Everyone loves a good story.
When I was in the teaching profession, telling stories was always in my toolbox on a given day. The students loved to get me telling stories because they (mistakenly) believed that it got us off track. The thing is, there’s almost always a point to my stories. After telling some of the wildest, insane—and yet quite true—tales, I would hit them with the “moral of the story” and tie it back to the lesson.
There is a set of stories with which many Catholics are familiar, even if they don’t pay much attention to them: miracle stories.
Stories about healings, visions, apparitions, etc. definitely get people’s attention. Just look at the present example in Thomaston, Connecticut. On March 5 2023, a priest announced that there had been a multiplication of Communion Hosts during the distribution of Holy Communion. His parish has made it into the secular news. To my knowledge, no video has appeared in the public forum that shows the actual event (the Facebook live feed of the Mass cut to B-roll during the distribution of Holy Communion).
Presently, we await the results of the Archdiocesan inquiry into the merits of the claim and I issue no judgment upon it. Stories such as these grab people’s attention, and can be great tools for evangelization.
I already mentioned that I loved telling stories to my students. Let me tell you a story about an event in class that took place in 2016. While going over a lesson, a student asked me, “Miracles are in the Bible, but what about today? Why don’t we hear anything happening today?”
Me: “We had one happen right here in town.” The students were successfully taken unawares.
Student: “Wait, what do you mean?”
Me: “There was a man cured of cancer right here in town.”
Student: “C’mon, are you serious?”
Student: “Then how come we haven’t heard about it?”
Me: “Because the family to whom it happened didn’t want to attract all kinds of attention to themselves.”
Student: “Then how do you know about it?”
Me: “Well, I’m the theology teacher and people tell me stuff. I also happen to know the family in question.”
Knowing that I had them quite hooked by this point, I added for good measure at the end of that last sentence,
“And, I suspect, some of you might know the family, too.”
The kids were chomping at the bits to know who it was. The fact is, I couldn’t reveal the family’s identity out of respect for their wishes—tempting though it was. The students weren’t sure if they believed me as they had no verifiable way to “fact check” me, but the point was made: miracles happen today, and we don’t always know when they take place.
Their skepticism was understandable. We live in an age of skepticism, and, with all of the, shall we say “quirky” displays among the more easily excitable among us, some skepticism is a good thing. If guided well, someone might come to faith in Jesus Christ if faced with a credible testimony to a humanly impossible situation, such as the story described above with my students.
In the case of the healing from cancer, there were medical records and doctors who could testify that there was no natural cure. Given how serious the cancer was, too, before the healing, the fact that it was gone within two months with no treatment (and without any scar tissue) just begs for an explanation. I’m told that even the doctor came into the room, visibly shaken, X-rays in hand, and declared that he couldn’t explain it.
Stories like these are powerful tools. They engage our imagination, and, for the more skeptical among us, our intellectual curiosity. When they are credible, they support faith in the God and in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
All this being said, it is true that faith is a gift of God’s grace, by which we believe “because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived.” What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason. Catholics believe in revealed truths because God has revealed them. He is at the center, not our individual (and quite subjective) ability to reason things through.
What, then, of the power of miracle stories? What’s the point of miracles if faith is a divine grace? God offers us external proofs such as miracles, prophecies, and the Church to aid our understanding. In the words of the Catholic Catechism, they are “motives of credibility.”
The Catechism teaches:
That the submission of our faith might nevertheless be in accordance with reason, God willed that external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit.” Thus the miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church’s growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability “are the most certain signs of divine Revelation, adapted to the intelligence of all”; they are “motives of credibility” (motiva credibilitatis), which show that the assent of faith is “by no means a blind impulse of the mind.”Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 156
Accordingly, evangelists should not be afraid to tell people about miraculous stories. They should be prepared to be “fact-checked” by some people, or to encounter skeptics. In such cases, stories that have medical data and information are best to cite as they lend credibility to the evangelist’s story. Stories that involve things like, “I heard from my best friend’s cousin who knows a guy that says his neighbor down the street’s wife’s fourth cousin twice removed was cured of cancer” are almost never convincing. But genuine, well-attested accounts of miracles are powerful tools of evangelization.
But, also, as the Catechism quote above indicates, the Church too is a “motive of credibility.” She herself is a sign that God has given to the world as proof of His Revelation. Despite the many sinners in her midst, her stability and teaching over the centuries speak to many of her divine origins. She is both mother and teacher, mater et magistra, as well as the wise judge of the veracity of miraculous stories. The fact that she is here is proof of God’s work in the world.
I am quite fond of a rather famous legend (and I stress legend) involving Napoleon and Cardinal Consalvi that demonstrates the point. According to the legend, Napoleon boasted to the cardinal,
“Eminence, you know that I know no obstacles. I can destroy whoever I want, men, things, institutions. What if tomorrow I propose to destroy the Church? Tell me what would happen. Speak….”
Consalvi just looked at him and said,
“Majesty, you would be making a useless effort. You would be defeated. We priests [and] Christians have not managed to destroy the Church with our weaknesses, with our infidelities! Do you expect that you could do it?”Le Famiglie Brunacci (translation by Kevin Symonds)
In all things, give glory to God for all His good works! Miracles, healings, and other extraordinary events are one thing for which to give God thanks; and the Church, too, is such an “event.” Don’t be afraid to use these tools while evangelizing because everyone loves a good story; but the best ones are the true ones.