In Search of Saint Teresa’s Miracle in Brazil

Shobhan Saxena travels to Brazil's South Atlantic coast to look for the man whose miraculous recovery from a serious brain infection is being attributed to the nun from Kolkata – and comes across a story of faith, coincidence, medical inquiry and debates raging within the church.

Father Ferreira (extreme left) is in-charge of a very simple church in an impoverished neighbourhood on the margins of Sao Vicente. Photo: Shobhan Saxena

Father Ferreira (extreme left) is in-charge of a very simple church in an impoverished neighbourhood on the margins of Sao Vicente. Photo: Shobhan Saxena

Note: This article was earlier published in January 2016. We are republishing it in the light of Mother Teresa’s canonisation ceremony in the Vatican today.

São Vicente (Brazil): On a clammy, windless evening in December 2008, when Father Elmiran Ferreira returned to his room after a mass at the Our Lady of Aparecida church, he saw a distraught woman standing at his door. The woman in her early 30s, whom the priest knew as a regular at his church in São Vicente, asked for help as her husband was “slipping into death” in the ICU of a hospital in Santos, a city nearby. The priest asked her to sit with him and pray to Madre Teresa de Calcutá. Then he gave her a photo and a medallion of the Indian nun who was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 2003. “Pray to her,” said Father Elmiran. The next morning – December 10 – when the woman went to the hospital to see her husband, who was in a coma because of a severe viral infection in the brain and due for surgery, he was sitting on his bed and drinking coffee. A couple of days later, without the surgeon’s knife even touching his scalp, he was back home.

Before the couple left the hospital, so goes the story, the man’s symptoms – eight abscesses and excessive fluid in the skull – had all vanished. But, barring the family and a small group of priests and doctors, no one knew this story – until last month.

Almost exactly seven years later, on December 17, the Vatican announced that Pope Francis has acknowledged the Brazilian man’s recovery as the “second miracle attributed to Mother Teresa, which allows her to be considered a saint”. The news was broken in Italy by a Catholic newspaper, Avvenire, which also reported that Mother Teresa’s canonisation could take place in September 2016 in Rome or in India. As the news wires picked up the story the next day, the Brazilian media went into a tizzy as there was no information about the man at the heart of this miracle. The official story so far was sketchy: “a miracle happened in Santos in 2008 because a hopelessly sick man woke up in good health at the hospital after his family prayed to Mother Teresa”. There was no mention of the man’s name, age, profession or where he lived. Nothing about his family and friends either.

The phones at the São Vicente parish and the diocese office in Santos rang the whole night last Friday.

The power of prayer

In the next few days, all Brazilian newspapers are full of stories about the “miracle”, but there is not a word about the man and his location at the moment. There are few details about Mother Teresa’s connection with this part of Brazil. But a few phone calls and messages over Whatsapp and Father Caetano Rizzi, the judicial vicar of Santos who was responsible for overseeing and forwarding the canonisation process to Rome, agreed to meet in person and talk in detail, but discreetly, about the miracle and the man.

It is a muggy day in São Paulo. The highway to Santos, some 70 kms away on the Atlantic coast, snakes through hills and tunnels before sloping into a harbour packed with ships. The biggest port in Latin America, Santos is a city of half-a-million people spread over an area of 280 sq km. After running along the shipyards, beyond which lie blue waters, the road branches off into a street in Jabaquara, a rundown patch of small houses and cheap eateries. In the middle of this rough stretch is a massive block of green pitches framed by high walls. This is the training ground of the legendary Santos Football Club. Called the King Pelé Training Facility, it extends till the end of the street, where stands a simple, cream-coloured building. This is the Church of Jesus Crucificado. Father Caetano, the vicar, emerged from a door adjacent to the chapel and ushered me in with a smile.

Father Caetano Rizzi, who holds a doctorate in canonization law, is a die-hard fan of Palmeiras and Gremio football clubs. Photo: Shobhan Saxena

Father Caetano Rizzi, who holds a doctorate in canonization law, is a die-hard fan of Palmeiras and Gremio football clubs. Photo: Shobhan Saxena

Silver-haired, jovial and wearing a T-shirt, the priest is “happy to welcome a journalist from Mother Teresa’s country” into his home, a spacious flat with simple furniture, a big-screen TV, Catholic images and figurines on cabinets, relics in cupboards, and a foot-high statue of Mother Teresa on the dining table. Also planted among the metallic crucifixes and porcelain angels are the flags of Palmeiras and Gremio football clubs. “Unfortunately, he is not here. He is in Rio,” says Father Caetano, talking about the man as he eases himself into a chair. “He is very shy and not ready to talk yet. He is worried about the safety of his family. I can’t reveal his name or photo at this moment,” the priest tells The Wire. “He may talk to the media later,” says the priest, before revealing that the man is 42 years of age, an engineer by profession, of Lebanese origin and works and lives with his wife and two children in Rio.

No more information about the man is shared – on the record. But Father Caetano has all the details about the miracle on his fingertips, though seven years have passed since it happened. It was pure coincidence that in 2008, he says, the man went on his honeymoon to the priest’s hometown, Gramado in southern Brazil. There as he fell seriously sick, he was rushed to Sao Lucas hospital in Santos. “He was diagnosed with hydrocephalus (accumulation of fluid) and eight abscesses in the brain,” says the priest. “By December 9, he was in a coma and dying.”

Erudite and articulate, Father Caetano talks in a matter-of-fact manner, without a hint of doubt about what happened. “At 6:10 pm on December 8, 2008, he was taken to the operation theatre, but the doctors could not perform the tracheal intubation for anaesthesia. Precisely between 6: 10 and 6: 40 pm, the patient’s wife went to her church, and prayed to Mother Teresa for the health of her husband. At 6:40 pm, when the doctors returned to the surgery to retry the procedure, they found him awake and without pain. The patient asked the doctor, ‘What I am doing here?”’ says Father Caetano, his tone going soft now. “It was a miracle.”

The miracle, says the priest, didn’t just save the man’s life, it gave him a new direction: his blinding headaches stopped, he found a good job in Rio, and, “despite the tests that showed a state of sterility due to prolonged treatments, the couple have two healthy children born in 2009 and 2012”. Now the priest’s voice is choking and eyes turning red. “This is Mother Teresa’s miracle. I am very fortunate to be part of it,” says Father Caetano, his voice barely audible and eyes all welled up. “This story is too emotional for me.”

In the following weeks and months and years, the story of the patient’s miraculous recovery spread throughout the parishes in the Santos diocese and beyond, but nobody thought of reporting it to the Vatican.

It was by another coincidence that the ‘miracle’ story would move forward. In July 2013, Pope Francis travelled to Rio de Janeiro to attend World Youth Day, a big Catholic event which attracted millions from across Latin America. During the visit, a Rio-based neurosurgeon, José Augusto Nasser was appointed as the pope’s personal physician. By sheer chance, says Father Caetano, the Santos man – now based in Rio – was under the regular care of Dr Nasser. A devout Catholic, the neurosurgeon had been convinced that the engineer’s recovery without surgery was “definitely divine intervention”. The doctor narrated the story to the Pope. He also sent a report to the Vatican.

Dr Nasser’s meeting with Pope Francis could be a coincidence but the his decision to travel to Rio on his first international engagement was anything but chance. It’s no secret that Brazil is the biggest Catholic country in the world. But in the past 20 years or so, the rise of evangelical movements have shaken the Catholic Church, with the number of faithful falling from 85% to 63%. The dramatic rise of Baptist and Presbyterian churches has weaned away millions, especially the poor, from Catholicism. It’s the same story across Latin America – from Mexico to Argentina. So, it was no coincidence that Pope Francis, the first head of the Vatican from Latin America, chose the region, where 40% of the world’s Catholics live, for his first visit and focused his talks on poverty, inequality and social justice.

Faith and science

Lunch hour has come and gone, but Father Caetano hasn’t taken a break since morning. His phone rings continuously. Journalists from all over the country are calling to talk about the engineer. The priest repeats his answers: “not now”. He is more interested in talking about the process of Mother Teresa’s canonisation. The pope’s visit to Rio might have initiated the process, says the priest, but first the miracle had to be proved as such. “The first approximation of the phenomenon called miracle is that healing happened instantly, perfect, lasting and inexplicable scientifically,” informs the vicar.

In the world of churches and priests, proving a miracle is a long process in which faith and science play equal role, without one affecting – or doubting – the other.

In June this year, two years after the papal visit to Rio, Father Caetano received a call from Rome telling him that the church was looking at a possible miracle attributed to Mother Teresa. A week later, three Vatican representatives landed in Brazil to look at the evidence. They heard testimonies from Father Elmiran, 14 other witnesses, medical experts and theologians. On June 26, the process ended and the representatives returned to Rome. “A 400-page case was sent to the Vatican. A medical team there, comprising seven doctors and theologians, went through the findings and concurred that there was indeed a miracle,” says Father Caetano, his eyes turning wet again.

The five-member panel that carried out the investigation included three priests: Monsignor Robert Sarno, Father Brian Kolodiejchuk and Father Giancarllo Rizinelli. It also had two doctors: Marcus Vinicius Serra, a neurosurgeon who had treated the patient, and Dr Monica Mazzurana Benetti, a surgeon brought in as a specialist to examine the man’s current health. In their report, both the doctors wrote that there “is no scientific explanation for the healing of the man”.

So, in the opinion of the doctors, it was a miracle.

As Dr Benetti had not known or treated the patient earlier, her evidence was crucial. A phone call from Father Caetano, who happens to be the doctor’s uncle, and a meeting is fixed.

A sheet of light drizzle is hanging over Santos and the roads are all empty in this part of the city. But beyond the street of Jabaquara, traffic is buzzing on a wide boulevard that heads to the ocean. Dr Benetti and her husband Gustavo, an architect, live in an upscale apartment in a posh tower on this avenue. After a round of coffee and a little chat about India, Dr Benetti begins to describe how the whole process was conducted within the Diocese of Santos. At the first meeting of the group, she says, all members swore on the Bible that they would not reveal their findings to others in the group. In addition to performing clinical and neurological tests on the man, Dr Benetti also spent days examining his tomography records. “He had brain tumors. The mortality rate is very high in such cases, especially when the patient goes into a coma. It’s unbelievable that after two days, neurological images change completely. When I saw the difference, I knelt on my knees and thanked god. It was extraordinary,” she says.

Dr Monica Benetti at her home in an upscale building on the main boulevard of Santos. Photo: Shobhan Saxena

Dr Monica Benetti at her home in an upscale building on the main boulevard of Santos. Photo: Shobhan Saxena

Highly-educated and extremely well-spoken, Dr Benetti sees no conflict in the facts that she is a practicing Catholic and also Father Caetnao’s niece. “When I joined the group, the Monsignor Sarno asked me to forget that I was Catholic. My role was absolutely scientific. We are surprised by the facts, but my opinion is not affected by my faith. What is important is that you have no way to scientifically explain what happened.”

Like Father Caetano, his niece and her husband too come from Gramado in the southern state of Rio Grande de Sul, which has large pockets of Italian-origin people who arrived there in the late 19th century. The area has pockets of strong Catholic influence. Dr Benetti doesn’t see any contradiction between her faith and profession. “You can be an excellent doctor and a good Catholic. Often doctors are more skeptical in such situations, but when you see the miracle as something real, you see the power of god. After all the tests, I was convinced it was a miracle,” says Dr Benetti, with tears trickling down her face. She composes herself and says, “I believed in miracles. Now I have seen one.”

A city of miracles

Miracles are nothing new in Santos. This coastal city is famous all over the world for producing two miracles in football – the other big religion in Brazil. Santos FC, founded in 1912 and for long a symbol of the jogo bonito (the beautiful game), witnessed a miracle in 1956 when a local coach brought a 15-year-old boy named Edson Arantes do Nascimento to the club and told its directors that the lad would be the “greatest football player in the world”. His words were prophetic. The same year, the Afro-Brazilian boy scored the first of his record 1,281 goals. The world knows this miracle as Pelé.

The second football miracle happened in 2003, when a man called Neymar da Silva Santos took his 11-year-old son to the club. In 2009, at the age of 17, the boy made his debut for Santos FC and became a national sensation. Today, he is known as Neymar Jr.

It is probably just a coincidence that Santos FC shares its boundary with the church at the heart of Mother Teresa’s miracle. But this is not the first religious miracle in this city. In 2000, Josephine Margaret Bakhita, a Sudanese-born former slave who worked as a Catholic sister in Italy for 45 years, was declared a saint by the Vatican. The miracle attributed to Saint Josephine happened in Santos in 1992, when a local woman “miraculously recovered from ulcers of the lower limbs caused by diabetes and hypertension”.

A photo of Saint Josephine Bakhita, who was canonise as a saint in 2000 after a miracle attributed to her happened in Santos, in Father Caetano’s cupboard. Photo: Shobhan Saxena

A photo in Father Caetano’s cupboard of Saint Josephine Bakhita, who was canonised as a saint in 2000 after a miracle attributed to her happened in Santos. Photo: Shobhan Saxena

Coincidentally, the case for that miracle too was overseen by Father Caetano, who at that time held a master’s degree in canon law. “I have been fortunate enough to be involved in the canonisation of two saints,” says Father Caetano, pointing at the image and relic of the African saint in his cupboard.

Though Saint Josephine was the first nun to become a saint because of a miracle in Santos, her presence here is limited to churches and cupboards. Mother Teresa, yet to be made a saint, is another story. The nun, who was born in an Albanian family in Macedonia and worked among the poor in Kolkata till her death in 1997, is a living force in this part of Brazil. It’s quite a common to see Indian nuns draped in blue-bordered white saris, walking the streets or working in the slums. Close to São Vicente, there is a cluster of poor houses where the nuns from the Missionaries of Charity (MC) have been working for years. They regularly visit the São Vicente church, where Father Elmiran works.

Once a little hamlet of indigenous tribes, São Vicente became the first European settlement in the Americas in 1532. Known as “Port of the Slaves”, it was the first organised town in Brazil. Today, located to the west of Santos, it’s the poorer backyard of the much larger and richer port city. The road to São Vicente climbs a mountain which is covered with a thick virgin forest but appears even denser in the falling rain. After an hour’s drive, the road descends, passes through some leafy pockets before slipping into a modest part of the town. On a treeless street, the church of Our Lady of Aparecida is a simple building, painted in white with a thin blue line running around the window frames and doors, just like the sari of the MC nuns.

São Vicente. Credit: Mathieu Bertrand Struck/Flickr CC 2.0

São Vicente. Credit: Mathieu Bertrand Struck/Flickr CC 2.0

It was at this church that the engineer’s wife had approached Father Elmiran when her husband was in a coma. Tall, wiry and wearing a cheap beige jacket, Father Elmiran is a man of few words. But he remembers that day clearly. “I had come back from a prayer with the nuns at the Missionaries of Charity and had a medal that was given to me by the sisters in my pocket,” recalls the priest, adding that he gave the medal to the patient’s wife. “I told her that we should pray and ask God for a miracle. I also gave her a relic of Mother Teresa. She put it under her husband’s pillow,” he recalls, his eyes glowing and a soft smile appearing on his thin face. “It was certainly a divine miracle through Mother Teresa. We prayed a lot to do it.”

Based at a community about half-an-hour or so drive from São Vicente, the MC sisters are regularly seen at the church. But they keep a low profile. They don’t want to talk to the media. Father Elmiran too gives few details about the man’s family, who live in the town and are well-known to him, as “they have requested privacy”.

The long search

The engineer and his family are in Rio, but no one in the town knows how to reach him. On a Whatsapp group of journalists, there are rumours of the man giving an interview to a big Brazilian newspaper and a weekend news show but days pass without anything appearing in public. In the meantime, a source provided me the email address of the man. Made of letters and numerals, it gives no clue about his identity. A mail is sent. After 12 hours comes back a terse reply. “I will talk to you. Please send me your questions. Hugs,” says the unsigned mail. A day later, after the questions have been sent, comes another mail, promising to send answers the next day. It also advises me to contact Dom Roberto Lopes “in case of any doubt”.

Dom Roberto Lopes, the episcopal vicar of Rio, is now in-charge of all communication with the man to avoid any confusion. When the answers, as promised by the man, did not reach my mail box, I contacted Dom Roberto. He gets back quickly: “Do not worry. He will reply to you. He will also try to talk to you by phone.”

But in the next 24 hours, before any mail or call from the man, an Italian news agency, Zenit, reveals his identity as “Marcilio Haddad Andrino, a 42-year-old engineer who works with the federal government and lives with his wife and children in Rio”. All hell breaks loose as reporters rush to find Marcilio’s address and try to download photos from his Facebook page. Then his brother Maurice appears on TV to say that the family does not “want to comment” on the case. “This issue is being handled by the church to avoid different sources of information that can cause problems,” Maurice Andrino says on television. “We want our privacy.”

With his name out, Marcilio, who has not given any interview so far and asked for discretion from his family and friends, is taking no chances. He changes his name on his Facebook page, replaces his profile photo with an image of Rio and blocks his personal information. Only a few facts are still accessible: he holds a PhD in mechanical engineering from the University of Campinas in São Paulo, likes football, samba and Playstation.

Now the chances of an interview with Marcilio Haddad are even bleaker. But then a message comes from him: “I have been travelling, but will get back to you soon”.

Mother Teresa’s relic, a medallion and photo that were given to the family by Father Elmiran, at the Sao Vicente church. Source: Dioscese of Santos, Sao Paulo

Mother Teresa’s relic, a medallion and photo that were given to the family by Father Elmiran, at the São Vicente church. Source: Dioscese of Santos, São Paulo

Since all the details about the miracle – from his sickness to recovery – have already been provided by the two priests and doctors, our email chat is focused on Mother Teresa, the Indian nun behind the miracle in his life. When asked how an award-winning engineer with a doctorate from one of the best universities in South America turned to Mother Teresa for help, Marcilio says: “I have known about Mother Teresa from a very young age. I knew about her work with the poor and in the service of others. After she died, I got even more interested in her life and work. So, when I was in a difficult phase of my life, my family, the pastor of Our Lady of Aparecida church and the whole congregation prayed for me. Mother Teresa gave us spiritual comfort and hope.”

In his first and only interview so far, Marcilio tells The Wire that he is absolutely sure that it was the prayers to Mother Teresa that gave him a new life. “Right now, I am in good health. I live a normal life. I work and have a healthy social life, have a good time with my family, with the grace of god and Mother Teresa.”

Though convinced since 2008 that it was a miracle that saved his life, Marcilio never imagined that one day he would be at the centre of Mother Teresa’s canonisation, which may bring a lot attention and fame. He doesn’t see it that way. He says he doesn’t want attention. “I have a feeling of gratitude. The canonisation of Mother Teresa will help all the people to look at others with love and mercy. We can share what we have and appreciate the grace and miracle of life,” says Marcilio.

Justice versus charity

The first miracle attributed to Mother Teresa happened in India in 1998, when a woman, who had a huge abdominal tumour, got suddenly cured after sisters of the Missionaries of Charity prayed to their founder to help the sick woman. It’s common knowledge that the church has been on a lookout for the second miracle to complete the sainthood process.

Few expected it to happen in Santos. Or in Brazil, eight time zones away from Kolkata.

But then few outside Brazil know about the Missionary sisters’ presence and influence in this country. Not just nuns, São Paulo, the biggest and richest state, has a good number of priests – all from Kerala – working in several parishes. Like the MC nuns, the Indian priests, too, landed here in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They were sent here by the Vatican, so goes the official story, to “meet the shortage of priests” in Brazil.

The shortage – and demand for Indian priests – started in the late 1970s when the church here was caught in a raging debate about religion and politics. In the 1960s and 1970s, a sizeable group of priests in Brazil had joined a movement known as Liberation Theology, which made social justice and economic equality the focus of their work. Also known as “Marxist priests”, the Liberationists were seen as a challenge by John Paul II, when he assumed the papacy in 1978. In an article, “The retreat of Liberation Theology”, Edward A. Lynch, an American professor, says the Vatican crushed liberation theology by promoting the Pope’s idea that “justice must give way to charity”. Since 1978, wrote Lynch in 1994, John Paul II replaced “progressives” with conservatives in many archdioceses. And a year later, Mother Teresa, having won the Nobel Peace Prize for her charity work, visited São Paulo. Soon the MC began to arrive in São Paulo and Santos, the place of the miracle that will make Mother Teresa a saint.

Is it again just a coincidence that Mother Teresa is being canonised when the Catholic Church is undergoing a big change?  Since taking over the Vatican in 2013, Pope Francis has shifted the church’s focus to poverty and inequality, rehabilitated liberation theology and involved Leonardo Boff, the leading Brazilian “leftist” priest who was once ordered to keep “obsequious silence”, in the preparation of documents on the environment. In the new scheme of things under Pope Francis “justice” and “charity” can go hand-in-hand. That’s why the church has decided to celebrate 2016 as the “Year of Mercy”. And who could be better candidate for it to elevate to sainthood in such times than Madre Teresa de Calcutá?

Shobhan Saxena is an independent journalist based at São Paulo, Brazil