Blessed Francis, healer?

Does a saint's intercession heal? Or are the faithful in the Roman Catholic Church praying with the saints to Jesus Christ?

That's the big doctrinal question that is a wee bit mysterious in a well-researched, lengthy, and generally helpful article about the procedure for examining whether 19th-century Maryland priest Francis X. Seelos, should be declared a saint.

There are a few other, more minor problems with this generally thorough story. The most evident one is in the photo caption of the article in the Baltimore Sun. One GetReligion reader wrote us that the term "charm" (more reminscent of Shakespeare and witchcraft) to refer to the religious relic Mary Ellen Heibel wears around her neck was so "ignorant" that he couldn't read the article.

The canonization process (Seelos was beatified by the Vatican in 2000) is a long one, and requires that those arguing for sainthood document a second event that fulfills the criteria for a miracle. The context for Arthur Hirsch's article is the healing of Mary Ellen Heibel, a parishioner at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Annapolis, Maryland -- which might or might not be the miracle that those campaigning for sainthood need to make their case.

Starting with a few paragraphs about the Maryland parishioner, Hirsch cuts back and forth between her story and the process that the Archdiocese of Baltimore is undergoing in evaluating whether it should ask the Vatican to canonize Seelos. This isn't simple stuff, by any means. And generally, Hirsch does a pretty nice job explaining it. Heibel doesn't pray "to" Seelos. She prays "with" him.

But these two paragraphs in particular seemed confusing.

For only the fifth time in its 200-year history, the archdiocese has launched a test of faith and science to help the Vatican determine whether one of its own was not only exemplary in virtue during life but now has the power in death to intercede with God. In the end, it will be up to the pope to rule on whether Seelos is to join the men and women held up by the church through the centuries as models of holiness.

"Did what happened come about by the intercession of Blessed Seelos? That's what we have to discover," said the Rev. Gilbert J. Seitz, the judicial vicar who heads the committee, emphasizing that its job is not to judge the case but to gather information in a process akin to taking a deposition.

As I understand the Roman Catholic doctrine of intercession, the saints can pray with and for believers, but it is not up to them as to whether the prayer is answered. It would be up to God.

I wish the author had asked Seitz how any earthly court would be able to figure out whether Seelos was responsible for the healing -- and what that means..

Closer to the middle of the story, when discussing the "painstaking" canonization process, Hirsch quotes Seitz again. "Hundreds stall at the midpoint of beatification, either for lack of a verifiable miracle or the support neccesary to bring such information to the Vatican's attention."

Now that's a fascinating sentence. Readers might want to know what makes a healing or other occurrence a "verifiable" miracle -- and what kind of bureaucratic, financial ( for research and writing), or popular suppport is neccesary to get the attention of the Vatican.

I'm not thrilled with the use of the word "magical" a few paragraphs later to describe events in the lives of the saints. On the whole, however, Hirsch displays what seems to be a willingness to both understand and chronicle carefully the beliefs and language of the people he's telling us about. Local readers probably appreciated that -- and would eagerly wait for more chapters in the ongoing story of a homegrown pastor made very, very good.

I know you'll know this, but that's not the "real" Seelos in the YouTube video -- it took me a minute to figure it out

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