Oct. 20, 2009 -- I just returned from a week in Italy, reporting on an hourlong special on the requirement that before anyone can be named a saint, they must have two miracles attributed to them.
The Vatican is actually incredibly rigorous in its investigation of miracles. Most of them involve healings, which must be complete, permanent, and without medical explanation.
This past weekend in Rome, a priest known as Father Damien was canonized, along with four other new saints. His story is really remarkable. He spent his priesthood in Hawaii in the mid 1800s, a time when leprosy was rampant, deadly, and hugely feared. Seventy percent of the Hawaiian population was killed by leprosy and other diseases brought by foreign travelers to the islands, and to say there was a stigma to this disease is an understatement.
At that time there was no cure (there is now) and it was terribly disfiguring. Anyone suspected of having leprosy was exiled to a remote island, and cut off from the outside world. There were no houses, no doctors there, no police, nothing. It became a lawless outpost, where crime and suffering was rampant, and death inevitable.
Damien volunteered to go there, and spent 16 years building homes, an orphanage, even a pipeline so the lepers could finally get fresh water. He eventually contracted leprosy himself and died of it. To this day Father Damien is a rock star among the Hawaiian people.
A woman named Audrey Toguchi had grown up hearing stories about Damien. Her own aunt and uncle had been exiled to the leper colony. So when she was diagnosed with a particularly virulent form of cancer, she prayed to Damien to cure her. Her sisters, and her children and grandchildren called their friends and formed a prayer chain. Toguchi was given six months to live. She refused chemotherapy. And then suddenly, her cancerous tumors disappeared. Completely. And as her surgeon and oncologist say, without any medical explanation.
Ten years later, Toguchi remains cancer free, and her recovery has been certified a miracle by the Vatican after an investigation they describe as lengthy and intense.
It was Toguchi's miracle that helped make Damien a saint. Tens of thousands of people gathered in St. Peter's Square for the ceremony this past Sunday, including a contingent of wheelchair-bound Hawaiians who suffer from leprosy. It meant so much to them to be present for the ceremony.
They now call Toguchi the miracle lady, and people stop her all the time and ask her to pray for them. Toguchi was on the alter with Pope Benedict. And in true Hawaiian fashion, she wore a muumuu. It was an incredible Sunday morning.