All they need are two miracles, connections in Rome--and plenty of cash
The doctors had little hope of restoring Robert Gutherman's ravaged hearing. The year was 1974, and a bone-dissolving infection had rendered the 14-year-old deaf in his right ear. Resigned to the permanency of her son's hearing loss, his mother only wanted the suffering to end; the agony caused by the infection was so great that Robert was forced to sleep with his head on a hot-water bottle to dull the pain.
With medical science powerless to help, his mother called the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, whose convent was near the Guthermans' home in Bensalem, Pa. The nuns encouraged the family to pray to Katharine Drexel, their order's founder, who died in 1955. Drexel, the sisters said, could intercede with God on Robert's behalf, easing his torment.
One night, scared and alone in his Philadelphia hospital bed, Robert prayed to Mother Katharine, at whose chapel he'd once served as an altar boy. When he awoke the next morning, the pain was gone--and his hearing was once again perfect. "When I went back for a checkup, [the doctor] was looking in my ear and he said, `I can't believe what I'm seeing,' " recalls Gutherman, now 39. " `His body is healing itself.' " In the records, the doctor wrote: "Is this possible?"
The recovery was just what the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament had been waiting for. In 1964, the order had formally begun the process of having Drexel declared a saint, a mammoth undertaking requiring evidence of two posthumous miracles as proof of the candidate's favored place in heaven. In 1988, after years of investigation--testimony by physicians, analysis of X-rays, study by a Vatican medical board--the church judged Robert's healing miraculous. With a second miracle now nearing approval in Rome, Drexel is on track to become the next American saint, perhaps this year.
Drexel stands the closest to canonization of America's 29 candidates for sainthood. Most on the list are still decades--even centuries--away from receiving a halo. The path to sainthood may be the world's most complex, drawn out legal process, putting any large-scale class-action suit to shame. It requires years of toil by tireless supporters blessed with Job-like patience--along with good public relations, ample cash to fund the campaign, and a dash of political savvy. "I don't want to be cynical about this, but it helps a lot if you have connections in Rome," says Lawrence Cunningham, a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame. "And it helps a lot if you can come up with the bucks." Above all, it requires faith, for scant few of those who dedicate their lives to a candidate will live to see whether the cause succeeds, or becomes one of the quae silent--"the silent ones," the causes on behalf of people whose applications for sainthood end up languishing forever in the Vatican's musty archives.
Good signs. Despite the daunting nature of the process, supporters of America's potential saints are riding a crest of optimism. Pope John Paul II, who will visit St. Louis later this month, has canonized more people--280 at last count--than all of his 20th-century predecessors combined. "And a lot of those 280 are not European," notes Father James Wiseman, an associate professor of theology at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. "He really wants to expand the church beyond something that is seen as too narrowly European. He's trying to show that holiness has blossomed in all corners of the world and to give encouragement to the young churches." The American church, minuscule until the arrival of mid-19th-century immigrants, is certainly young. And with only four Americans on the liturgical calendar--and only one of those, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, native born--many feel the nation's 61.2 million Catholics are due more American models of Christian virtue and sanctity.