Thursday, September 17, 2015

Eucharistic Miracles: The Unlikely Intersection of Faith and Science

Thursdays have a kind of Eucharistic resonance in the Church: the sacrament was instituted at the Last Supper, assumed to have been on a Thursday (yes, scholars debate wholeheartedly about the date of the Last Supper), each year the Holy Thursday liturgies commemorate the simultaneous institution of the priesthood and the Eucharist, and so the Feast of Corpus Christi is also on a Thursday (even though here in the US *sigh* it is celebrated on the following Sunday). You'll find references to the Eucharist here and there in the prayers of the Liturgy of the Hours--on Thursdays.

So here among the Daughters of St. Paul, wherever possible, we have all-day exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and adoration by turns every Thursday.

What better day, then, to consider the most medieval and yet most modern of curiosities: the strange phenomenon of Eucharistic miracles?

The first of these I ever heard of was during a visit to Orvieto (Italy) with the Loyola University Chorale. Read about this 13th century event here. Centuries earlier, an even more remarkable sign had been given, in Lanciano (Italy). Back in the 700's, a doubting priest saw the consecrated host turn partially into flesh, while in the chalice, the Precious Blood congealed into five globules. Fast forward 1200 years, and Pope Paul VI gave permission for portions of these consecrated, but visibly transformed species, to be subjected to a scientific examination. The fleshy tissue, it was found, was heart tissue, and included the vagus nerve and part of the left ventricle. The globules are human blood, type AB. The percentage of proteins in the globules of blood match those of fresh blood.

But wait, there's more!

Even though the stories from Bolsena (Orvieto) and Lanciano were highly documented and there is a centuries-long historical record of the location of the miraculous signs, it is easy to be skeptical about something that happened in a pre-scientific age, despite the findings of 20th century science. A couple of years ago, I read of a modern-day Eucharistic miracle. Until yesterday, the information I could find was so sketchy I was not comfortable writing about it as a Eucharistic miracle. The video below presents a report in a way that is credible and documented. This miracle took place in 1996, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The bishop who followed the proceedings (and authorized medical/scientific analysis) was none other than Jorge Bergoglio (better known now as Pope Francis). As it turns out, the 1996 event was the third Eucharistic miracle in a row in Argentina, but this is the only one I know about right now, so I will limit my post to this one.

It happened in a parish church in Buenos Aires. Someone had received the Host, but not consumed it in Holy Communion because it had fallen to the ground and was visibly dirty. The priest was informed and put the Host in water; after a few days it would dissolve. Instead, after a few days the Host had begun to visibly change. Fleshy tissue appeared in place of the thin white wafer. He notified the bishop (Bergoglio) who advised that professional photos be taken of the enlarged, fleshy mass. Since the tissue did not corrupt, it was kept in the tabernacle for several years before now-Cardinal Bergoglio ordered a scientific analysis. A sample was taken and sent to Dr. Frederic Zugiba († 2013), a cardiologist and medical examiner (i.e. coroner) in New York,  without any indication of the "patient" from whom this tissue sample had been taken.

Bloodstains on the Shroud of Turin
are type AB. So are the stains on the
Veil of Oviedo.
Dr. Zugiba easily recognized the tissue as heart tissue, coming from the left ventricle. There were details, though, that mystified him. The sample, which was inflamed, contained white blood cells. (These generally die within 15 minutes of a biopsy.) The tissue also seemed to still be pulsating, the way living heart cells do. And yet the presence of the white blood cells also testified that the patient from whom the sample was taken had suffered intense trauma, some kind of injury that would cause the body to flood a damaged area with healing leukocytes. Thrombi also indicated that the patient had struggled to breathe.

Oh, yes, and the blood type? It was AB.

So we have at least two scientifically examined Eucharistic miracles, one from the 13th century, and one from 20 years ago. In both, tissue from the left ventricle of a human heart has been preserved without any kind of intervention. Both samples feature the same blood type, rare enough in the general population, but statistically more likely in someone of Middle Eastern extraction. In one case, the tissue was still alive at the time of analysis.

According to basic human reason, these facts are irreconcilable with reality. At least with reality as we know it according to reason. Science cannot tell us that the Eucharist is the flesh and blood of the crucified and risen Jesus of Nazareth, Lord of Heaven and Earth. But it has come as close as science can, recognizing flesh and blood in tissue samples that derived from consecrated Hosts.



Just a technical theological detail: Our Lord's presence in the Eucharist is most properly called a "sacramental" (not "physical") presence, because it is perceived through the "sign" of bread and wine. I understand that when the narrator in the video says "physical" it is meant as "real and true," as in the hymn "Ave Verum Corpus": Hail, true Body of the Savior, born of the Virgin Mary! Still, it is important for us in this matter to be as accurate as language allows (in dealing with a matter that completely exceeds all possibility of expression), so... Real Presence = Sacramental Presence; Jesus is sacramentally present, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, in the Holy Eucharist.

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