In Venezuela, a quest for sainthood offers proof of miracles

Venezuelans celebrate a milestone in its quest for sainthood for José Gregorio Hernández, the country's beloved "doctor of the poor."

A man makes a sign of the cross in front of a painting of José Gregorio Hernández in the Esperanza neighborhood of Caracas, Venezuela, on April 25, 2021. Hernández was beatified by the Catholic Church on April 30th.

The slim mustachioed man’s presence hung over Caracas last week—in makeshift shrines at local hospitals, on murals painted on city walls, and within the crowd of Venezuelans of all ages cheering, crying, applauding after a ceremony unfolded that put the beloved “doctor of the poor” on a solid path to sainthood—triggering optimism among the faithful.

“People believe that he will bring peace to the country,” says Manaure Quintero, who photographed these scenes for National Geographic.

The beatification of José Gregorio Hernández marks the penultimate step on the road to sainthood in the Catholic Church. Since his death in 1919, Hernández has become an iconic figure in the overwhelmingly Catholic country, where devotees pray to him for healing. (Why Venezuelans are turning to faith as the country’s health crisis deepens.)

Hernández is now the first Venezuelan layman to be beatified—a milestone that comes 72 years after his sainthood petition was first launched. It’s a rare ray of light for the country, which has been in the midst of a political and economic crisis for years and has been hard-hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

In South Florida, home to the largest Venezuelan immigrant community, Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski says the beatification brought “much joy” to Venezuela and its growing diaspora—and offered renewed hope among a population divided by ideology and distance. “In the face of those who bring ruin by their love of power, we find the example in people like this holy doctor of the power of love,” he said.

Now, for Hernández to become a saint, it’ll take a miracle—literally: The Church requires proof of one before it elevates someone to sainthood. Here’s a look at the sainthood case for Venezuela’s beloved doctor of the poor and how the Church decides if a miracle is a miracle.

A beloved doctor and scientist

José Gregorio Hernández was born on October 26, 1864, in a small town about 269 miles west of Caracas called Isnotú. Raised Catholic, Hernández considered becoming a priest but instead pursued a medical career. He received scholarships to study experimental physiology and bacteriology in Europe, then brought his knowledge back to a modernizing Venezuela.

Hernández founded three medical science departments at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas and is credited with introducing Venezuela to the microscope. But in addition to his work as a scientist, Hernández also practiced medicine and became known for treating the needy for free.

Through it all, Hernández remained devout and even flirted with the priesthood again later in life. Legend has it that Hernández offered up his life to God in exchange for the end of World War I. He was hit by a car and died on June 29, 1919, the day after the Treaty of Versailles was signed. Tens of thousands of Venezuelans were said to have attended his funeral.

The doctor’s memory lived on—not just in Venezuela but in its diaspora and throughout other parts of Latin America. His tomb became a pilgrimage site and soon began to spawn folk stories about miracle healings. In 1949, 30 years after his death, the archbishop of Caracas initiated a petition to declare Hernández a saint.

Quintero says that his countrymen’s belief in Hernández has only grown in the years since. Venezuelans pray to the doctor to bring an end to their suffering and claim to see him walking the corridors of local hospitals in his iconic black suit.

“If you live in a place where you don’t trust in hospitals, the other option for relief is faith,” Quintero says. “They feel safe with him.”

The sainthood process

In the Catholic Church, sainthood is an official confirmation that a person has entered God’s eternal presence—basically, that they made it to heaven. Saints are no different from anyone else in heaven, but the title changes how they’re venerated on Earth: The Church can erect shrines to them or designate days in their honor, for example.

The definition of what is holy changes over time, says Kathleen Sprows Cummings, history professor at the University of Notre Dame and author of the book A Saint of Our Own. “We reinvent saints in each age.”

But the long and complicated process for becoming a saint—called canonization—has been roughly the same since the 17th century. It begins at the local level: Anyone can open a petition, but they must convince their bishop that the case for sainthood, called a cause, is worthy. A candidate for sainthood also has to have been dead for at least five years, although the Pope can make exceptions. (Here’s how Mother Teresa’s canonization was fast-tracked.)

Once a cause is open, local investigators comb through their writings and interview everyone who knew them to prove their virtues, including faith, hope, charity, justice, and courage. If these virtues are demonstrated—and the Pope affirms it—a person is declared “venerable.” José Gregorio Hernández was given the distinction in 1986.

That’s when the miracles come in. The Catholic Church requires evidence of one miracle to beatify a prospective saint and then a second to officially canonize them. This can’t be just any miracle either: It involves devotees praying to the prospective saint and asking them to use their pull with God to convince him to carry out the miracle.

“Miracles are a sign that God wants the person canonized,” Cummings says.

Miracles are almost always medical because doctors can testify that there isn’t a scientific explanation for a cure. The harder thing to prove, however, is that healing only could have occurred through divine intervention. Cummings says the Church is more likely to declare a miracle if an injury was beyond hope and healed quickly. For the prospective saint to get credit for it, devotees must swear that they’d prayed only to him or her and no one else.

Once the Pope approves the first miracle, a candidate can be beatified—which means they can be publicly venerated on a local level with churches named after them or shrines dedicated to them. The approval of a second miracle means that someone can officially become a saint and venerated in churches across the world.

The case for Dr. Hernández

Beatification and sainthood are rare honors—in part because it can be so difficult for a case to wind its way through the Vatican’s bureaucracy. The Vatican has rejected several miracles attributed to Hernández; a member of the local miracle review team told the Associated Press in 1997 that at least three miracles had been rejected for errors in the paperwork.

Cummings says it also has to do with who you know. In 2013, Hernández got a boost when Pope Francis appointed Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s ambassador to Venezuela, as Secretary of State. Familiar with Hernández from his time in Venezuela, Cummings says Parolin is thought to have helped the cause along.

“They had someone very close to the top who was in José’s corner,” she says. “That helped.”

Now, Hernández has finally earned his first miracle with the healing of Yaxury Solorzano, a 10-year-old girl who had been shot in the head during a mugging in 2017. Her doctors didn’t expect her survive—and if she did, they believed she would be disabled. But her mother prayed to Hernández and says she heard him tell her that everything would be fine. Within a week of surgery, the girl had recovered completely.

But Cummings says this miracle itself shows how truly beloved Hernández is in Venezuela, explaining that people need to know to pray to your prospective saint in times of trouble and they need to believe in your cause so fully that they would pray to this person and only this person for a miracle.

“That gets to the question of faith,” she says. It shows that Yaxury Solorzano’s mother and other Venezuelans already know that Hernández is a saint—they’re just asking for the Vatican to agree.

In June 2020, it finally did. Pope Francis signed a decree authorizing the beatification of Hernández, which became official last week.

Now, Venezuelan Catholics will still need to prove another miracle for Hernández to officially be declared a saint. Cummings suspects that he will be canonized relatively quickly. Yet she points out that for many Venezuelans beatification—which allows the local church to venerate a person—is likely more important than sainthood.

“Beatification is more than a means to an end,” Cummings says. “To the people who care about him the most, this is the moment that they’ll relish.”

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