Church changes of rules played key role in sainthood for Kateri Tekakwitha

McClatchy NewspapersOctober 20, 2012 


A banner pictures Kateri Tekakwitha, far left, on display at St. Peter's in Rome on the eve of her canonization.


— 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.

Then six years old, he was taken to Seattle Children’s Hospital on Feb. 21, 2006, and went through some 20 operations in as many days. At the request of his parents, his parish in Bellingham, Wash., began praying to Kateri and put out the word to Native Americans throughout the country to join them.

By March 4, he was still “fighting between life and death,” Molinari said. That day, a nun based in Montana brought a relic – a fragment of bone – of Kateri to the hospital. Molinari had given the bone bit to the vice-postulator on the case after Kateri was beatified in 1980. When the vice-postulator died, the bone fragment passed to a reliquary for Native Americans.

Together with Jake’s mother, Elsa, the nun placed the bone fragment on Jake’s body. Jake’s grandmother also had pinned a picture card of Kateri on the bed. It was on that day that the hospital laboratory reported that the streptococcus had stopped spreading, Molinari said.

Molinari said the request for the relic was made by the then-archbishop of Seattle, Alexander Brunett, who later convened a board of inquiry, inviting the four doctors who worked on Jake to testify.

As Molinari spoke, he leafed through a 472-page book that he had assembled, with the title, in Latin: “The book on the miracle.” The book includes the doctors’ testimony to the board of inquiry as well as hospital records, pictures of Jake while the disease was still spreading and the statements of friends, priests and family. The doctors said they had no medical explanation for Jake’s sudden recovery.

The book was first given to two medical experts appointed by the Holy See to give a preliminary judgment, and when it passed their muster, it went to the Holy See’s medical board, consisting of seven persons.

Molinari said the methodology of the inquiry showed “the seriousness with which the Holy See does this.”

The outcome was a judgment by Pope Benedict XVI that Jake’s cure constituted a miracle under church rules.

“The coincidence of an extraordinary event that has no scientific explanation with the prayers of the people so widely spread, this is what is considered to be the proof that it is an extraordinary grace, a work by God, that means a miracle,” Molinari said. “It does not have a human explanation, a scientific explanation, a medical explanation. On the contrary, it is outside the rule of medicine.”

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