No one expected the sixteen-year-old Chilean girl to recover. At the hospital her family prayed, but she had sustained massive head wounds in a car accident and remained in a deep coma. Doctors asked her parents about the possibility of donating her organs.
At her school, classmates prayed for her recovery to Blessed Alberto Hurtado, a Chilean Jesuit who had spent his life caring for the abandoned, young and old. Ten days after the accident she emerged from the coma. A day later she was home. Her recovery was hailed by many as a miracle.
Her story made its way to the Jesuit Curia, a stout yellow stone building on Borgo Santo Spirito in Rome, and landed on the desk of Fr. Paolo Molinari, SJ, the Jesuits’ postulator general since 1957.
As postulator general, Molinari prepares and oversees the presentation of various causes for sainthood. Many refer to him as the saint maker, but he bristles at the mere mention of the term.
Bl. Alberto Hurtado, SJ, born in Chile in 1901 to an impoverished family, earned a scholarship to the Jesuit college in Santiago and joined the Society of Jesus in 1923. This retreat director, teacher, author, and labor organizer is best known for founding “El Hogar de Cristo,” a home, not just housing, for homeless children in Santiago (he once visited Boys Town in Omaha to study its operations). The project expanded to include hospices for men and women, rehab centers, trade schools, and homes for the aged, and is still a major social service in Chile. Fr. Hurtado, now the namesake of a Jesuit Chilean university, died in 1952 and was beatified in 1994.
I’m not making the saints,” he says emphatically, departing from his usual gentle manner of speaking. “The pope isn’t making saints. It’s God who makes saints. And we have to be very attentive to this point, to what God is doing in the lives of the saints.”
Molinari has spent most of his Jesuit career documenting and presenting the lives of extraordinary Christians, many of them Jesuits, for consideration for beatification. He started in this work in 1957, asked by the then–superior general of the Jesuits Fr. Johann Janssens. The assignment surprised Molinari, who was expecting to work in missions in Japan or Africa with other Jesuits from his home province of Turin.
“When I came here,” he recalls, “the general said, ‘Father, remember this is a job for life.’ I bowed my head and said, ‘Let it be done to me according to your will.’ Then I pulled up my sleeves and started to learn the specific task of this office.”
Aware that that “specific task” might not be well known to the general public, Molinari offers an outline: “After a person has died,” he says, “there must be a widely spread reputation of holiness, a spontaneous recognition by the people of outstanding goodness. The people must instinctively know that the individual conformed his or her life to Christ.”
If this prerequisite exists, Molinari contacts the bishop of the diocese where the individual died and suggests the local Church inquire further into the person’s life. If the bishop convenes a tribunal, Molinari gathers and presents a list of witnesses, all of whom have firsthand knowledge of the person. The bishop appoints experts in historical research to search archives for documents dealing with the potential saint. When the tribunal and research are complete, Molinari writes a positio, a presentation of the individual’s documented life.
“In the positio,” he explains, “is the proof that he or she lived according to the gospel in an outstanding manner.” The positio is next examined by historians and theologians appointed by the Congregation of the Causes of Saints. If it wins their approval, the positio then goes to a group of bishops and cardinals. If they approve as well, the pope can then determine to move the individual toward beatification.
Once beatified, the only thing standing in the way of sainthood is a miracle. That’s right, a miracle.
Molinari explains. “In this process, judgment is passed by human beings, and human beings can make mistakes. The pope wants a miracle as a confirmation of God’s will, a confirmation that the judgment of humans is correct.” But what constitutes a miracle? Molinari again explains.
“A miracle is said to happen when people praying to one of the blessed receive an extraordinary favor.” He points to the young Chilean woman as an example. In 1996, at the time of her accident, Hurtado had been beatified but could not be canonized without a miracle. When Molinari learned of her story, he began researching medical reports and soliciting statements from doctors. One after another said that there was no medical, scientific explanation for the teen’s recovery. Her head had been severely wounded, brain activity reduced to almost nothing. Then, miraculously, she awoke.
Her case was presented to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints and considered by other medical experts and theologians. They examined the story carefully, looking for other plausible explanations. In the end they determined that Bl. Alberto Hurtado must have interceded on her behalf. The miracle’s approval in 2004 means that Hurtado will be canonized in 2005.
Hurtado’s cause is just one of many Jesuit causes Molinari has prepared. He’s recently worked on the causes for Jesuits Tomas Sitjar, a martyr of the Spanish Civil War; Irishman John Sullivan, an Anglican convert who spent most of his priestly life at Clongowes College; and Hyacint Alegre, a Spaniard devoted to the poor who founded a hospice in Barcelona.
Molinari’s work is not limited to the lives of Jesuits, however. Postulators of most religious orders tend to focus on their own congregations, but the three Jesuit generals under whom Molinari has served encouraged him to support the causes of non-Jesuits, he says.
“The generals and I have always felt we could do more,” he explains. “We take care of members of the Society, of course, but the Society of Jesus is for other people, not for the Jesuits. So we have worked for the causes of laypeople or other religious who had great messages for the faithful but may not have had someone taking up their causes.”
Molinari has worked on the causes of Juan Diego of Mexico; Pier Giorgio Frassati, Italian ambassador to Berlin in the 1920s called “the man of the Beatitudes”; Andrew de Phu-Yen, a Vietnamese martyr; Niels Stensen, a Danish convert to Cath-olicism and later an apostolic vicar in Germany; Catherine Drexel, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament who helped African-Americans gain access to higher education; and Pierre Toussaint, a Haitian slave who worked as a hairdresser in New York, spending all he earned to support other Haitians in the country.
Molinari’s work often goes unnoticed, unrecognized. That’s fine with him. What’s important, he says, is that the lives of the saints inspire others to live better lives.
“Think of Mother Theresa,” he says. “Why are people so taken up with her? Because she was transformed into a very successful image of Christ. Because of the outstanding way in which she lived. She drew the attention of Christians, Muslims, Jews, even atheists—people changed their lives because of her. God talked to them through her life and said, ‘Why don’t you act the same way?’
“There is a lot of activity, a lot of stories that we can present to the faithful so God can stir them up and begin to work in their lives. That’s why we work on the lives of the saints, why we present them. That’s why the pope canonizes them. It’s a beautiful mission.”