Big news for the Mohawk Valley and specifically for the shrine in the town of Mohawk dedicated to an unfortunate Indian girl who lived in the area more than 300 years ago, one Kateri Tekakwitha.
Kateri was reportedly afflicted with smallpox as a child, lived a miserable life, converted to Christianity at the age of 20, moved to Canada to join a community of Native American Christians, and died at the age of 24. A sparse and grim biography.
Now she’s going to be a saint!
Yes, a full-fledged saint, like Thomas Aquinas and Paul of Tarsus and a few thousand others recognized by the Roman Catholic Church.
Pope Benedict XVI signed the papers the other day authenticating a miracle attributed to her all these years later, when some of us thought she was dead.
The alleged miracle was the healing of a young boy in the state of Washington who a few years ago cut his lip while playing basketball. The cut got infected with a rare bacteria sometimes called the flesh-eating bacteria, his face began to be eaten away by it, but a few weeks later, after intensive treatment in the Seattle Children’s Hospital and also after a prayer campaign directed to the long-departed Kateri on his behalf, the infection stopped.
The Vatican spent three years investigating the claim that the turnaround was a miracle due to what Catholics call “intercession” by a third party, in this case Kateri, and finally decided, yes, it was.
“That means we have received assurances that this person now stands in heaven before the throne of God,” the priest who led the Vatican investigation was quoted as saying, referring to Kateri.
Do not go thinking the investigation might have been biased.
USA Today reported, “The Vatican scrupulously investigates miracle claims for proof that recovery was not a result of medical or surgical intervention,” so you can put your mind at ease.
I called the hospital to find out what they might have to say, and I was able to speak to one of the team leaders who cared for the boy, Dr. Craig Rubens, a pediatric infectious disease specialist.
He told me it was the worst case of such an infection that he had seen, and that the boy, Jake Finkbonner, was several times close to death during the approximately three weeks he was in intensive care.
He said the medical team administered antibiotics to fight the infection and other medication to control the boy’s blood pressure, performed surgery once or twice a day to remove dying tissue from under the skin of his face, put the boy in what I take to be sort of a decompression chamber to provide him with a high level of oxygen and took other drastic steps to keep him alive.
He allowed that the boy’s recovery was “truly remarkable for as close to death as he was,” but as for whether it was beyond the laws of nature, as Thomas Aquinas defined the miraculous, he said, “I will leave it to those who are theologists to decide if this is miraculous. That’s not my domain,” which I thought was very judicious of him.
He did inform me that the stopping of the infection and the reversal of the boy’s condition was gradual and not sudden, as many news reports have credulously claimed.
As for why Catholics in the state of Washington in the year 2006 might have been moved to pray to someone who died more than 300 years ago, be advised that Kateri Tekakwitha enjoyed considerable prestige post mortem and was already on her way to sainthood.
In 1943 the Catholic Church in the person of Pope Pius XII declared her “venerable,” and in 1980 Pope John Paul II, who turned the Vatican pretty much into a saint factory, went a step farther and “beatified” her, while doing away with the old requirement of two authenticated miracles. Henceforth, one would be enough, he generously ruled.
Having been beatified she was officially known as “Blessed Kateri,” which put her in the roster of those accessible to people like the Finkbonner family of Washington. Furthermore, young Jake Finkbonner’s father was reportedly a member of the Lummi Indian tribe, which made for an ethnic connection, and further still, the boy suffered a facial disfigurement like Blessed Kateri had suffered as a result of smallpox, so there was that connection, too.
According to a report that ran on NPR, the Finkbonners’ local priest appealed to parishioners to pray to Blessed Kateri, and pretty soon the appeal spread to other churches, and one thing led to another. Before long a representative of the Society of the Blessed Kateri visited the poor little boy in the hospital and left a pendant with an image of Kateri on it. The boy’s mother put the pendant on the boy’s pillow, and lo and behold, the next day the infection had stopped spreading, according to the story widely circulated in the media.
Now, the premise of belief in such miraculous curing is that there is an invisible man up in the sky who is all-powerful and who loves us but is rather too preoccupied to see to all the details, so he relies on intermediaries to bring matters to his attention.
Also, the invisible man is a forbidding figure, what with his vast white beard and frowning visage, so ordinary folks like you, me and the Finkbonners might be intimidated by the thought of approaching him directly. We would rather go to someone a little more human, like, let’s say, an unfortunate Indian girl, even if the unfortunate Indian girl is technically deceased.
That girl “intercedes,” as the church says, with the invisible man, meaning maybe she makes an appointment through a secretary, or however they do things in the invisible realm, and she goes and has a private word with him. She tells him about 6-year-old Jake Finkbonner lying in a hospital bed in Seattle, his face being consumed by some dreadful bacteria that came from God-knows-where (joke), and the invisible man, moved by the story, waves an omnipotent finger, and little Jake is saved.
A story in this newspaper yesterday quoted a certain friar from the National Kateri Tekakwitha Shrine on Route 5 as saying the disease little Jake had is almost always fatal but in this case the sufferer was “completely healed,” and further, “doctors authenticated that’s never happened before,” which was uplifting but alas not entirely accurate.
According to the Centers for Disease Control the mortality rate for the disease is 10 to 15 percent, which is another way of saying that 85 to 90 percent of patients do survive it.
The website Medscape.com says mortality reaches as high as 73 percent when the infection is untreated, but in this case it was treated very quickly — starting a day after the injury occurred — and it was treated at a first-class medical institution.
Also, it’s an exaggeration to say the boy was completely healed. He remains severely disfigured, even after much plastic surgery, as you can see for yourself in pictures available on the Internet. The infection was halted, and he survived, that’s all.
Besides, what would a friar know?
It’s like quoting Bishop Howard Hubbard of the Albany Diocese saying he was “thrilled to learn about the authentication of the miracle attributed to Kateri’s intercession,” which all newspapers did. Of course he was thrilled. He’s in the business.
The interesting thing to me is that there are people — and lots of them — who actually believe this is how the world works. They actually believe a long-dead person can go and have a private word with an all-powerful invisible man up in the sky and prevail upon him to override his own natural laws in order to cure an illness that he could have prevented in the first place if he gave half a damn. They believe that such a person now stands before the throne of the invisible man, just like in a comic book, and are pleased that she will soon be promoted to the highest rank in the legions of the deceased.
They poo-poo the real marvel of modern medicine and the hard work of people like Dr. Rubens, and they opt for fairy tales.
That’s the miracle, if you ask me.