By Andy Telli
Catholic News Service
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CNS) — Bill Briggs was at his home in Denver reading a short newspaper article about the Archdiocese of Denver bringing in teams of doctors to investigate a possible miracle in the cure of an infant girl as part of a canonization cause.
"I was intrigued by priests and doctors in the same room on the same page," said Briggs, and the possibility of a book began to swirl in his mind.
"I saw an opportunity to apply journalism to the miracle process," said Briggs, a former reporter for the now closed Nashville Banner and The Denver Post and currently a writer for MSNBC.com. Ingrained in the Catholic Church’s ancient process of recognizing and elevating saints are the struggles of faith vs. reason and religion vs. science that play out in contemporary culture, Briggs said.
The idea eventually became "The Third Miracle: An Ordinary Man, A Medical Mystery and a Trial of Faith" (Broadway Books, $24), about the successful canonization process of St. Mother Theodore Guerin, a French nun who in 1840 led a group of Sisters of Providence to the American frontier near Terre Haute, Ind., to establish a motherhouse, novitiate and a school now known at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College.
Briggs returned to Nashville Feb. 1 to talk about his book as part of a speaker series sponsored by the McNeely Pigott & Fox public relations firm.
He was raised a Catholic and as a child he helped his mother clean All Saints Church every Saturday in his hometown of Lansing, N.Y. Briggs is a graduate of St. Bonaventure University in western New York.
He went looking for a case to write about and eventually settled on the 2006 canonization of Mother Theodore. What decided it for him was the man at the center of the second miracle attributed to her, which opened the doors to her canonization once it was confirmed by medical and theological authorities, Briggs said.
Phil McCord was director of facilities management at St. Mary-of-the-Woods College and Convent when he received a miraculous cure. Troubled by the prospect of undergoing surgery for a cornea transplant, McCord had stopped in the chapel at the school one day and offered a short prayer asking Mother Theodore and God for the strength to go through with the surgery.
After the prayer, he felt a sense of peace, and the next day, he noticed his eye had improved. Eventually, doctors determined that McCord’s eye had completely healed and there was no need for the surgery.
Briggs was intrigued by the case because McCord, an engineer and scientist by nature and training, a non-Catholic and not particularly religious, was troubled by the idea that he had received a miracle and questioned why he was more deserving of a divine cure than others.
"When I read that tension, I thought this might be my narrative," Briggs said. "Five minutes into my first interview (with McCord), I knew this was the guy."
"The goal was to carry that unease from the start of the story to literally the last page," Briggs said. In the end, McCord was able to come to terms with the miracle, Briggs said.
Briggs spent about nine months in 2008 and 2009 researching the history of the cause for St. Theodore Guerin’s sainthood, doing countless interviews and reviewing many church documents, trying to pull back the curtain on an often secret and little understood process.
Most miracles investigated as part of a canonization cause involve unexplained medical cures, Briggs said, and as such become a question of science vs. faith.
Briggs interviewed one Italian doctor who belongs to a team of doctors the Vatican uses to make sure there is no scientific explanation for a possibly miraculous cure, and who told him, "I do this because I’m a doubter."
Briggs said the process needs a doubter to maintain its credibility and integrity.
The book also looks at other aspects of the canonization process that some consider controversial, including the cost of pursuing a cause for sainthood and the changes instituted by Pope John Paul II that streamlined the process and led to the canonization of more than 480 saints during his papacy, far more than any other pope.
For the church, saints offer examples of holy lives for people to follow and to give them hope, Briggs said, and miracles are a sign from God that the person is indeed in heaven and interceding on our behalf.
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