Priest's recovery raises issues of faith and fact Healing: Roman Catholic authorities are carefully investigating the case of a Baltimore priest who says a nun who died in 1938 helped cure his heart problem.

December 08, 1996|By Debbie M. Price | Debbie M. Price,SUN STAFF Researchers Robert Schrott and Paul McCardell contributed to this report.

On this cold and gray morning, as the bells peal nine times, the faithful gather to pray and praise at Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church. The Rev. Ronald Pytel, resplendent in white vestments, exhorts the worshipers to give thanks, not just for their blessings, which are many, but for the pain, the adversity, even the tragedies that may have befallen them.

"What has come into our lives the bad as well as the good, should be considered gifts from God to provide us the opportunity for growth and blessing," Pytel tells the congregants.

The simple, heartfelt message -- a pragmatic late-20th century interpretation of the age-old theme of redemption through suffering -- resonates with personal meaning for Pytel.

The 49-year-old priest, stricken with a degenerative aortic valve and dire congestive heart failure, was perilously close to death 18 months ago.

His full recovery after valve-replacement surgery surprised not only his Johns Hopkins doctor, but also set in motion an inquiry by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, the magnitude of which has not been seen in recent memory.

At the heart of the archdiocese's investigation is the question now sending ripples of excitement through the Baltimore Catholic community: Are the faithful of Holy Rosary on Chester Avenue in Fells Point witness to a miracle?

Pytel, a diffident and sweet-faced priest of Polish descent, credits his recovery not only to medicine but also to the divine intervention of the Blessed Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun beatified in 1993, through whom Pytel and fellow worshipers prayed for his recovery.

However, his doctor, while assessing the recovery as "remarkable and unexpected," sees more science than the supernatural in Pytel's healing.

The outcome, while rare, he said, is not unprecedented in similar cases.

"I'm saying that I was healed, that I had an experience that was out of the ordinary, but I haven't used the word miracle," Pytel says.

A grueling inquiry

The word "miracle" -- tossed about freely in colloquial speech -- is not used lightly by the Roman Catholic Church.

The authentication of a miracle is very serious business, for proven miracles -- the most rare of events determined to be caused only by the hand of God and not explicable according to natural laws -- are necessary for the making of saints.

Those looking into Pytel's experience are hesitant even to utter the word for fear of prejudicing what has become a grueling, weeks-long investigation, conducted with all the formality of a secular court of law, in the Archdiocese Office of the Tribunal on Cathedral Street.

No one at the archdiocese will discuss the particulars of Pytel's case, but priests familiar with the process of authenticating a miracle say that medical opinion will no doubt weigh heavily -- and possibly against a miracle -- in this case.

The results of the archdiocese's fact-gathering mission -- to be compiled in "phone book-size" volumes -- will be forwarded to the Vatican, where interested parties have been following the case.

"All the burners are on," says Bill Blaul, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

"The Vatican burner is on. The archdiocese burner is on, and the parish burner is on."

The ramifications of the investigation are enormous.

If Pytel's healing is determined, indeed, to be miraculous, his recovery could become the second authenticated miracle needed for the canonization of the Blessed Faustina.

Her canonization, in turn, no doubt could lead to the further spread of the Divine Mercy, an increasingly popular devotion that derives from the writings of Faustina, which recount what she said were revelations from Jesus about his mercy.

And at the very least, the authentication of a miracle would forever change life for Pytel and his largely Polish Holy Rosary parish, whose members dream of building a shrine that one day could attract religious pilgrims.

But such possibilities are still far from realities.

Only a tiny fraction of purported miracles are ever authenticated by the Catholic Church.

(At the sanctuary of Lourdes, only 65 of the more than 6,000 healings claimed since 1862 have been authenticated as miracles.)

The Catholic Church's definition of a miracle is exacting.

In the case of a healing, the recovery must be sudden -- "instantaneous" is a word often used -- attributable to a divine intercession and unexplained by any other measure, medical or scientific.

The scrutiny not only by priests and church officials but also by doctors, scientists and people outside the Catholic faith is unrelenting.

"There has always been a feeling among some Catholics that the big point is God and Christ and to a special extent, Mary, but that the cult of saints, which is very heavy, can be overdone," says the Rev. Joseph Gallagher, a retired priest and former editor of the Catholic Review.

"There is a tradition in the church of not overdoing this veneration of a mere human being. That's why it usually takes the church decades and decades and centuries to make up her mind."

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