NB: I did not write this piece. It is from a polemical blog I ran last year that hosted debates between Lutherans and Roman Catholics. It obviously does not reflect my thinking. See comments. — admin.
In this post I’d like to raise the question of miracles as it might inform Lutheran/Catholic dialogue.
In the Creed of Constantinople, Catholics and Lutherans both profess the Church to be “holy” and “apostolic,” attributes which God systemically underscores by the witness of signs and wonders. For though Faith is a gift of God, it is seldom a bolt from the blue; a soul shown cogent demonstration is the tilth where it takes root.
The First Vatican Council summarized this well:
…in order that the submission of our faith should be in accordance with reason, it was God’s will that there should be linked to the internal assistance of the Holy Spirit external indications of his revelation, that is to say divine acts, and first and foremost miracles and prophecies, which clearly demonstrating as they do the omnipotence and infinite knowledge of God, are the most certain signs of revelation and are suited to the understanding of all. (Session III., iii., 4)
The doctrine is that of Holy Scripture. In His Farewell Discourse, Our Lord enjoined, “Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me; otherwise believe because of the works themselves” (14:11). He had said as much to the unbelieving Jews during Hannukah (10: 38), just after bidding them, “if I do not the works of My Father, do not believe Me.” That is: Don’t believe Me if I can’t back it up by works, by erga, by dynameis, by semeia. His disciples believed on Him when, at His Mother’s behest, He wrought His first miracle, transubstantiating water into wine (2: 11), and what restored that faith once lost was evidence of the Resurrection. The entire Gospel of John bears re-reading in this regard: it is a Gospel of Crisis, of judgment, of evidence, of verdict.
Not only Our Lord Himself, but the heralds of His kerygma could – and in some sense needed to – call upon the testimony of miracles before they claimed their hearers’ trust. They had their first trial of this in the Mission first of the 12 and then the 72, who worked wonders, and found the demons subject to them (Luke 10). Again, during the Farewell Discourse, having laid claim to their belief on the ground of His miracles (14:12), Our Lord promised, “Amen, Amen, I say to thee, he who believes in Me will do the works that I do; and greater works than these shall he do, for I am ascending to the Father.” Astonishing! The faithful of His Church would accomplish greater works than His Who cured the sick and raised the dead? But this was the promise of Christ, Who, before His Ascension, promised that wondrous signs would attend those believing on and heralding His Name (Mark 16: 17). And “[t]hen the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it” (16: 20).
To the Corinthians, the Apostle wrote:
I was with you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling, and my message and my preaching were not in persuasive words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God. (I Cor. 2: 3-5).
Faith, then, rests on the power of God, the “demonstration of the Spirit,” on miracles and their much-meaning. It was thus for the faith of those that saw Our Lord, and thus for those who believed His messengers. It can be no different for His ambassadors today.
Then where are the miracles?
Here are some classes of miracles to be found in the post-Apostolic ages.
1.) Healings and Resurrections
St. Peter spoke of “how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him” (Acts 10: 38). Christ’s power to heal provided the Jews of 1C Palestine a powerful basis for belief. The Gospels brim with accounts of His healings, and narrate three resurrections He performed. Christ said His followers would work greater works than His. Who works them?
That which follows samples haphazardly, almost randomly, even, a body of evidence so vast as to defy inventory.
A common gift of great saints is the ability to heal men of their naturally incurable infirmities. St. Padre Pio (+1968) healed a blind man in such a way that he could see despite the fact that the physical structure of his eye still appeared non-functional by all the best lights of the ophthalmologists studying the case. The shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes has been the site of thousands upon thousands of well-documented healings.
Christ raised 3 men from the dead. “And greater works than these shall you do…” When He sent out the 72, He commanded them to heal the sick and “raise the dead” (Luke 10). There are at least 400 documented cases of Catholic saints bringing the dead to life. St. Vincent Ferrer (+1419) alone performed, by conservative estimates, 28 miracles of resurrection.
Old Testament prophecy was a door to faith for countless Jews evangelized by the primitive Church. The prophetic charism continued in the Church of the Apostolic Age and beyond. One could, at random, cite St. Benedict’s prophecy about the destruction of Monte Cassino by the barbarians.
In 1612 in Quito Ecuador, Our Lady of Good Success revealed to the Conceptionist Abbess Mother Mariana de Jesus Torres the international hegemony which Masonic sects would achieve in the 20C – and this, more than a century before Freemasonry began to exist! The prophecies of Our Lady of Good Success, relating either to the destiny of Mother Mariana’s convent, to events in Ecuador’s future, or to the 20C –for the sins of which Mother Mariana was especially called to be a victim soul – haunt us with the precision of their fulfillment.
In 1917, as part of her “2nd Secret,” Our Lady of Fatima prophesied a speedy end to WWI, the outbreak of a worse war in the pontificate of “Pius XI” (verified if you count WWII beginning with the Anschluss), the appearance of “an unknown light” foretokening this war (verified on Jan. 24, 1938 in a phenomenon very inaccurately classed as an Aurora Borealis), and the world-wide spread of “Russia’s errors” (it was the first nation to attempt Communism’s implementation, and the first to legalize full-term abortion).
3.) Exorcism and Sacramentals
While those in a state of sin may cast out demons (Matt. 25), the power to exorcise generally betokens divine approbation. “If I cast out demons by Beelzebub, than by whom do your sons cast them out? Then they shall be your judges.” “A house divided cannot stand.” (Matth. 12). The Holy Name of Jesus has power in the mouth of even Jews and heretics, but the fate of the 7 sons of Sceva show how dangerous this action can be when undertaken by the unauthorized (Acts 19: 14). That certain exorcisms presuppose authentic ascesis is made clear by Christ’s lamentation over the little faith of the epileptic’s would-be exorcists, and His subsequent statement that “this kind is only driven out by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9: 29).
The superiority of Catholic over heretical exorcism has been proven time and again. The high drama of the exorcism of Nicola Aubrey (1565-6) gives instance of this. I have a friend, now Catholic, one-time Confessional Lutheran, whose LCMS pastor candidly admitted that in cases of severe diabolical oppression which surfaced in his flock and were past his power to cure, he had to resort to Catholic exorcists. The life of St. Antony of the desert illustrates the power of such Catholic saints over the prince of this world, and to the importance they attached to communion with the Catholic hierarchy.
While heretics can at times exorcise demons and free from satanic oppression, it is a testimony to the authenticity of the Catholic Church that her “sacramentals” have such efficacy in combatting demons, as affirmed by a unanimity of veteran exorcists. Such sacramentals include Holy Water, candles, palm branches, and medals of St. Benedict, blessed by Catholic priests.
The reading of hearts is another phenomenon often encountered in the lives of Catholic saints. St. Joseph of Cupertino, for example, could literally smell whether a man were pure or impure. St. Padre Pio and St. John Marie Vianney, saints of the confessional, read the hearts of their penitents on a regular basis, often recalling specific sins and their circumstances, which their penitents had forgotten or held back through shame.
The gift of speaking in tongues we first encounter at Pentecost, and it was ubiquitous in the Apostolic Age. No longer as common now as then, ecclesiastical history nevertheless records instances of its recurrence. St. Vincent Ferrer would enter assemblies of Jews and Arabs, preach in his native Valencian dialect, and be understood by his hearers in their own tongues. St. Francis Xavier, the Apostle to the Far East, was often granted the grace of being understood by his hearers according to their several dialects. St. Theresa Neuman (+1962), a relatively uneducated peasant-born nun, while mystically reliving the Passion of Our Lord in a state of ecstasy as she would on Fridays, could speak fluent Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek, as judged by experts in those languages.
Our Lord’s incorruption in the tomb has found its continuation in many of His saints. The degree of incorruption obtaining for these unembalmed saints varies. There are at least 250 saints persisting in a state of remarkable incorruption. Many saints, such as St. Silvan (4C), St. John Marie Vianney, St. Bernadette, St. Catherine Laboure, St. Vincent de Paul and St. John Bosco, to name a few, have undergone virtually no corruption whatever. Many saints, once dead, give off the “odor of sanctity,” a wonderfully sweet smell, even despite their having passed to glory centuries before.
7.) Relics & Wonder-working Images
Miracles too many to count have been worked in the presence of holy relics and images. One famous relic is the blood of Januarius, an early 4C martyr, which every year on his feast day liquefies when brought into the presence of his severed head. To this day, the bones of St. Nicholas secrete a stream of miraculous oil.
Wonderworking images, especially of the Blessed Virgin, are beyond counting. Many such images will weep tears of water or of blood, such as the statue of Our Lady of Akita, Japan, which in the 1970s wept thus a documented total of 101 times. One could also instance the statue of Our Lady of Fatima which shed tears while on procession through the streets of New Orleans the year before Hurricane Katrina.
Innumerable too are the accounts of miracles worked by so-called “Miraculous Medals” of the Immaculate Conception.
The famous Tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe is made of agave cactus fiber that normally decomposes within a couple decades; nevertheless, the Tilma has persisted intact from 1531 till now. In 1921 a time bomb was placed in a flower vase on the high altar of the Guadalupe basilica by Freemasons. It went off during High Mass. It burst every stain glass window in the basilica, twisted the altar-crucifix grotesquely, but, miraculously, hurt no one, and left not a scratch on the Tilma.
An oft-encountered phenomenon in the life of certain saints is the suspension of ordinary sense-perception while engaged in supernatural action. St. Philip Neri took hours to say his private Mass because he would almost invariably fall into ecstasy.
As for a recent (and, for you Hillsdalians, somewhat local) saint, a story of Ven. Solanus Casey of Detroit: When he was a young novice, Fr. Benedict Groeschel, the still-living founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, found himself unable to sleep, so he went to the oratory to pray. Once there, turned on the light. There he saw, absolutely oblivious and uncannily unreactant to his presence or to the turned-on light, Solanus Casey absorbed wholly in prayer, kneeling with arms spread out in the shape of the cross. This phenomenon is of frequent occurrence in the lives of many saints, who in the liberty of their spirit have broken the spell of earth, with all its cares and vanities.
While demons can create a preternatural counterfeit of this supernatural gift, levitation presents a beautiful image of the sanctity that detaches souls from the earth. St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, rapt in spiritual colloquy, were known to levitate together. St. Joseph of Cupertino (+1663) habitually levitated while saying Holy Mass.
There are many accounts of saints being in two or more places simultaneously so as to perform good works. There are many such accounts of St. Padre Pio. Spanish missionaries in present-day NM, AZ and western Texas were surprised in the early 17C to find the natives already catechized, though no missionaries had been sent there yet. They all gave accounts of how a beautiful lady in blue habit and black veil had flown to them through the air to teach them the Holy Faith and to send for priests. It was only under holy obedience that the humility of Ven. Mary of Agreda, a Conceptionist Abbess in NW Spain, confessed to having bilocated about 500 times to teach these Indians the True Faith.
There have been 62 saints or beati that have borne, at some time, and in some form or other, the marks and pains of Our Lord’s holy wounds. St. Francis of Assisi was the first to bear the stigmata, which one of the Seraphim impressed upon him about 2 years before his death. St. Padre Pio is the only priest ever known to receive the stigmata, which bled constantly, put forth a sweet aroma, and persisted for exactly 50 years, closing only days before his death.
12.) Mystic Fasts
Some saints have survived without food or water for miraculous lengths of time. Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich (+1824) lived the last 12 years of her life unable to take any food except Holy Communion. From 1922 to 1962 St. Theresa Neuman ate nothing at all save one small consecrated Host per day. From 1926 till her death she drank nothing.
13.) Eucharistic Miracles
There have been dozens of authenticated Eucharistic miracles where the Precious Body and Blood actually manifest the accidents of human flesh and blood. Often these miracles occur for priests suffering from doubts about the truth of transubstantiation. In all of them, we find the blood type to be AB. One of the most famous such miracles is that of Lanciano, which occurred in the 8C and persists to this day. The Flesh, we have learned, is myocardial (that of the muscular tissue of the heart-wall); it contains arterioles, veins, and nerve fibers. What would be the implication of these miracles vis-à-vis Luther’s doctrine of consubstantiation?
Apparitions of Our Lord, Our Lady, and the Saints, constitute a supernatural phenomenon recorded in the Apostolic Age and perduring as a recurrent fact for the life of the Church even to this day in the unfolding of her prophetic mission.
Especially in the last half-millenium there have been a number of very important approved Marian apparitions: Our Lady of Guadalupe (1531), of Good Success (1610), of Lavang (Vietnam, 1798), of La Sallette (1846), of Lourdes (1858), of Dong-Lu, (China,1900 and in 1994), of Fatima (1917), and of Akita, (Japan, 1970s), to name a few.
The apparitions near Fatima, Portugal, are of all the above-mentioned, arguably the most prophetically significant, not least because Fatima’s October 13, 1917 so-called “Miracle of the Sun,” seen by an estimated 70-100,000 witnesses, counts for the most public miracle in history. Rather uniquely in the annals of Catholic miracula, the exact time and place of this prodigy were foretold 6 months in advance. The miracle converted many agnostics and atheists gathered there to mock the simple faith of the peasants, and the local anti-Catholic newspaper was compelled to give an accurate description of the stunning phenomenon. The prophetic message of Fatima concerns the geopolitical situation of the 20C and beyond. It foretells the conversion of Russia to the Catholic Faith once the Pope and his bishops have together consecrated that nation to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. And too, it betides international disaster should this solemn consecration be too much delayed.
The Spirit of Truth, Who guides the Church into all truth that she might become herself the “pillar and ground of truth,” (I Tim. 3: 15), worked a signal miracle of conversion when, on Pentecost, He came upon the Apostles that they should tell God’s marvels, preach, and baptize 3000 Jews in but one day. And since that time, the Spirit of Truth has been working miracles of conversion through His saints, throughout the world.
Limiting ourselves to 2nd Millenium mass conversions, we might consider St. Vincent Ferrer, who, by the most conservative reckoning, converted 8,000 Muslims and 25,000 Jews in the diocese of Valencia alone. Or of St. Francis Xavier, who, throughout India, Indochina and Japan converted about 50,000 souls, if not many, many more.
Perhaps the most signal miracle of conversion in all history occurred in the 16C for the nativs of Mesoamerica. In 1531, after Cortez’s conquest and a decade of fruitless evangelism thwarted by the scandal and oppression of the Spanish colonials, Our Lady appeared to an Aztec neophyte on Tepeyac Hill, Mexico City, and left to him her image. Fraught as it was with a symbolism so delicately eloquent to Native eyes and hearts, the image worked wonders wherever it was brought. A famine for hearing the word of the Lord breaks out, and a thirst for the waters of Baptism. In 9 years, 9 million conversions, 9 million baptisms. Do the math. That’s a Pentecost – every day – for 9 years straight! This influx of New World converts more than made up for the combined defections of all the Lutherans, Anglicans and Calvinists of that troubled century.
* * * * *
I’ve put some smattering of data on the table. Why? Because we are discussing which of our religions speaks the truth and carries the stamp of God’s sanction, which we know from the Bible to be heralded by miracles. Are Catholics an evil and adulterous generation, seeking a sign from Heaven like the Pharisees? Indeed no. We do not seek these things like the Jews sought bread after the 5000-feeding, or like the devil tempted Our Lord to cast Himself from the Temple’s peak for angels to catch. We do not cramp God under our microscope to put Him to the test. He gives Himself to us. He did not give the Pharisees the sign from Heaven they asked; for He had given them signs enough already. But in the 20C He gave to us unasked, out of the sheer infinitude of His Mercy, a sign from Heaven for 70,000 witnesses near Fatima Portugal, who saw the sun made soft to look on, and saw it then unravel its palette and fall from its place and dance and make as if to fall to earth.
There is a paradox to miracles. They are not needed by the faithful; but it is to the faithful that they are most often given, when God sees fit to give them. Christ “could not” work miracles in Nazareth because of the Nazarenes’ unbelief (Mark 6: 5)! And yet He condescended to work many miracles for the ill-believing Galileans further north. We must leave much to the mystery of God’s providence and predestination. Miracles do not possess an infallible efficacy. The Pharisees saw the resurrected Lazarus, and conspired to put him back with the dead again! In the parable, Abraham speaks the broad truth about Dive’s kin and their ilk: “If they believe not Moses and the Prophets, neither will they believe if someone rises from the dead.” The testimony of miracles will fail of its effect when hearts are closed and the soil poor.
Perhaps one might object that some of these miracle-types surveyed occur also in non-Catholic communities. Catholics do not deny that heretics, especially if they be so only materially and not formally, may possess some of these charismata after some measure. Protestants can cast out demons, and in some cases heal. The presence of miraculous charismata outside the Church’s visible structure is more noticeable among the Eastern Separatists. They too have their incorrupts and clairvoyants, and these gifts God gives in recognition of the measure of truth and sanctity their communion preserves. But there is a significance to the relative amplitude of these gifts as found within the Catholic communion, and to the fact that many of these miracles, by their very circumstances, authenticate specifically and tendentially the Catholic system out of which they emerge. Such are miracles worked and apparitions witnessed that overtly sanction uniquely Catholic doctrines, as when Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal and of Lourdes affirms the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, or Our Lady of Akita the doctrine of Our Lady as Co-Redemptrix, to mention only a few.
One could also moot the possibility of demonic provenience for all these miracles. But that will not do. The devil can imitate true miracle only so far. If Satan could do just as good and better than authentic miracles, what would be the point of miracles at all? “But if by the finger of God I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God is upon you” (Luke 11: 20). The Pharoah’s sorcerers could match Moses’s serpent staff, but even then their serpents were eaten; and after the First Plague, their mimicry could not keep step with the power of God. It will be a special trial to the faith of the elect when God allows the Antichrist unusual power to work counterfeit miracles. But that is to come, and what I have laid out here is from of old. The best Antichrist can do is make fire fall from heaven, but even this is trumped already by the miracle God worked at Fatima on October 13, 1917.
I thought fit to bring up miracles, because I judge that they strike more clearly the wits of folk like me who lack the theological prowess so many on this forum seem possessed of, folk like me for whom adiaphoric is a brand new word. Amidst all you willing to weigh and wade through such a mass of systematic theology as we see here, there is a category of men Neanderthal as I, with whom the raw power of God unsheathed has more truck than howsoever erudite the Confessional Lutheran’s take on Pauline soteriology. Even granting Luther’s break with Rome meant a restoration of some primitive, time-occulted truth, a break it certainly was, and a radical one at that: and I simply don’t know what to make of this bewildering readiness of 16C Europeans to go whole hog for another gospel apparently unbacked by the miraculous.
Am I missing something? Apprise me, please. Was there indeed some sort of unmistakable sanction accorded to Luther’s gospel in the form of miracles? I have never heard of any such, but that does not mean there wasn’t. But if indeed history recalls no such sanction, it seems a hard pill to swallow, making the litmus test for ecclesiastical allegiance – a thing that has its issue in eternal destinies – consist in a doctrine which a sound-byte St. Paul might sometimes seem to teach in the teeth of what a sound-byte St. James might elsewhere seem to teach… and this, when there is so much simpler a way to settle things. I’m speaking of St. Elijah the Prophet and a waterlogged altar on Mt. Carmel.
So for now, all my money on Vatican I when it says:
To the Catholic Church alone belong all those things, so many and so marvelous, which have been divinely ordained to make for the manifest credibility of the Christian faith. (Session III., iii., 11)
And then I’ll say to this Catholic Church what Nicodemus said to her Head: “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one could do the signs you do unless God were with him.”
In the fear of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? You will go down to Hades!
Whoever listens to you listens to me; whoever rejects you rejects me; but whoever rejects me rejects him who sent me. (Luke 10: 13- 16).