Praying to/with John Paul the Great

Let's start with the definition of a key word.

intercede: To plea on someone else's behalf; To act as a mediator in a dispute; to arbitrate or mediate

With that in mind, let's look at the top of a fine BBC report focusing on one of the major religion-news stories of the past few days -- the acceleration of the Vatican's process toward Pope John Paul II being officially called a saint. This story has been getting lots of mainstream press attention, but I want to focus on the BBC report because it's a good one, yet still needs a few more words of content if the goal is to be consistent with what the ancient Christian churches teach about the role of those in the "great cloud of witnesses" who are called saints.

Let's start at the beginning:

The signing of a decree by Pope Benedict XVI recognising that a miracle took place at the intercession of John Paul II represents the final step to beatification for the late pontiff.

It is the culmination of a process that was initiated officially in June 2005, two months after his death, but that had been called for by his faithful even before he breathed his last.

Note the key word -- "intercession." Later on, we read:

French nun Sister Marie Simon-Pierre said she and her community prayed constantly to John Paul for a miracle.

The signing of a decree by Pope Benedict XVI recognising that a miracle took place at the intercession of John Paul II represents the final step to beatification for the late pontiff. It is the culmination of a process that was initiated officially in June 2005, two months after his death, but that had been called for by his faithful even before he breathed his last.

Now, as often happens in mainstream coverage of issues of this kind, these sentences make it sound as if the nuns only prayed "to" John Paul for their sister's healing. I am sure that this is not the case, based on Catholic teachings. It would be more accurate to say that the sisters repeatedly asked him to pray "with" them -- acting as another intercessor -- as they prayed to God and to Jesus Christ as the agents of healing. They would certainly be asking for the intercessory prayers of St. Mary, the mother of Jesus, and others as well. Still, I know that the "prayed to" grammatical construction is very common and that, in and of itself, there is no problem with that.

So let's head on to the main issue. Note that the BBC story accurately says that the proper Catholic authorities have ruled "that a miracle took place at the intercession of John Paul II." The problem is that the story never says that God, not John Paul, performed the healing.

Now, I hear you. Some of you are saying, "Of course it was God that did the healing. Everybody knows that."

Actually, I have heard plenty of non-Catholics claim that Catholics believe that they pray to a saint so that the saint has the power to heal someone, simple as that. I have also heard Catholics say that someone prayed "to" this or that saint and that he or she "healed someone." If you ask the followup question, most Catholics will immediately amend that statement to note that they cried out for the saint's intercessory prayers -- to God -- and a person was healed or saved from peril.

Think of it this way (to paraphrase imagery from the writer Frederica Mathewes-Green, the wife of our parish priest): Let's say that you are a devout Christian believer and your child is seriously injured in an accident. You rush to the hospital and the find that your loved one is in surgery. The doctors tell you to go to the waiting room and stay calm. What do you do? You whip our your cellphone and start calling your pastor, your family members and, especially, other devout believers who are your friends, urging them to join you in prayer.

Now, does this action suggest that you believe that these people -- acting alone or together -- will be able to heal your child? Of course not. You are asking them to join you in prayer to God for healing. They are acting as intercessors.

Of course, there are millions of Christians who believe that believers should not be encouraged to pray in this manner, in addition to offering direct prayers to the Trinity. Most Protestants (note the word "most") fit into that modern tent.

Now, do BBC journalists need to get into all of that? Of course not.

However, simply using "to pray to" language is sketchy, without some signal that what is being discussed is a matter of intercession. This isn't a matter of theology. It's a matter of accurately describing what these believers think and believe is happening. Journalists don't have to believe it in order to accurately describe it.

As a positive note, I think the BBC team did a solid, calm job of describing the process that led to this latest Vatican pronouncement. This passage is lengthy, but there is no easy way to cut it:

The key to John Paul II reaching the status of blessed lies with a young French nun, whose experience has been judged a miracle.

Sister Marie Simon-Pierre was 44 and working as a nurse in a hospital maternity unit near Arles, in southern France, when she fell ill, in 2001. Diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease, she described how the neurological condition worsened dramatically following the death of John Paul II, on 2 April 2005. As soon as the special dispensation had been granted to allow John Paul II to be considered for beatification, her community began to pray to him for a miracle.

"My fellow sisters from all the French and African communities started asking John Paul II to intercede for my healing. They prayed incessantly, tirelessly, right up to the news of my healing," she has described.

She explained that she knew she was healed when she was able to hold a pen and write his name on a piece of paper.

"And my handwriting was perfectly legible! Astonishing! I laid on my bed, amazed. Exactly two months has passed since John Paul II returned to the House of the Father. I awoke at 4:30, amazed at having been able to sleep. I suddenly got out of bed: my body was no longer painful, there was no rigidity and, inside, I was no longer the same."

On Friday, after months of deliberations and a complex process that has involved both medical experts and Church officials, Pope Benedict XVI confirmed that such a dramatic and scientifically inexplicable shift in her physical condition was indeed due to the intercession of John Paul II.

The case fulfilled the criteria for a miracle -- the healing was instant, without scientific explanation and long-lasting.

"Her case is exceptional as we know that you cannot normally be cured of neurological diseases. As far as I know there are no documented cases in medicine of a regression of such kinds of illnesses," Mr Andrea Tornielli said. "That is why the case was so emblematic -- and of course it was the same illness that John Paul had suffered from 1992, and which had shaped the final years of his life."

Yes, there were complications. One skeptical doctor simply said that previous experts had simply been wrong when they said the sister suffered from Parkinson's Disease, a condition that is notoriously difficult to diagnose in its early stages. The article covers all of that quite well.

As I said earlier, this article is much better than the norm. It just needs a bit of intercession -- by someone on the copy desk. All we need is a few more accurate and informed words.

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