Church begins inquiry into sainthood for Mother Drexel 'She didn't talk about social justice

...she lived social justice'

March 11, 1997|By Ron Goldwyn | Ron Goldwyn,Knight-Ridder news service

PHILADELPHIA - Blessed Mother Katharine Drexel is up for her last miracle.

The effort to affirm an "alleged miracle" in the eyes of the Catholic Church and to win sainthood for a local heroine is moving ahead - in utter secrecy - at an unusual hearing in Philadelphia.

The campaigners for Drexel's cause say this "miracle" looks good: a born-deaf infant whose newfound ability to hear has at least a dozen doctors stumped. They say the intangibles - read this as politics - look favorable as well.

Katharine Drexel was an heiress in a 19th-century Philadelphia family renowned for its riches, philanthropy and status.

In 1891, she founded an order of religious women to educate and bring the sacraments to blacks and Indians, two groups virtually frozen out of American life. She funded the cause with Drexel millions, but she was zealous about her vow of poverty.

Died in 1955

She died in 1955, at 96, just as the civil-rights era began. Just four years later, her order admitted its first black postulant. Drexel was never known to discuss racial justice, yet founded the nation's only black Catholic university, Xavier of Louisiana, plus missions and schools from Indian land to Harlem to Haiti.

"She didn't talk about social justice. She didn't have to. She lived social justice. You don't have to talk about what you do," said Sister Ruth Catherine Spain, co-director of the Drexel Guild, which has worked for her canonization.

Many called Drexel a saint before she died. Hundreds of thousands have visited her shrine and prayed at her crypt at the Sisters of Blessed Sacrament motherhouse in Bensalem, Pa. Now her advocates in the order and the Archdiocese of Philadelphia say there's a second miracle. They are building their case.

The church sees miracles as a sign that God considers the person saintly. Vatican acceptance of a second one is the last step before the pope decides to canonize. Sister Ruth and the order's vice president, Sister Beatrice Jeffries, took documents to Rome in the fall and were told to push ahead, that the alleged miracle looked promising.

In Philadelphia, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua ordered hearings.

"We are not saying it is a cure, we are not saying it is a miracle," she said. "It is simply a healing with the intercession of Mother Drexel. ...

"What makes a miracle is there is no possible medical explanation for the healing whatsoever."

In a church in which saints have a powerful hold on the faithful and in which keeping secrets is an article of faith, canonization is long on mystery, short on data.

The first miracle

The first Drexel miracle is now public. In 1988, the Vatican's doctors decided they could find no medical reason why Robert J. Gutherman regained his hearing. In 1974, Gutherman, then 14, lost hearing in his right ear after a severe infection. Doctors said it could not be cured, but after family and friends prayed to Mother Drexel to intercede, hearing returned.

The Rev. Alexander Palmieri, chancellor of the archdiocese and vice postulator for the Drexel cause, will not list names but reveals this much about the new case - again, a hearing loss within the diocese.

It was culled from dozens of letters citing cures through Drexel's intercession.

Hearings will continue into this month in a 10th-floor conference room often used for annulment hearings at archdiocese offices in Philadelphia.

Inside are three priests, a doctor and a parade of witnesses.

The case involves an infant - the gender is secret - born deaf.

Witnesses have included the parents, relatives and friends who prayed for the child's healing, plus three hospitals, six doctors, reams of hearing tests, reports and case notes. Each takes an oath to secrecy and truth.

Physicians, he said, are not asked to declare a miracle: "The question is, is it exceptional and is there any medical explanation?"

A priest serves as "episcopal delegate" who questions witnesses on behalf of the cause. Another is a "promoter of justice" who looks for holes in testimony. There's also a "notary priest" in charge of the transcript.

Family and friends must convince authorities thst they prayed strictly for Drexel's intercession, not to any other saint or holy figure. Vatican theologians decide on the purity of the prayers.

Sometime this spring, Palmieri will bundle up three massive transcripts of the hearings - probably 1,500 pages apiece - and fly to Rome. Each will bear Bevilacqua's seal - to be broken only at the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

There's even a form to be filled out by any customs official who insists on breaking the seal.

The church says only God, not man, can make a saint. An individual's saintliness is recognized, after labyrinthian investigation, with the pope making the final call. John Paul II has canonized more than any predecessor.

Canonization has changed. It no longer takes three or four miracles, only two. But one must occur after a candidate is beatified, a papal declaration based on a candidate's holiness and suitability for sainthood.

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