much for your compassion, understanding, and intelligent explanations. Have been so impressed by your recent writings that I have been reading a few of your past articles. You are a true humanitarian and advocate for social justice, and have somewhat renewed my faith in the Catholic Church. I say 'somewhat' because people like you are rare no matter what religious organisation they represent. You remind us that Jesus too was inclusive of all people, and being open-minded, gave forgiveness rather than condemnation - but never ceased raging against the selfish and the ignorant. They then have no reason to say that they didn't know what they were doing. Thanks once again for trying to keep us all on the right track.

Annabel | 08 April 2014