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According to the Catholic church, which has made thousands such distinctions in its history, one miracle is required for beatification, two for sainthood. This Sunday more than 300,000 Catholics are expected in Rome for a ceremony beatifying Pope John Paul II, declaring the late pontiff "blessed" based on his first miracle: a French nun with Parkinson's disease wrote his name on a piece of paper before going to bed one night, and woke up the next morning cured.
So the search for the next miracle is on, and the Chicago area has a nominee—Mary Kern, of Lockport, says that prayers to John Paul healed her of a neurological condition that restricted her vision. She's petitioned the Vatican with her story.
In fact, the midwest is ripe with the possibility of miracle. Last year a small shrine in Champion, Wisconsin, claimed the very rare honor of an officially verified Virgin Mary sighting, the first in the U.S.—this one happened in 1859.
The processes of verification and canonization, like much of Catholic lore and ritual, are an intriguing mix of top-down and bottom-up. Saints, sightings, and miracles spring organically from communities of the faithful, and the hierarchy either embraces them or demurs. Care is required in both claim and evaluation: John Paul's successor, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2009 issued guidelines to stem what he saw as an increase in people falsely claiming to have seen the Virgin Mary.
Other miracles have been accorded less weight than the one in Wisconsin. Mary appeared earlier this year in an ice chunk outside a Dearborn Heights, Michigan, storage facility; she showed up under I-74 in Moline in 2006.
And she appeared, famously, in a water stain on Fullerton beneath the Kennedy Expressway in 2005. Mary of the Underpass didn't get much official attention, though she drew an approving nod from Cardinal Francis George. "If it's helpful in reminding people of the Virgin Mary's care for us and love for us, that's wonderful," he said back then.
A month after she appeared, maintenance workers tried to cover her with paint—someone else had scrawled "Big Lie" over a part of the image—but followers fixed both problems with degreaser. The last time I passed she was still there, surrounded by flowers, candles, and concrete.