The role of saints

By Terry Mattingly Published: January 22, 2011
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Sister Marie Simon-Pierre was a soft-spoken nurse in the South of France when her life was changed by what the Vatican has decided was an answered prayer.

She was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease in 2001 and, with other nuns in France and Africa, immediately began prayed for healing.

However, her symptoms worsened after the death of Pope John Paul II in April 2005. That was when Simon-Pierre and her supporters began seeking the help of the pope, who suffered from the same disease in his final years.

Simon-Pierre awoke on the morning of June 3, 2005, with her hands steady and no other signs of the neurological disease.

"It is the work of God, through the intercession of Pope John Paul II," she told reporters in 2007. "I came across a sister who had helped me tremendously and I told her, ... 'look, my hand is no longer trembling.' John Paul II cured me."

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI signed a decree confirming that this "scientifically inexplicable" change in her health can be attributed to the intercessions of John Paul II, meaning that his predecessor can be called "blessed" and, thus, has moved closer to recognition as a saint.

While scientists debate what did or did not happen, journalists have struggled to clearly describe an event that is rooted in an ancient and modern mystery. Simply stated: What does it mean to say believers can ask saints to pray on their behalf during the trials of daily life or in times of crisis?

The Rev. Arne Panula has faced this kind of question many times, especially as director of the Catholic Information Center a few blocks from the White House.

In press reports, this mystery is reduced to an equation that looks like this -- needy people pray to their chosen saints and then miracles happen. It's that simple. The problem, stressed Panula, is that this is an inadequate description of what Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and some other Christians believe.

"What must be stressed is that we pray for a saint to intercede for us with God. Actually, it's more accurate to say that we ask the saint to pray 'with' us, rather than to say that we pray 'to' a saint," he said.

"You see, all grace comes from the Trinity, from the Godhead. These kinds of supernatural interventions always come from God.

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