After sleeping with her fiancé’s brother, Loretta floats into her mother’s Brooklyn kitchen only to hear that her fiancé has returned from Palermo (and his mother’s suddenly vacated deathbed) and is seeking her out.
“She was dying,” Loretta complains. “It was a miracle,” her mother answers in wry amusement. “This is modern times,” says Loretta, “there ain’t supposed to be miracles no more!”
“Well, I guess it ain’t modern times in Sicily.”
Thirty years ago everything about Norman Jewison’s Moonstruck rang true, including that line. Miraculous notions may have seemed possible – and meaningful – in the economically and socially backward ethnic areas of southern Europe and the like, but for sophisticated moderns on the Continent or in North America, prosperity, scientific discovery and secularisation had created a perfect trifecta of resistance to the idea that divine intervention still occurred in an educated world, or needed to.
The speed and growth of such resistance is remarkable considering it has been a mere 99 years – not long when first-world life expectancies average nearly 80 – since the so-called “Miracle of the Sun” occurred in Fatima and was witnessed by an estimated 70,000 people. Fewer than 50 years before that, an uneducated girl in Lourdes reported the appearance of a lady who directed her to dig with her hands into the ground of a filthy grotto, and from the earth came a spring of water that has been the source of at least 69 documented, scientifically investigated and unexplainable healings.
In fact, it is safe to say that – staunch atheists aside – throughout human history and up until the mid-20th century, a measure of credibility was given to some reported miracles, across all classes.
And then public education happened. Travel and communications technologies happened, and seemed to make, dare we say it, miraculous advances in the course of mere generations, so much so that the ideas and inventions referred to as “modern marvels” at the 1964 World’s Fair now look, to our eyes, clunky and antiquated.
To a people who had visited the moon enough to become bored, who had reduced room-sized computers into something small enough to slip into a back pocket and learned to perform major surgical procedures on human beings while barely opening the body, what were miracles, really, but phenomena eventually bound to be understood and then shrugged off as readily as last year’s iThing?
Yet, interestingly enough, the most recent studies indicate that – even amid the rise of the “nones” who claim no religious affiliation – people believe in miracles. In a 2010 Pew study, fully 79 per cent of Americans (and 78 per cent of young adults aged 18 to 29) admitted they believed in miracles. Millennials do seem to believe in life after death, and in heaven and hell, too.
If belief in miracles has never quite diminished to the point suggested in pop culture, then where have they been? Why don’t we hear about them any more?
That’s actually a great question. It stands to reason that much of what was called miraculous in ages past is now understood differently, and this has naturally led to substantially fewer claims, and a greater number of explanations assumed. Joan of Arc might have been accused of sorcery and burned at the stake, but first she was permitted to raise an army and do battle with England in accordance with the voices urging her on. Nowadays she would never get the chance; we’d have her too medicated to form complete sentences, let alone demand artillery.
Then again, a would-be Joan in 2016 might be too distracted by the noise of technology to hear a small still voice spurring her on towards the unthinkable – too blinded by light pollution to ponder stars and galaxies and thus be moved to seek out and serve something greater than herself.
Perhaps the question we should ask is not whether miracles “are making a comeback” but whether they have ever left us? After all, only three years ago, in Poland, a piece of bread, consecrated at Mass, appeared to start bleeding. Lab tests concluded that what appeared as bread was consistent with striated cardiac muscle, species human, and bearing cellular “alterations that often appear as evidence of torture” in medical post-mortems.
We live in a scientific age. What cannot be dismissed only awaits discovery.
Elizabeth Scalia is editor-in-chief of the English edition at aleteia.org. She is a Benedictine Oblate, and the author of Little Sins Mean a Lot: Kicking Our Bad Habits Before They Kick Us and Strange Gods: Unmasking the Idols in Everyday Life.
This article first appeared in the July 8 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.