According to a Gallup poll taken in 1988, 88 percent of the people in the United States believed in miracles. In the results of a survey on spirituality published in the December 1997 issue of Self magazine, 91 percent of the readers who responded answered that they believed in miracles. In that same month and year, a poll commissioned by the Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of Americans believed in miracles and that such acts originate from the power of God. The May 1, 2000, issue of Newsweek carried the result of that news magazine's poll that stated 84 percent of American adults said they believe that God performs miracles and 48 percent claimed to have witnessed one.
Jon Butler, a Yale University professor of American history who specializes in American religion, defined miracles as physical events that defy the laws of nature. "Most miracles have some physical manifestation that is evident not only to the individuals involved, but may be evident to the people around them," he said. "The catch is, how do you explain it?"
Father James Wiseman, associate professor of theology at Catholic University, said that there are always going to be some people "who see immediately the hand of God in every coincidence, and those who are going to be skeptical of everything. And there is a great in-between."
Miracle stories are found in all the world religions, and while accounts of wonder-working saints and sages and the ancient acts of divine intervention in human affairs are celebrated regularly by the faithful who gather in churches, synagogues, and mosques throughout the world, contemporary Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Jews, and Muslims still pray for and expect miraculous occurrences in their own lives today. And, according to the Newsweek survey, 43 percent of those polled who belonged to no religious body at all admitted that they had on occasion prayed for God's intervention.
Both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible are filled with miracles and wonders performed by prophets, angels, and God. So, too, does the Qur'an contain accounts of countless miracles, thus enabling the contemporary followers of Islam to expect such occurrences as proof of the validity of their faith. Islamic theologians have established two basic kinds of miracles: the mu'jizat, or prophetic miracles; and the karamat, those wonders performed by holy people and saints.
The Roman Catholic tradition contains many healing miracles performed by saints and popes—both alive and in spirit. Early in 1967 the Irish Independent of Dublin carried the account of a miracle healing that had brought a dying nun "from death's door to a healthy normal life" after the spirit of Pope John XXIII (1881–1963), who had died in 1963, appeared and spoke to her.
Sister Caterina Capitani (b. 1943 or 1944), a nun of the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul, suffered from varicose veins of the esophagus, a condition thought to be incurable and surgically inoperable. However, because the unfortunate sister endured continual hemorrhages, physicians decided to attempt an operation at Medical Missionaries of Mary of the Clinca Mediterranea in Naples, Italy. Two surgeries were performed, but they were unsuccessful; and when the incision on her stomach opened, Sister Caterina's condition steadily worsened to the point where she collapsed. Desperate to attempt any new therapy, her doctors sent the nun south for a change of air, but she was soon returned to Naples when it was decided that she had only a brief time to live.
Sister Caterina lay in her room alone. She had turned on her side when she felt someone place a hand on her stomach. Summoning all her strength, she turned to see Pope John XXIII standing beside her bed. He was not attired in his papal robes, but she easily recognized him. In a quiet yet authoritative voice, the ethereal image of the pope, who had died on June 3, 1963, spoke words of great comfort: "Sister, you have called to me so many times…that you have torn out of my heart this miracle. Do not fear. You are healed."
The spirit of Pope John then told Sister Caterina to call in the sisters and the doctors so that a test could be performed. But before she did so, he assured her once again that no trace of her illness would remain. Just before the image vanished, he told Sister Caterina to come to Rome and pray at his tomb.
The moment the spirit of the deceased pope disappeared, Sister Caterina rose from her bed and was elated that she felt no pain. When she summoned the sisters and doctors into her room, they were astonished to find that the scar on her abdomen, which had been open and bleeding, was now completely healed. No other physical sign indicated that moments before there had been a gaping wound. The sisters declared the healing a miracle. Sister Caterina had not been expected to survive the day, yet that evening she was up and eating her supper with the community.
According to the Irish Independent, ever since her miracle healing by the apparition of Pope John XXIII, Sister Caterina lived a normal, healthy life in every way. "This is a phenomenon that cannot be explained in a human way," the account concluded.
Contrary to those skeptics who suggest that the Roman Catholic Church is likely to accept nearly all claims of miracles as genuine, many serious steps are taken by various committees to authenticate a miracle. Father Frederick Jelly, professor of systematic theology at Mount Saint Mary's Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, has served on miracles committees and has listed the questions asked to authenticate a miracle as the following: What is the psychological state of the person claiming the miracle? Is there a profit motive behind the miracle claim? What is the character of the person who is claiming the miracle? Does the miracle contain any elements contrary to scripture or faith? What are the spiritual fruits of the miracle—does it attract people to prayer or to acts of greater charity?
Once these questions have been determined and reviewed, the committee makes its decision as to whether or not the event was heaven-inspired. If the committee decides the event is miraculous and its implications have national or international effect, the case may be referred to the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. The Sacred Congregation has the authority to institute a new investigation and make its own ruling and recommendation to the pope, who is the final arbiter of the validity of miracles.
Rather than miracles, Philip Hefner, professor of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago, stated in an essay in Newsweek (May 1, 2000) that he would rather talk about blessings. "We receive blessings, often quite unexpectedly, and we want to praise God for them. We know we cannot claim the credit for these blessings. Even though we cannot predict their arrival, nor understand why so much of human life involves sorrow and evil, we can be grateful and render praise."
Glynn, Patrick. God: The Evidence—The Reconciliation of Faith and Reason in a Postsecular World. Rocklin, Calif.: Prima Publishing, 1997.
Humphrey, Nicholas. Science, Miracles and the Search for Supernatural Consolation. New York: Basic Books, 1996.
Lewis, C. S. Miracles. New York: Macmillan, 1970.
Schroeder, Gerald L. The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom. New York: Free Press, 1997.
Steiger, Sherry Hansen, and Brad Steiger. Mother Mary Speaks to Us. New York: Dutton, 1996; Signet, 1997.