Papal physician explains doctors’ role in sainthood

 VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The path to sainthood passes through a team of physicians, who pore over medical texts, patient charts and test results to make sure a healing is medically inexplicable.

That does not mean the medical experts declare a miracle, because “the recognition of a miracle is not a matter for medical science,” said Dr. Patrizio Polisca, president of the group of physicians who serve as consultants to the Vatican Congregation for Saints’ Causes.

The doctor wrote about the physicians’ role in the sainthood process in the June 13-14 edition of L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper. The Vatican announced June 15 that Polisca, a cardiologist, was named Pope Benedict XVI’s personal physician.

Writing about sainthood causes, Polisca said that while medical science and knowledge have changed enormously in the past few decades, the criteria for miraculous healings still follow those laid out 275 years ago by Cardinal Prospero Lambertini, the future Pope Benedict XIV.

Local Catholic doctors helping promote devotion to St. Gianna

An enthronement ceremony for St. Gianna Beretta Molla held here last weekend signals the beginning of what one Catholic layman hopes will become a widespread national effort to promote the saint in the medical field and elsewhere.

About 50 physicians and others attended the ceremony held at The Center for Cancer Care and Research in West County. Archbishop Raymond L. Burke presided at the March 7 event.

Thomas McKenna of San Diego is co-founder and president of the newly formed St. Gianna Physicians Guild, which was behind last weekend’s enthronement and several other events held over the weekend to promote the guild and the life of the saint.

The vision of the guild, said McKenna, is to provide physicians and other health care workers the opportunity to more strongly draw their faith into their lives and medical practices.

Dr. C. Paul Morrow, an internationally known gynecologic oncologist from the University of Southern California, is the organization’s co-founder and vice president. Archbishop Burke also serves as the group’s episcopal adviser.

The guild, said the archbishop, "is important because it provides a spiritual program for physicians to support them in their care for the sick ... after the example of our Lord himself."

The guild also "provides Catholic physicians an avenue to know one another and encourage one another and discuss mutual concerns with one another," said the archbishop.

"We want to give support and encourage Catholic physicians to practice in a manner that’s consistent with the teachings of the Church," said Morrow, who was at the enthronement ceremony here. "That’s a very difficult thing to do in the environment today."

As an Italian physician, wife and mother, St. Gianna was best known for choosing a medical procedure to treat a uterine tumor that would not take the life of her unborn child, Gianna Emanuela.

St. Gianna’s death has been called a testament to the value of the unborn. St. Gianna died in 1962 at age 39, a week after Gianna Emanuela was born. Pope John Paul II canonized her in 2004.

McKenna noted that the organization wants to offer enthronement ceremonies to other Catholic doctors’ offices, Catholic hospitals and even churches and other Catholic institutions. A home enthronement program also is in the works.

Doctors who join the guild also must sign a "Catholic Hippocratic Oath," a document drafted by Morrow that requires them to affirm their adherence to the teachings of the Catholic Church. It is based on the age-old oath drafted by Hippocrates and traditionally taken by physicians for the ethical practice of medicine.

At last weekend’s enthronement ceremony at The Center for Cancer Care and Research, a framed image of St. Gianna holding her daughter Mariolina and a second-class relic of a tiny piece of her clothing were hung in the main lobby of the doctors’ offices.

The private practice includes several Catholic physicians. Dr. Frederick Zivnuska, a member of St. Francis de Sales Oratory in South St. Louis, headed the effort to have the enthronement at their offices. Other doctors in the practice are Leonard White, Alfred Greco, Nelida Sjak-Shie, Kevin Easley and John Eckardt.

"At The Cancer Care Center we know that the Church’s relic and learning example about the exemplary life of St. Gianna will help patients and their loving families embrace the joys and sorrows of the cross God has given each of them," said Zivnuska. "May all of us who work here benefit from the kindness St. Gianna showed to her own patients when she practiced medicine."

"The enthronement is a way to have the presence of St. Gianna in your medical practice," he said. "Having a picture of St. Gianna — everyone wants to know, ‘What is this beautiful picture here?’"

McKenna also shared with those at the ceremony a slide show on the life of St. Gianna, including pictures of where she lived and worked. McKenna has developed a relationship with the saint’s family over the years and has visited with them several times. Archbishop Burke accompanied McKenna on one trip.

McKenna said St. Gianna’s daughter, Gianna Emanuela, called her mother "a saint not only because she offered her life, but that she lived her life practicing virtue in a very heroic way."

In addition to being involved with the Catholic Action movement in Italy, St. Gianna also was charitable with her patients, often giving them the money to buy costly prescription drugs and driving all over town in her little Fiat to care for them. She also talked several women out of having an abortion.

"Her life was filled with little stories like that," said McKenna.

Among those at the enthronement were Drs. John Dickinson and Courtney Voelker, both resident physicians at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. The two young adults said that they are eager to learn more about St. Gianna and hope to use her as an example in living out their personal and professional lives.

Dickinson, who attends St. Francis de Sales Oratory, called St. Gianna "a very practical saint" and a "wonderful example to bring into practice and my own personal life."

Voelker said of the guild: "Physicians oftentimes don’t have a chance to reach out in fellowship to each other. This is a way to meet and encourage each other in our journey."

Also held last weekend was a private reception March 8 at the archbishop’s residence for more than a dozen doctors and others, during which McKenna introduced them to the guild.

The weekend wrapped up with a March 9 afternoon presentation by McKenna to about 50 people at the Cardinal Rigali Center in Shrewsbury. The event was sponsored by the archdiocesan Respect Life Apostolate.

"I look forward to collaborating with Thomas McKenna and the St. Gianna Physicians Guild to spread a devotion to St. Gianna in St. Louis," said Christina Heddell, director of the respect Life Apostolate. "She is a beautiful example of heroic love, which makes her a powerful intercessor for all people working to defend human dignity.

"I hope that many laypeople will develop a devotion to St. Gianna," said Heddell. "She is easy to relate to since she was a laywoman with a career and a vocation to marriage and motherhood."

For more information on the St. Gianna Physicians Guild, visit or call Thomas McKenna at (858) 401-9641. Or write to St. Gianna Physicians Guild, P.O. Box 910308, San Diego, Calif., 92191.

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