Medical or miracle?

Tales of healing emanating from a Troy Hill chapel spur the debate over religion's role in medicine

Sunday, October 15, 2000

By Christopher Snowbeck, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

A GROUP OF DOCTORS gathering in Pittsburgh for a convention this month sat before a resolute little nun named Sister Margaret Liam Glenane and received a crash course in the anatomy of holiness.

The sister directed attention to a tooth that was once in the head of St. Anthony; the skulls of women martyred for their virginity; and countless bits of bone from Christian saints.

She also talked about the priest who assembled the collection of more than 4,200 relics in this Troy Hill chapel -- the chapel where he preached in the late 19th century and healed people through prayer and medicine.

"All he wanted was a place where he could have his relics and do his healing," Sister Margaret told the group touring St. Anthony Chapel. "So many, many miracles took place here."

The doctors had assembled for the annual meeting of the Catholic Medical Association, during which about 200 physicians attended headline-grabbing sessions on everything from stem-cell research to eugenics to abortion.

But for a 30-minute sliver of time wedged between events, about 50 of the physicians listened to Sister Margaret describe the relics, including 22 splinters that were said to be from the cross that Jesus carried, two thorns from the crown he wore when crucified and a piece of the table where Jesus and his disciples ate the Last Supper.

It's the largest public collection of relics anywhere outside the Vatican.

Each of the relics is housed in a "reliquary" -- cases that can be as humble as a medallion or as grand as two stunning gilded placards that decorate the front of the church. These "calendar reliquaries" stand not quite as tall as Sister Margaret and together contain a chip of bone or some other relic from a different saint for every day of the year.

Standing before the majestic display of reliquaries that cover the 25-foot-tall walls of the chapel, Sister Margaret told the doctors about how God has directed his healing power through the relics to countless Pittsburghers since the chapel opened in the late 19th century.

What you might not know is that stories of healings continue today.

There are three sorts of relics: relics of the first order, which are often bones of a saint; of the second order, which are possessions of the saint; and of the third order, which are objects that came into contact with first-order relics.

There's not much evidence of when people first started making relics from the bodies and possessions of holy people, but theologians and historians have some ideas about it.

They agree that it is a practice as old as the Catholic Church itself -- probably even older, says George Worgul Jr., professor of theology at Duquesne University. Humans have a sense of being connected to one another that is broken by death, Worgul said. Retaining a lock of hair or a bit of bone helps people hold on to that person.

In the Catholic tradition, the idea of maintaining a physical link to a dead person fused with the concept of saints and martyrs -- people who led such exemplary lives that at death they entered into full communion with God in heaven. The worthiness of a dead person for sainthood could be demonstrated by the miraculous healings connected with remains.

Relics remain an important part of worship at St. Anthony's, but not necessarily throughout the Catholic Church. With the Second Vatican Council, church law eliminated the requirement that relics be placed in altars.

"Probably the reason there is less interest in relics today is because our spirituality is different," said the Rev. Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh. "I think it's centered on the Eucharist and our participation in it. Our relationship with God is fostered more now through the sacraments than through relics."

So what were the Catholic physicians doing at St. Anthony's last week?

In part, they were seeing one of Pittsburgh's unique sites.

The Rev. Suitbert Goedfried Mollinger became the pastor of Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish on July 4, 1868.

Because of his special devotion to the 13th-century Portuguese saint St. Anthony, Mollinger built the chapel in the 1880s and enlarged it a decade later. The addition houses life-size stations of the cross that Mollinger imported from Europe. The older portion is home to the relics.

The son of a wealthy family in the Netherlands, Mollinger brought some relics with him when he first came to Pittsburgh. Most he acquired through contacts in Europe as political struggles in Italy and Germany led to the destruction of monasteries and the dispersal of relics to pawn shops. Some relics were sent to America for their protection.

Mollinger had been trained as a physician, although it's unclear if he ever finished medical school. People who came to St. Anthony's in search of healing received a physical from Mollinger, advice that they pray through the relics to God and prescriptions of pharmaceutical


remedies that were filled in a back room at the church.

But this story and Sister Margaret's tour had much more meaning than a tourist's diversion to Dr. Barbara Neilan, an oncologist from Wilmington, Del.

Neilan and two other physicians -- Dr. Rosemary Horstmann of Allentown, Pa., and Dr. Diane Gowski of Tampa -- missed the bus that most of the doctors took back to their hotel after the relic tour and stayed with Sister Margaret to hear more.

With the physicians in tow, she pointed beneath the altar to an exquisite golden trunk brought from Rome in 1880 that contains the entire skeletal remains of the martyr St. Demetrius. As she led them through the nave, Sister Margaret pointed out a life-size statue of St. George in a reclining position; on a shelf above the statue lies a reliquary containing the skull of St. Theodore.

Sister Margaret also told the doctors of the stories of miracles that are still taking place St. Anthony's.

A man came to the chapel in the last year to pray that his brain tumor and lung cancer might be cured, the sister said. He returned several weeks after his first visit to say the tumor was gone and that he would soon undergo tests to check on the status of the lung cancer.

Sister Margaret said she had been meaning to call the man to find out the latest on his case, but the recovery surely was a miracle, she said.

The doctors' reactions didn't reveal a hint of skepticism.

"I have never experienced anybody having a miracle, a miraculous cure of an illness," Neilan said in a later interview. "But I have heard people talk about that, people who are very believable, and there's no question in my mind that they did experience a miracle. I think it doesn't happen very often in that way."

Miracles can be sudden cures of the sort that qualify blessed people for sainthood -- like the healing of a deaf girl in Philadelphia who prayed to Katharine Drexel. Drexel was canonized this month.

But God also delivers more subtle miracles, allowing people to accept their fate, Neilan said.

Relics have been a part of the care Neilan has provided to two patients. One was a Catholic man who gave to Neilan a third-class relic of St. John Neumann of Philadelphia. Neilan held the relic whenever she prayed for her patient.

Ultimately, the man died of a lymphoma, and Neilan held on to the relic until one day when a patient came to her office wearing a number of medals on her shirt. The relic was in the form of medallion, and Neilan asked if the woman might like to wear it. The woman accepted.

Neilan says she prays for all of her patients, and for those facing a terminal diagnosis she often will initiate conversations -- even with nonbelievers -- about the afterlife.

"I certainly want them to open their mind, if they have been closed to it before," she said. "I remember one patient saying, 'I do believe what you're saying [about the afterlife], I really believe that, but you couldn't have told me that years ago.' "

"I've never had anybody openly voice opposition to [the discussions]. We all know we're mortal, and I sort of phrase it that way," she said. "We want you to live as long as you can, and absolutely none of us wants to die -- preservation of life is what physicians are all about. But at some point, God will call us home."

The tour at St. Anthony's was important, Neilan said, because it inspires physicians "to bring more into our practice of medicine the concept of faith."

Including faith in the practice of medicine is controversial for many doctors.

Writing last year in the British medical journal The Lancet, Dr. Richard Sloan of Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center in New York took to task many studies that have purported to show that religious people facing various health problems fare better. Aside from the details of the studies, Sloan argued that the idea of doctors praying with patients or actively engaging the religious beliefs raises a number of ethical concerns.

First, doctors influence patients by virtue of their medical expertise, but that influence can be carried over when the topic changes to nonmedical topics. Is it appropriate for a physician to steer the conversation in that direction?

Second, if religious or spiritual factors are shown to be linked with better health outcomes, doctors should "take into account" those factors without "taking them on," Sloan said. For example, it would be unethical for a physician to recommend that someone get married because the data suggest that married people are healthier.

Finally, Sloan said, there's always the concern that bringing together religion and medicine will reinforce old notions that illness is "the result of insufficient faith."

"Physicians can easily get themselves into a position from which they cannot extract themselves," Sloan said in an interview earlier this year. "There's no shortage of adequately trained religious professionals in the community to whom physicians can refer."

But there is evidence of a movement to open the door to religion.

Almost 30 medical schools offer classes on the links between spirituality and health, according to a 1997 report in the Journal of the American Medical Association, and the interest in alternative medicine at U.S. hospitals has raised questions about faith and medicine.

Doctors at East Liberty Family Health Care Center, which was founded as a Christian outreach to the poor, regularly pray with patients. And the former medical director of an alternative medicine clinic at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center included patients in sweat lodge ceremonies he practiced as part of his American Indian religion.

Dr. Margaret Mohrmann, associate professor of medical education and a bioethicist at the University of Virginia, agreed with Sloan that doctors must set limits and thinks that, generally, it's a bad idea for doctors to be religious leaders, too. But there are times when the line should be crossed, she said.

"Sometimes you realize you're the one who has to be part of this prayer," she said. "You can't say to the patient, 'This isn't in my code of ethics.' You have to be open to say, 'I'll be happy to be here while you pray.' "

Rather than shying away from religion, doctors need to figure out exactly what role faith plays in healing, said Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at Harvard Medical School. Benson runs a center on mind/body healing at Harvard and runs a course for health professionals three times a year called "Spirituality and Healing in Medicine." About 1,000 people sign up for each course, including the next session, in December.

Benson says none of his patients have used relics in practicing their faith. But he can imagine how doing so could be useful.

"The power and biology of belief itself are quite great," he said. "In other words, many different conditions are helped by belief itself. ... One has to differentiate between the power of belief itself and the inherent healing aspects of what people believe in. I'm not saying that such relics don't heal. But the mechanism by which they heal has to be further defined."

For some doctors at the Catholic Medical Association, figuring out how to bring together religion and medicine isn't a problem.

"For patients that accept intercessory prayer, I think it would be worth while to pray with them," said. Dr. Charles Prezzia, president-elect of the association and the medical director at USX. "If a patient doesn't want it, you can't force it on them, whether it's a medicine, a surgical procedure or an offer of prayer. It has to come within the context of a physician-patient relationship."

Ideally, physicians in the association look at God as the source of all healing, whether natural or supernatural, Prezzia said. The doctors toured St. Anthony's to see the relics, he said, but also because Mollinger's example is one that Catholic physicians strive to follow. The founder of the chapel saw continuity between the practice of religion and the practice of medicine.

Prezzia's first encounter with the idea that relics could be linked with healing didn't come until after college, when he read New Testament stories about a woman with a hemorrhage who was healed by touching Jesus' cloak.

"I can't go out and approve the veracity of every single healing," Prezzia said. "My general feeling is, if God wants to heal someone and wants to use a relic -- if God wants to do it, I'm not going to have an argument with Him."

Horstmann, one of the physicians who took the tour at St. Anthony's, said she has never had a conversation with a patient about relics in her psychiatry practice. But in her personal life, she believes she has encountered two miracle healings involving relics, including one case where a relative died from an illness but was first healed.

"Healing is sometimes the physical cure of an illness, but it can also be the healing of an attitude to that illness and whether the person has the grace to accept suffering," Horstmann said. "I had a relative who died but had tremendous peace and they felt it was directly through the intervention of a relic of a saint -- we interceded to that saint to ask for the grace of God."