VATICAN CITY -- In the three-plus centuries since the death of Kateri Tekakwitha, Native Americans and many others often have pleaded with the Vatican to saint her.
What made it happen, according to her principal advocate at the Vatican, was a change in the rules for determining when a cure from centuries past could be judged “miraculous” and the emergency delivery of a bone fragment believed to have belonged to Kateri to a Seattle hospital in 2006, where a Lummi Indian boy was on his death bed.
The man behind the drive within the Vatican for Kateri’s canonization, the Rev. Paolo Molinari, has been marshalling the evidence for over a half century, carrying out a role known here as postulator. A Jesuit priest, Molinari was assigned the case, along with many others, by the order’s father-general. Even after his retirement – he’s now 88 – he kept the Kateri file. It was only a year ago that he completed assembling the documentation that persuaded Pope Benedict XVI to announce her canonization, which will take place in St. Peter’s Square on Sunday.
Church officials insist that before declaring a miracle, they must prove to a panel of outside experts that there is no other scientific explanation for a cure.
Molinari was closely involved in the inquiry that led to Kateri’s beatification in 1980 and in the change of rules for how to recognize miracles that took place before modern medicine – Kateri died at the age of 24 in 1680. In an interview, Molinari offered a rare insider’s look at the procedure for making a saint.
“I had a good relationship with Pope John Paul II,” he told McClatchy. “So I approached him,” aware that the Pontiff also had a “keen interest” in Kateri Tekakwitha.
“He had asked my opinion about several theological issues concerning the causes of saints. And therefore I said to him, look, it’s understandable that the church… before giving a judgment about a miracle, an action of God that cannot have an explanation in natural science…demands that all the medical evidence be produced.
“But I said, with regard to ancient causes, what can we do? Three centuries ago, they didn’t have X-rays, they didn’t have the CAT scan, and all the rest.”
Starting in the 19th century, however, doctors were able to diagnose incurable diseases, and Molinari proposed compiling a list of cases where the deathly ill had prayed to Kateri and where witnesses, often Jesuit priests, could report on an “extraordinary cure.”
John Paul II accepted the proposal, a volume was prepared, largely using material from an earlier inquiry in 1931, and it was given to a panel of 10 physicians to determine whether the cures could be deemed “extraordinary.”
“All said that on the basis of the symptoms described by the people and the diagnosis that was made, we confirm…that it is extraordinary and does not have a scientific explanation.”
The other change in the rules, according to Molinari, was to require just one miraculous modern cure, instead of two.
The case that came up involved a boy named Jake Finkbonner, from Sandy Point, Wash., north of Seattle, who cut his lip while playing basketball and contracted necrotizing fasciitis, a rare bacterial infection often called a flesh-eating disease.