The power of miracles: Naples's prodigious blood
I've always admired St Thomas. He's the saint, you recall, who refused to believe the apostles who claimed that Jesus had appeared to them after his death and resurrection. "Unless I see the nail marks in his hands… and put my hand into his side, I will not believe," he said.
In the gospel accounts, he gets his wish. But most of us are not that lucky. I am the kind of believer who raises a very firm eyebrow when people talk of "miracles", so when the BBC asked me to make a two-part series about them, I set aside a very large dose of salt to accompany me on my travels.
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Heart and Soul will be broadcast on the BBC World Service on Saturday 8 February at 03:32 GMT. A second episode on the theme of miracles will broadcast on Saturday 15 February at 03:32 GMT
First stop Naples and the feast of their patron San Gennaro (Saint Januarius).
Early in the morning the streets were jam packed with thousands of people on their way to the city's cathedral to pray for a miracle: that this 5th-Century martyr's blood would liquefy in front of our very eyes.
The legend has it, after his death, his blood was preserved by a passer-by. Over the centuries it solidified and became a series of stone-like deposits, but since the 14th Century, eye witness accounts attest to the fact that these solid particles turn to liquid blood on special holy days: a sign of blessing and protection for the Neapolitan faithful.
Certain superstitious types also assert that when this does not occur, it's a portentous sign that bad things will happen, such as outbreaks of disease and natural disasters.Chanting women
My morning with the people of Naples was remarkable. I was accompanied by Maria Pia, a local teacher who had been coming to this event since she was a little girl.
She showed me the chapel where scores of women chanted away, invoking San Genarro to intercede with God to make the miracle happen. People of all ages stood shoulder to shoulder as the city's cardinal processed from the chapel into the main body of the church holding the phials, the special receptacles which house the martyr's blood.
An hour later, after a sermon which contained, among other things, a warning to local mafia groups about the sins of organised crime and financial corruption, the cardinal held up one of the phials and huge cheers went up.
I was about 20 metres away but could see a dark brown viscous substance flowing inside the transparent container. People were in tears. Shouts of joy rained around us, including Maria Pia who must have witnessed this more than 30 times, but today was no less special.
So had I seen a miracle? Putting my "doubting Thomas" hat back on, I would have wanted to have seen the phials and their contents several hours beforehand and I am in no position to say. What was remarkable was the display of sincere belief and faith. As I left Naples to travel up to Rome, I felt envious of them, but unconvinced. However, a further opportunity awaited me.An 'ordinary' story
About 12 miles north west of Italy's capital in a non-descript suburb, I met up with postal worker Ermanno D'Alfonso and his wife Maria.
End Quote Mark Dowd
We do not know it all. We cannot know it all in this life”
Back in 2001, he collapsed while at work. Paramedics were called and they observed he had ceased breathing. They noted his heart had stopped beating for several minutes leaving his brain short of oxygen and vulnerable to severe neurological damage.
His wife was telephoned at home and her first reaction was to contact her sister, a Franciscan nun, who immediately put out a prayer message alert to dozens of convents worldwide. Hundreds of nuns prayed for the intercession of the Venerable Teresa Manganiello, a revered 19th Century religious figure from southern Italy.
Signor D'Alfonso remained in a coma for 18 days. Prayers continued unabated. Then he finally came round. There was not a trace of any damage to his brain. The "miracle" was attested to by many local doctors and neurologists who said they could find no natural explanation for his extraordinary recovery. Pages and pages of their testimony went before the Vatican before, finally in 2010, the holy nun was beatified: the first step to sainthood.
This experience impacted much more on me than the events in Naples. First, there was a body of medical evidence cited in the case. But secondly, I loved the ordinariness of it all. This humble man and his wife, in the autumn of their lives, had never spoken publicly about it before. They were not attention seekers and this reminded me of the number of times that Jesus in the gospels, after curing various individuals, asked them to go away and not mention it to anyone.
It's as though he is nervous of the idea of an extraordinary event being misinterpreted as mere vulgar "magic" rather than as an invitation to deepen one's faith because of a sign.'The eye of faith'
The final stop on my miracle tour was to meet a Polish Monsignor, Slawomir Oder. His title is "postulator" which means he has been the man preparing the case for the canonisation of Pope John Paul II. I was shown files containing 3,800 letters, all of which spoke of extraordinary events happening to people after his death in 2005, when people had turned to him and asked for his intercession with God.
Two miracles have been attributed to him since his death: the cure of a nun with Parkinson´s disease and a Costa Rican woman with a near fatal brain aneurysm. The monsignor explained that the church requires mountains of medical information and evidence before it can pronounce on the miraculous.
So what is the connection between these unexplained supernatural events? If a miracle occurs following the death of a person here on earth following the prayers of a believer, such as the wife of Ermanno D'Alfonso, it is evidence that an individual is indeed united with God and enjoying the "beatic vision" because that saint is a bridge, a staging post to God, the source of all love, power and holiness.
I still have my questions and my scepticism has not been totally erased, but one thing I do know is this. You need the eye of faith to experience a miracle, because without it, you will always seek to find a "natural" explanation. For instance, I have heard cynical voices describe what happens in Naples as a mere conjuring trick with potions.
The case of Ermanno D'Alfonso is "explained away" as being the result of sheer human willpower and the desire to recover. How a man in a coma can bring this about is beyond me, but the point is that religious authorities go through exhaustive processes of investigation to rule out fraud and would be pranksters. They have to, as the Church's reputation is on the line.
As a youngster I studied Hamlet and always remember the line: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
We do not know it all. We cannot know it all in this life. We should keep the door open to everything and remain curious - and that includes the world of the miraculous.
Next week, BBC Religion and Ethics will feature the story of an atheist scientist who was asked to assess the evidence of a miracle.
The two articles are linked to Mark Dowd's documentaries Heart and Soul: The Power of Miracles on the BBC World Service on Saturday 8 and Saturday 15 February.