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Thomas International Center
November 2007


Ralph McInerny


Signs and Wonders



Ken Whitehead, an old friend, came to Notre Dame recently to tape some talks on Vatican II, and, his work done, we went to Mass and then settled in for a long session, preprandial drinks, dinner, the works.. There may be keener pleasures than those afforded by talking with an old man who is precisely my age, but I have yet to hear of them. I recently published my memoirs, I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You, and Ken remarked that my story was pretty much his own. What more convincing testimony of authenticity could one require?

A member of the American diplomatic corps for years, then a high functionary in the Department of Education, Ken single-handedly disposed of the argument of many presidents of Catholic institutions of higher learning that they had to secularize lest they be cut off from federal funds. Ken was astonished. As a government official he knew that there were no such restrictions. He wrote an article, pointing this out. It became clear that many Catholic institutions wanted to be prevented from exercising their peculiar mission.

The bad argument that government policy required the secularization of Catholic colleges and Universities was depressing enough. But what if it had been a good argument? What if, in order to continue doing what they had set out to do, Catholic colleges and universities had to forego federal funding? What price apostasy?

Our conversation moved on to a trip to Goa that Ken had made with his wife Margaret. Two things impressed him. First, the exhumed incorrupt body of St. Francis Xavier. Second, the magnificently ornate vestments. The latter suggested an order of priority -  worship, vestments, cathedrals themselves, rightly receive the giant's share of Catholic generosity, And then there was that incorrupt body of the great Jesuit missionary.

In recent years, depressing revelations have led many to think that the Church is losing the PR war in the modern world. This is an illusion, but what else does the media deal in? When one considers the evidence lying there right under everyone's nose, it can seem incredible that anyone could refrain from becoming a Catholic.

I remember vividly my fist visit to Nevers where I saw the incorrupt body of Saint Bernadette. There it was, in a glass coffin, for everyone to see. And what could possibly be meant by the undeniable existence, fresh as a daisy, as one might say, of the body of a saintly person a century and more after her death?

Recently a nun suffering from Parkinson's disease reported her complete recovery thanks to the intercession of John Paul II. Doctrinaire atheists went ballistic. Of course this simply could not have happened and equally of course it was a trick by the Swiss Guards to convert the British royal family, or whatever. The relative silence of Catholics was noteworthy. Are we perhaps embarrassed by these continuing intrusions of the supernatural? Have we become skeptical or simply blase about the miraculous dimensions of our faith?

Who knows? I don't.

The world is chock full of extraordinary evidence of the supernatural order. At the very least, this should give the non-believer pause. And the believer? What is a miraculously preserved body in comparison to the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Eucharist?  But have we retained the reverence toward the Eucharist to be found in the great hymns of Thomas Aquinas? Perhaps all those oddities - preserved bodies, liquefied blood, the swallows at Capistrano - are meant to jog us back into marveling over the central mysteries of our faith.


Ralph McInerny