If you would like a good example of why journalism is so important, look no further than “The Third Miracle.” Yes, Bill Briggs is a friend. When I was in the newsroom at The Denver Post and having a challenge re-entering the world of newspaper writing—after six years writing mini-documentaries for public television—the editors suggested I study Briggs’ work for his clean, powerful style. Good choice.
It’s the journalists’ work, the journalist’s thought process, that comes through loud and clear in “The Third Miracle.” The world needs more of this work, but we all know it’s on the run and under pressure. It’s changing, but still needed. Another good friend pointed out the similarities between Briggs’ approach and work in this book and Timothy Egan’s. Hard to disagree.
“The Third Miracle” burrows inside the bureaucracy and systems of the Catholic church and reveals what it takes to be elevated from regular spiritual person to sainthood status. Like the best nonfiction, “The Third Miracle” lifts the veil on a long-secret, mysterious process and takes us backstage to see how saints are discovered, vetted, promoted and, if all systems are ‘go,’ permitted to join the exalted ranks of the church’s spiritual leadership.
And what do the church’s spiritual leaders require for them to make a decision? A very human process, that’s what. It’s as filled with strategy as a tense political campaign, as crammed with subjectivity as a Miss Universe beauty pageant, as packed with medical trivia as the new hit series, CSI-The Vatican.
“The tribunal would be quizzing the four doctors in an attempt to establish four fundamental facts about (the) cure: that it was definitive, instantaneous, perfect, and inexplicable to the laws of science. Those, according to the Vatican, were the four cornerstones of a medical miracle. For the pope to deem recovery supernatural, it would have to pass each of those four tests,” writes Briggs.
“The Third Miracle” takes a straight-down-the-middle approach. True believers will find plenty to admire about the exhaustive gauntlet candidates (and their supporters) must run before they emerge as worthy of being presented to the pope. Agnostics will walk away with plenty of ammunition to argue that every “miracle” has a plausible explanation and that the notion of sainthood is a just another human, political endeavor. Again, it’s a seasoned reporter who can hang with both sides of this story and help you see, help you gain perspective.
What makes “The Third Miracle” especially intriguing is that the main protagonist is a Baptist—and not an especially devout Baptist—who is working at a Catholic convent in Indiana. Phil McCord, then a maintenance man at the convent, was “not formally loyal to any religion” and didn’t consider himself to be a “praying man.” When he walks into the basilica at the convent one dark and desperate day, he drifts in “like one of the dead leaves swirling in the breezes outside—no clear purpose, no plan, certainly no script.” (Love that line.) But McCord prays, uncertain of what else to do about the agonizing deterioration of his right eye, a bad case of bullous keratopathy.
McCord’s moments in the basilica and the fact that he was praying specifically to Mother Théodore Guérin sets “The Third Miracle” in motion as his case becomes critical in the campaign to vault Mother Théodore Guérin to sainthood.
The story follows every available lead—deep into the world of medicine to explore precisely what was happening with McCord’s eye and learn about modern treatments; deep into the world of the church advocates, who decide what cases to bring forward and how best to present them; and deep into the inner sanctums of the Archdiocese in Indianapolis and the inner political and religious systems in Rome, where the final decisions are made. In detailing all aspects of the “canonization pipeline,” “The Third Miracle” is a wonderful mix of history, spirituality, bureaucracy, medicine, politics and humanity. It’s also reported in exhaustive fashion—the notes and acknowledgements are testament to the work that went into building the story fact by fact.
Ironically, it’s McCord’s lack of faith that bolsters the case before one tribunal, including Father Jim Bonke.
“Father Bonke liked McCord’s lack of pretension, his sheer absence of awe, he said later. He admired the man’s sincerity, his straight-ahead manner. And he felt his being a non-Catholic injected the case with extra merit, infused the tale with an honest detachment. But amid his contemplation of a cure that allegedly defied logic, the priest still needed to hear the Baptist man explain how he logically had come to put his faith in a pre-Civil War mother superior. The pope would ultimately ask the same question.”
The ending builds toward a touching and humorous final few scenes. Phil McCord is perfectly human in the most sublime religious setting and you can see the moment in a movie right there, the world of contrasts between everyday mistakes (making sure you’ve got the right pants on) and otherworldly, if you believe in them, miracles.
“The Third Miracle” is one of those books that was waiting to be written and Bill Briggs was just the right reporter and right writer to pull it all together. A full perspective, a full telling, terrific reporting.
A memorable, compelling story.