Priest's recovery raises issues of faith and fact Healing: Roman Catholic authorities are carefully investigating the case of a Baltimore priest who says a nun who died in 1938 helped cure his heart problem.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On this cold and gray morning, as the bells peal nine times, the faithful gather to pray and praise at Holy Rosary Roman Catholic Church. The Rev. Ronald Pytel, resplendent in white vestments, exhorts the worshipers to give thanks, not just for their blessings, which are many, but for the pain, the adversity, even the tragedies that may have befallen them.

"What has come into our lives the bad as well as the good, should be considered gifts from God to provide us the opportunity for growth and blessing," Pytel tells the congregants.

The simple, heartfelt message -- a pragmatic late-20th century interpretation of the age-old theme of redemption through suffering -- resonates with personal meaning for Pytel.

The 49-year-old priest, stricken with a degenerative aortic valve and dire congestive heart failure, was perilously close to death 18 months ago.

His full recovery after valve-replacement surgery surprised not only his Johns Hopkins doctor, but also set in motion an inquiry by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore, the magnitude of which has not been seen in recent memory.

At the heart of the archdiocese's investigation is the question now sending ripples of excitement through the Baltimore Catholic community: Are the faithful of Holy Rosary on Chester Avenue in Fells Point witness to a miracle?

Pytel, a diffident and sweet-faced priest of Polish descent, credits his recovery not only to medicine but also to the divine intervention of the Blessed Faustina Kowalska, a Polish nun beatified in 1993, through whom Pytel and fellow worshipers prayed for his recovery.

However, his doctor, while assessing the recovery as "remarkable and unexpected," sees more science than the supernatural in Pytel's healing.

The outcome, while rare, he said, is not unprecedented in similar cases.

"I'm saying that I was healed, that I had an experience that was out of the ordinary, but I haven't used the word miracle," Pytel says.

A grueling inquiry

The word "miracle" -- tossed about freely in colloquial speech -- is not used lightly by the Roman Catholic Church.

The authentication of a miracle is very serious business, for proven miracles -- the most rare of events determined to be caused only by the hand of God and not explicable according to natural laws -- are necessary for the making of saints.

Those looking into Pytel's experience are hesitant even to utter the word for fear of prejudicing what has become a grueling, weeks-long investigation, conducted with all the formality of a secular court of law, in the Archdiocese Office of the Tribunal on Cathedral Street.

No one at the archdiocese will discuss the particulars of Pytel's case, but priests familiar with the process of authenticating a miracle say that medical opinion will no doubt weigh heavily -- and possibly against a miracle -- in this case.

The results of the archdiocese's fact-gathering mission -- to be compiled in "phone book-size" volumes -- will be forwarded to the Vatican, where interested parties have been following the case.

"All the burners are on," says Bill Blaul, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

"The Vatican burner is on. The archdiocese burner is on, and the parish burner is on."

The ramifications of the investigation are enormous.

If Pytel's healing is determined, indeed, to be miraculous, his recovery could become the second authenticated miracle needed for the canonization of the Blessed Faustina.

Her canonization, in turn, no doubt could lead to the further spread of the Divine Mercy, an increasingly popular devotion that derives from the writings of Faustina, which recount what she said were revelations from Jesus about his mercy.

And at the very least, the authentication of a miracle would forever change life for Pytel and his largely Polish Holy Rosary parish, whose members dream of building a shrine that one day could attract religious pilgrims.

But such possibilities are still far from realities.

Only a tiny fraction of purported miracles are ever authenticated by the Catholic Church.

(At the sanctuary of Lourdes, only 65 of the more than 6,000 healings claimed since 1862 have been authenticated as miracles.)

The Catholic Church's definition of a miracle is exacting.

In the case of a healing, the recovery must be sudden -- "instantaneous" is a word often used -- attributable to a divine intercession and unexplained by any other measure, medical or scientific.

The scrutiny not only by priests and church officials but also by doctors, scientists and people outside the Catholic faith is unrelenting.

"There has always been a feeling among some Catholics that the big point is God and Christ and to a special extent, Mary, but that the cult of saints, which is very heavy, can be overdone," says the Rev. Joseph Gallagher, a retired priest and former editor of the Catholic Review.

"There is a tradition in the church of not overdoing this veneration of a mere human being. That's why it usually takes the church decades and decades and centuries to make up her mind."

Interpretations diverge

The severity of Pytel's heart condition and the rapidity and completeness of his recovery are undisputed.

Beyond that, however, the interpretations diverge, dividing along lines of science and religion.

In November 1994, Pytel came down with a cold he couldn't kick.

The winter cold segued into spring allergies, and Pytel struggled to meet the duties of a parish of 1,630 members.

He was winded. He couldn't climb stairs without stopping.

Finally in May, near collapse, he visited his regular doctor, who detected strange heart sounds and, alarmed, suggested further tests.

At the recommendation of a fellow priest and close friend, the Rev. Lawrence Gesy, Pytel consulted Dr. Nicholas Fortuin.

A Johns Hopkins cardiologist, Fortuin is a renowned expert in heart valve-replacement surgery whose resume lists 71 medical journal articles, 22 textbook chapters and 12 educational tapes he has produced on cardiovascular topics.

Fortuin found his new patient to be very sick with an obstructed aortic valve, an enlarged heart and fluid in his lungs.

The priest was, in Fortuin's words, "in very real danger of sudden death."

Pytel had had a heart murmur as a child and had been told that someday he might need surgery.

But until June 1995 he was completely unaware that his heart was dangerously overworked pumping blood through an opening that had shrunk from the normal half-dollar size to a pinhole.

Subsequent tests found no underlying arterial disease and on June 13, 1995, Dr. Peter Greene, a Johns Hopkins surgeon, replaced Pytel's diseased heart valve with a mechanical one.

"I expected he would improve immeasurably because he was so desperately ill," Fortuin says, "but I did not expect his heart function to return to normal."

Pytel recalls that Fortuin gave his friend Gesy a grim prognosis and asked the fellow priest to break the news gently.

"Father Larry told me that Dr. Fortuin had said that I was uninsurable, that I couldn't resume my old schedule, that my life, likely, was shortened and that I should think about early retirement," Pytel said.

Says Fortuin, "What I told him was that he wouldn't return to 100 percent. "I told him he would be well but not normal."

Gradually, Pytel gained strength so that by Oct. 5, 1995 -- the anniversary of Sister Faustina's death in 1938 and three years after the confirmation of the first miracle attributed to her intercession -- he was able to lead 12 hours of congregational prayer in celebration of the Divine Mercy and in preparation for Pope John Paul II's visit to Baltimore.

Holy Rosary is designated as an archdiocesan shrine to the Divine Mercy, a devotion that is rapidly gaining popularity in Baltimore and around the world.

At its simplest distillation, the devotion preaches the mercy of Christ and encourages followers to seek Christ's mercy and practice mercy toward others.

The message is at the heart of a 697-page "diary" that Sister Faustina, born Helen Kowalska, penned at the instruction, she said, of Jesus.

A simple woman with scant education, she was not believed to have been capable of writing such a work.

Sister Faustina, who died of tuberculosis at the age of 33, also described a vision of Christ, which has been translated into a painting that has become emblematic of the movement.

In the painting, Christ's hand is raised in blessing and two rays emanate from his heart -- one red for the blood and the other white for the water.

Presence of a friend

Pytel carries with him at all times a small round glass reliquary with a tiny dot of bone fragment from Faustina's body.

When he prays, Pytel says, he feels her presence -- "like a friend."

During the Oct. 5, 1995, prayer vigil, Pytel said he began experiencing chest pains for the first time since his surgery, a sensation Fortuin says could be attributed to the normal healing process.

The pains continued for a few days and, Pytel noticed, seemed to be worse immediately after he took the medication prescribed to improve the function of his heart.

"I called Dr. Fortuin and I said, 'Nick, I think something is going on,' " Pytel says.

"My body was telling me that something was different."

At Fortuin's suggestion, Pytel halved the dosage, and the pain, he says, diminished.

On Nov. 9, 1995, Pytel visited Fortuin for his scheduled follow-up examination.

When Fortuin listened to his heart with a stethoscope, the previous "galloping noise," indicative of a pathology, was gone.

He ordered an echocardiogram, a test in which heart size and function are measured with sound waves.

Fortuin studied the results of the echocardiogram and, as Pytel recalls, the cardiologist shook his head and said, "Ron, someone has intervened for you. Your heart is normal."

"He said, 'What have you done?' " Pytel recalls.

"And I said, 'A lot of prayer.' And he said, 'Prayer and ?' And I said, 'Prayer and science.' "

Pytel believes his rapid and unexpected recovery is a direct result of his prayers for intercession from the Blessed Faustina.

The chest pains, he believes, signaled his instantaneous recovery and his body's rejection of medication it no longer needed.

Doctor acknowledges faith

Fortuin, a no-nonsense man of science and a taciturn Protestant whose discomfort at publicly discussing his own beliefs is evident, does not discount Pytel's faith.

"I do not deny that his getting well has a lot to do with faith," says Fortuin.

"I would say that spirituality is important for healing."

He acknowledges, too, that he did say, "Father, someone has intervened for you."

But, he says, he did not mean the words precisely as Pytel interpreted them.

"I was, I suppose, playing to my audience," Fortuin says, noting that he had been impressed by Pytel's faith and his calmness before what for most patients is terrifying open-heart surgery.

Nevertheless, Fortuin makes quite clear that Pytel's recovery, though certainly exceptional and unanticipated, is within the realm of medical possibility.

"This is unusual but not even worthy of a case report in medical literature," Fortuin says.

"You might see this kind of recovery in 5 percent of the cases or less."

And what might make the difference in those cases?

Fortuin shrugs. "It's either faith or luck of the draw."

Even so, the case is so unusual medically and Fortuin was so impressed by Pytel's faith and the role that the priest believes it played in his recovery that the cardiologist invited the priest to speak with him before medical students and physicians at Johns Hopkins cardiology grand rounds in September.

"I thought that bringing him in to discuss his faith would be enlightening to a group who is scientifically based," Fortuin says.

"Hearing him, you believe in his absolute dedication to his faith."

Faith and healing

Faith and healing are increasingly being discussed in religious and medical circles.

Numerous studies over the past decade have offered anecdotal evidence that people who have strong spiritual beliefs not only lead healthier lives, less troubled by chronic complaints, but also often have swifter recoveries from serious illness.

Dale A. Matthews, an associate professor of medicine at Georgetown University Medical Center and a senior research fellow at the National Institute for Healthcare Research in Rockville, participated in a study of 212 cases that found a "positive linkage" between faith and health in 75 percent of the cases.

"When we just use a medical approach and don't use a spiritual approach, I think patients suffer," says Matthews, an evangelical Protestant who often prays with his patients.

On the science side of the equation, Matthews notes, "religion probably does produce natural opiates in the brain."

As Time magazine reported in a June cover story, studies suggest that praying induces a relaxation response that lowers the production of so-called "stress hormones" and that, in turn, leads to lower heart rate, blood pressure and respiration.

At the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Dr. Stuart Varon, medical director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Sinai Hospital and an Orthodox Jew, teaches a course entitled "Faith and Medicine."

The course, Varon notes, is designed to teach young doctors to be sensitive to their patients' spiritual needs and to seek out hospital chaplains when questions arise.

"Just as a person who needs a particular medicine won't heal as well if he doesn't get it," says Varon, "so, too, if a person's sense of spirituality is not addressed, when appropriate, that, too, can be a detriment."

Beyond medical explanation

Although doctors and religious authorities alike may credit prayer with enhancing an individual's recovery, such salutary effects of faith are not enough to constitute a miracle, according to the church definition.

The patient's recovery must be beyond medical explanation.

The fact that Pytel's recovery, while remarkable and unexpected, is not unheard-of no doubt will be considered by the fact-finding board and could weigh heavily against the authentication of a miracle, priests familiar with canon law say.

Since Nov. 18, priests, doctors, canon lawyers and others have been spending 10 to 12 hours a day taking sworn testimony and questioning witnesses at the Office of the Tribunal.

Fortuin, who testified before the fact-finding body, speaks highly of the investigators' seriousness and thoroughness.

As judicial vicar, Monsignor Jeremiah Kenney is responsible for conducting the hearings, which are shrouded in secrecy.

'Getting at the facts'

"The decisions about miracles are not formed in the court of public opinion," says Blaul.

"They're arrived at by a very thorough process of getting at the facts."

In fact, it took more than 11 years for the Catholic Church to authenticate the first and only miracle so far attributed to the intercession of the Blessed Faustina.

In that case, Maureen Digan, a Massachusetts woman who suffered from lymphedema melroys, a rare disease that causes massive swelling, was inexplicably cured while praying at the tomb of Sister Faustina in March 1981.

Digan, then 30, had undergone 50 operations, lost her right leg and was in danger of losing her left leg when, at her husband Bob's urging, they traveled to Sister Faustina's tomb in Krakow, Poland.

At the tomb, said Digan, a lapsed Catholic, she thought she heard a voice tell her, "If you want something, ask for it."

Feeling out of sorts, Digan muttered, "If you're going to do something, do it now."

Instantly, she said, the pain and the swelling in her left leg disappeared.

"I didn't have faith. I didn't think it was a healing," said Digan. "I thought I was having a breakdown."

Over the next several years Digan, who now works at the national shrine of the Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, Mass., was examined and questioned by doctors, many of them non-Catholics, who were at a loss to explain what had happened.

Ultimately, the commission of cardinals confirmed Digan's miracle on Oct. 6, 1992, enabling Pope John Paul to beatify Sister Faustina on April 18, 1993.

"I've wondered, 'Why me?' " Digan says.

"And I've never come up with an answer. Maybe it is to show that God's mercy is for everyone, not just the holy people.

"I wasn't holy."

In the past decade, the devotion of the Divine Mercy has gained devotees from Poland to the Philippines.

About 15,000 worshipers gathered last year on Mercy Sunday, the anniversary of Sister Faustina's beatification, at the Stockbridge shrine established by the Congregation of the Marians of the Immaculate Conception.

"The cause [for canonization] has proceeded quickly since the beatification because of the spread of the message of Divine Mercy," says the Rev. Shaun O'Connor MIC, superior of the Marian Scholasticate in Washington, D.C.

It is openly acknowledged that the pope, who has canonized a record 273 saints during his 17-year papacy, has a special affinity for the Polish nun and the devotion of Divine Mercy.

There is even talk, likely wishful, that the pope might dispense with the second miracle usually required for canonization.

Hopes for the future

Meanwhile, at Holy Rosary, the promoters of the devotion of the Divine Mercy are, indeed, hoping for a miracle.

After the Catholic Review reported that Pytel's recovery is being investigated as a potential miracle, the church gift shop, which sells Faustina's diary and other devotionals of Divine Mercy, received numerous inquiries.

Gesy's book on healing, "The Hem of His Garment," which contains a chapter about Pytel's experience, has sold more than 100 copies, gift shop workers say.

Proceeds from the gift shop go toward the $60,000 the church is trying to raise to replace the current shrine at Holy Rosary, a painting of the Divine Mercy on a brass easel, with a shrine more in keeping with the ornate Romanesque architecture of the church.

"We're hoping one day to have people come to make pilgrimages to Holy Rosary," said Victoria Elieson, who runs the gift shop.

Elieson and her husband, Bruce, who is Jewish, donated $25,000 of the $38,000 raised so far.

Dottie Olszewski, who was a driving force behind the establishment of the shrine, prayed for Pytel's recovery during a pilgrimage to Poland in August.

"I made a deal with her," Olszewski says.

"I said if you go to Jesus and get Father Pytel healed, I will spend the rest of my days spreading the message of Divine Mercy and working for you to be canonized."

Olszewski is keeping her end of the bargain. She testified for an hour and a half before the fact-finding committee.

And regardless of what the church ultimately determines, she has no doubts.

"Was this a miracle?" Olszewski says. "Oh, absolutely."

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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