Pope Francis, in his Wednesday audience on 30 October 2013, called the Communion of the Saints one of the most consoling truths of our faith. In this meditation we consider how we are strengthened by the union of all in the Church – the saints in heaven, the suffering in Purgatory and those on earth – and how we have a responsibility to contribute to this marvelous reality.
After the Eucharistic miracle that Pope Francis approved when he was bishop in Buenos Aires in 1996, another miracle took place in Poland in 2008 and again the host was found to have turned into human heart tissue. Remarkably, the eighth-century Eucharistic miracle of Lanciano in Italy has also been analysed scientifically and the findings are the same. I post here two of my columns on these extraordinary miracles.
Another Eucharistic miracle
I read with great interest your column on the Eucharistic miracle that Pope Francis approved when he was a bishop in Buenos Aires in 1996. Now a friend tells me there has been another miracle in Poland with similar scientific findings. Do you know anything about it?
The miracle took place in 2008 in the town of Sokołka, near Bialystok on the border with Belarus. Australian lawyer Ron Tesoriero, who spoke with the people involved, relates the facts in his new book Unseen, published in 2013.
On 12 October 2008 in the church of St Anthony of Padua, a young assistant priest, Fr Jacek Ingielewicz, accidentally dropped a consecrated host during Mass. He picked it up and, since it was soiled, placed it in a vessel of water and put it in the tabernacle. After Mass the parish priest, Fr Stanislaw Gniedziejko, asked the sacristan, Sr Julia, to place the host and water in a glass bowl and put it in the safe in the sacristy.
A week later, on 19 October, Fr Stanislaw asked the sacristan if the host had dissolved and when Sr Julia opened the safe she discovered that there was a red stain on the host which looked like blood. She called Fr Stanislaw, who was very moved when he saw it, and informed his superior, Archbishop Edward Ozorowski. A few days later the Archbishop went with his Chancellor to see the host and on 29 October he asked Fr Stanislaw to take the host out of the water and lay it on a linen corporal, which he then placed in the tabernacle of the chapel in the priests’ house.
The Archbishop appointed a special commission to investigate the matter, with the aim of determining whether anyone had interfered with the host. On 5 January 2009 he asked two pathomorphologists from the Medical University of Bialystok to conduct a scientific examination of the host. The two, Professor Sobaniec-Lotowska and Professor Sulkowski, hold chairs in different departments of the university and have published widely in their fields, having worked as specialists for over thirty years.
In the presence of the Chancellor, Fr Andrew Kakareka, and others Professor Sobaniec-Lotowska removed a small piece of the host, about a square centimetre in size. She reported that it was brittle, brownish in colour and with remains of the communion host attached.
After analysing the material under an electron microscope the two professors reported that it consisted entirely of cardiac tissue. Various aspects of the material made them certain that it was indeed heart muscle tissue. Professor Sobaniec-Lotowska described the sample as heart muscle, “just before death. It is in agony, a moribund condition, caused by great stress. This is proved by the presentation of a very strong phenomenon of ‘segmentation’ or damage to myocardial fibres at the site of the intercalated discs, which does not occur after death. Such changes can be observed only in living fibres and they show evidence of rapid spasms of the heart muscle in the period just before death.”
In a later interview on 13 August 2010, Professor Sobaniec-Lotowska elaborated on this finding: “The cardiac impact had been recent. The heart was alive, just before death. The sample analysed was not from a dead person. The person was alive. There was one square centimetre of heart. A fragment of muscle. If one had to remove it from a person, he would die.” Pointing to a photograph of the tissue she repeated her amazement that even though it had been in water for weeks the cardiac tissue was still visible. She said that if it had been in water even for one week it would not be visible.
The professors were also amazed that there had been no autolysis, the process whereby a cell is destroyed by its own enzymes when the organism is injured or dying. In their opinion there was no scientific explanation for this phenomenon. “What is even more difficult to comprehend”, Professor Sulkowski said, “is that the tissue, which appeared in the host, was closely bound to it, to the host that is, penetrating the base on which it appeared. Please believe me that even if someone intended to tamper with the sample, it would be impossible to bind the two pieces of matter in such an indissoluble way.”
So once again a communion host has been miraculously transformed into living heart tissue, readily identifiable under an electron microscope, and the tissue shows signs of great stress. God is obviously going to great lengths to confirm the truth of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
The Eucharistic miracle of Lanciano
I have been fascinated by your account of the Eucharistic miracles of Buenos Aires and Poland. What is the connection, if any, between these miracles and the one of Lanciano in Italy?
The common thread in these Eucharistic miracles, as well as in the many others that have taken place throughout the centuries, is the fact that a consecrated host has changed into recognisable features of human tissue and sometimes blood.
We know that after the consecration in the Mass, when the priest pronounces the words of Christ on instituting the Eucharist, the host becomes the Body of Christ and the wine becomes his Blood. We don’t see the Body or Blood, because they continue to have the characteristics of bread and wine, but we know by faith that they are there.
Occasionally, sometimes to shore up the faith of people who doubted his Real Presence, Our Lord has done a miracle to make clear that the Eucharist is truly his Body and Blood. In recent decades some of these miracles have been subjected to scientific examinations, which have resulted in extraordinary findings. Such is the case with the miracles of Buenos Aires in 1996, Poland in 2008, and even the eighth century miracle of Lanciano.
The first great Eucharistic miracle was that of Lanciano, the ancient Italian city of Anxanum. It took place in 750 AD in the church of St Legontian when a Basilian monk doubted the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. After he had consecrated the Body and Blood of Our Lord, the host was suddenly changed into physical flesh and the consecrated wine into physical blood, which coagulated into five globules of different shapes and sizes. They are still on display in Lanciano, even though almost 1300 years have passed since they first appeared.
In 1971 the flesh and blood were examined scientifically by Dr Odoardo Linoli, Professor of Anatomy and Pathological Histology and of Chemistry and Clinical Microscopy at the Arezzo Hospital. He was assisted by Dr Ruggero Bertelli, retired Professor of Anatomy at the University of Siena.
Their findings were truly extraordinary, and similar to the findings in the miracles of Buenos Aires and Poland. The flesh was identified under a microscope as human flesh from the left ventricle of the heart, showing clearly the myocardium, the endocardium and the vagus nerve.
What is more, Professor Linoli was amazed at the evenness of the slice of tissue he was examining. He commented that only a highly skilled hand in dissection could have obtained such an “even and continuous” slice of heart tissue. This is especially intriguing if one takes into account that the first anatomical dissections reported in the medical literature took place only after the 1300s, some six hundred years after the miracle.
The blood was of type AB, the rarest blood type, which is found more commonly in the region around the Mediterranean. In Italy between 0.5% and 1% of all people have type AB blood, whereas in Israel and the Middle East the percentage is 14-15%.
The blood in the sample of flesh was also of type AB. Significantly, this is the same blood type identified in the Shroud of Turin. What is more, the proteins in the blood sample were in the same proportions as in fresh normal blood.
One of the experiments conducted on the blood sample involved liquefying it and studying its capillary properties; that is, the rate at which it climbs a narrow tube. Professor Linoli found that the capillary properties matched exactly those of human blood taken from a man that very day.
The fact that the flesh and blood have been preserved for almost thirteen centuries even though exposed to the action of atmospheric and biological agents, and without any preservative, is itself a miracle.
Professor Linoli’s findings were published in “Quaderni Sclavo di Diagnostica Clinica e di Laboratori” in 1971. In 1973 the Higher Council of the World Health Organisation appointed a scientific commission to investigate Professor Linoli’s findings. After 500 examinations, carried out over fifteen months, the commission confirmed the earlier findings.
These miracles and the scientific evidence that supports them can help to reaffirm our faith that the Eucharist is truly the Body and Blood of Our Lord at a time when many doubt it.
Over the years I have been asked numerous questions about Purgatory and I have answered some in my columns in the Catholic Weekly. Here are two of them, taken from my books Question Time 1 and Question Time 2.
25. The belief in purgatory
Now that we are in the month traditionally devoted to praying for the souls in purgatory, I would like to ask where we Catholics get our belief in purgatory. Protestants don’t believe in it and it doesn’t seem to be very clear in the Bible.
The Church’s belief in a state or place of purification of the soul after death goes right back to the beginning. Really, it goes back to the Old Testament. In the Second Book of the Maccabees we read how Judas the Maccabee, discovering that his comrades who had been killed in battle were all wearing tokens of the false gods of Jamnia, prayed that their sins might be forgiven. He then took up a collection to be sent to Jerusalem to have a sacrifice offered for them, “that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Mac 12:45). This clearly attests to the belief of the Jews in the second century BC that there was a resurrection of the dead and that persons could be helped to be freed from their sins after death by our sacrifices and prayers. In other words, that there is a purgatory.
While the New Testament is not explicit in teaching about purgatory, various texts allude to it. The book of Revelation, for example, says that “nothing unclean shall enter” the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev 21:27). And St Paul writes that in the judgment everyone’s work will be tested by fire, and if one’s work is burned up, he “will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15).
Independently of Scripture, though, the early Christians believed in purgatory from the outset. Writings on tombs and in the catacombs include such inscriptions as: “In your prayers, remember us who have gone before you”, “May you have eternal life in Christ”, “May he rest in peace,” etc. If the early Christians thought everyone went straight to heaven, there would have been no reason to ask for prayers for the deceased.
Towards the end of the second century, Tertullian describes how the Church prayed for the dead and offered the Mass for them on the anniversary of their death (De monogamia, 10). In the middle of the fourth century, St Cyril of Jerusalem, in his description of the Mass, mentions the prayer for all the faithful departed after the Consecration, ascribing to it the power of reconciling the deceased with God (Cat. myst., 5, 9). And we recall St Monica’s request to her son Augustine just before her death: “Lay this body anywhere…This only I ask of you, that you remember me at the altar of the Lord, wherever you may be” (St Augustine, Confessions 9, 10-11).
So widespread was the custom of praying and offering Masses for the faithful departed that St Isidore of Seville could write in the seventh century: “To offer the sacrifice for the repose of the faithful departed is a custom observed all over the world. For this reason we believe that it is a custom taught by the very Apostles” (On ecclesiastical offices, 1).
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, summing up the Church’s belief, says: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (CCC 1030). It goes on to say: “From the beginning the Church has honoured the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead” (CCC 1032).
So it is clear that the belief in purgatory has been there since the very beginning of the Church. Even if there were nothing at all in the Bible about it, we would still believe in it as coming from the living Tradition of the Church.
186. Prayer for the souls in Purgatory
How do our prayers help the souls in Purgatory? I always thought that the length of their stay in Purgatory was dependent on the state of their soul when they died and that our prayers cannot shorten that time. Can you please enlighten me?
It is true, as you say, that the length of time a soul must spend in Purgatory, or the extent of their punishment there, is determined by the state of their soul at the moment of death. It is generally taught that the soul needs to purified of three things in order to be able to enter heaven: temporal punishment owing for sin, bad habits and attachments caused by sin, and any lack of sorrow for venial sins.
I should explain what we mean by temporal punishment. Every sin offends God and harms his Mystical Body, the Church. The sinner, in addition to being forgiven by God for the sin through the sacrament of Penance, must do something to make up for the harm caused. This is known as temporal punishment, since it must be undergone in time, either here on earth through such things as good works, acts of penance, prayer and indulgences, or in Purgatory. The fewer sins we commit, the more good works, prayers and penances we do and the more indulgences we gain, the shorter will be our time in Purgatory, if indeed we have to go there at all.
Since at their death each person has a different amount of temporal punishment owing for their sins, a different number of bad habits and attachments and a different degree of lack of sorrow for venial sins, it is only right that each soul will have a different amount of time, or degree of suffering, in Purgatory. But we should never forget that God, in his infinite mercy, demands much less punishment than our sins deserve. If it were not for his mercy, we would never get out of Purgatory!
Also, we should remember that the suffering in Purgatory is a happy suffering. The souls there welcome their suffering because it purifies them for their entry into heaven, of which they are assured. Not for nothing do we call them the “blessed souls” in Purgatory. Pope Benedict XVI speaks of this suffering as coming through the encounter of the soul with the love of Christ. In his encyclical Spe salvi he writes: “This encounter with [Christ], as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves… His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation ‘as through fire’. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God… The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy” (SS, 47).
Returning to your question, if each soul’s degree of suffering is determined at the moment of death, how can our prayers help them? Again, it is a matter of the mercy of God, expressed through the Communion of Saints. Just as God, in his power and mercy, answers our prayers for others here on earth by shortening their sufferings, curing their diseases more quickly, healing broken relationships, etc., so he can answer our prayers for the souls in Purgatory by shortening their sufferings.
Pope Benedict explains it like this: “If ‘Purgatory’ is simply purification through fire in the encounter with the Lord, Judge and Saviour, how can a third person intervene, even if he or she is particularly close to the other? When we ask such a question, we should recall that no man is an island, entire of itself. Our lives are involved with one another; through innumerable interactions they are linked together. No one lives alone. No one sins alone. No one is saved alone… So my prayer for another is not something extraneous to that person, something external, not even after death. In the interconnectedness of Being, my gratitude to the other – my prayer for him – can play a small part in his purification” (SS, 48).
Indeed, over the centuries there have been numerous accounts of souls in Purgatory appearing to people on earth, some of them later canonised as saints, and asking for their prayers. Often the souls relate how the prayers of those on earth helped them and prepared them for heaven.
In the month of November, which is traditionally dedicated to the souls in Purgatory, we do well to help the holy souls as much as we can: having Masses offered for them, praying for them, offering penances for them and gaining indulgences for them. But we should not limit these prayers to the month of November. We can help the souls in Purgatory at any time.
November is traditionally the month of the Holy Souls, in which we pray especially for the souls in Purgatory. This meditation offers food for thought about this important devotion and about the reality of Purgatory.
We would like life to be always smooth sailing. Unfortunately it is not, and when there comes the sudden illness, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job or the failure of human relationships it is easy to become discouraged and lose hope. This meditation may be of some help.