The Miracle Detective

A doctor for the Vatican describes his work

Newsweek, May 1, 2000
By Kenneth L. Woodward

Franco de Rosa, professor at the University of Rome, is a doctor on the "Consulta Medica" for the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints where he has served for 20 years. He helps determine whether cures proposed as possible miracles have a medical explanation. De Rosa spoke with NEWSWEEK's Barbie Nadeau in Rome.

Nadeau: What kind of cases become medical miracles?

De Rosa: For example, a woman is born with a serious medical problem. A very, very grave situation. She is a very religious Catholic. She prays to someone whom people believe to be a saint. She prays every hour to this person—or perhaps others pray for her, asking the potential saint to intercede with God on her behalf. Then she is saved. Her illness vanishes. Only then does the investigation begin.

How does the process work?

She must see a doctor who writes up her medical history. Then she must see the priest who informs the bishop of the diocese. The bishop then charges outside specialists with verifying that whatever treatment she received was ineffective. She must go many years without a relapse; in other words, she must be cured. The evidence of the case is collected, then the postulator in charge of the saint's cause prepares a dossier. This dossier, together with X-rays or other medical records, is presented to two medical consultants who prepare a written medical opinion, which is added to the volume. Then a five-member medical committee takes over. When my opinion is solicited, I use my expertise and resources to determine if there is a medical explanation. In 99 percent of all cases, we find one. In 1 percent or less, we do not. Then a panel of theologians determines whether the cure is attributable to the woman's prayers. The final decision is the pope's.

How difficult is it to reach a medical consensus?

Never. It is usually unanimous. The Vatican does not work like the Italian government. There is a very precise process.

How does improved medical technology change the job of the 'Consulta Medica'?

Medical improvements help us because it is easier to study the patient. It does not decrease the number of unexplainable medical cases.

What about miracles that you determined unexplainable 10 years ago, but are now quite easily explained [because of medical advances]?

We believe that any progress of humanity is a present from God. And therefore, if I receive a Nobel prize for discovering the cure for cancer, I thank God for giving me the light and understanding to discover this, but it does not cancel out unexplained cures of cancer.

Do you personally believe in miracles?

Yes, there are some medical events that are not explainable... If you do not believe in miracles, your life is not as full as it could be.

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