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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkNews from Around the Americas | May 2007 

Pope Gives Brazil Its First Saint
email this pageprint this pageemail usJack Chang - McClatchy Newspapers

Sandra Grossi de Almeida, followed by her son Enzzo, kisses the hand of Pope Benedict XVI during a canonization mass Friday for Antônio de Sant'Anna Galvão in São Paulo. Enzzo's birth was one of two miracles the church documented to make Galvão a saint. (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)
Brasília, Brazil — As her 8-year-old son, Enzzo, played on the balcony of her apartment, Sandra Grossi de Almeida held up an X-ray that she said proved that his very existence was a miracle.

She pointed to a black wedge that she said was a wall of tissue dividing her uterus, a malformation that should have made it impossible for her to carry a baby for more than four months. Yet Enzzo grew for seven months in a space about half the size of a normal uterus until he was delivered by Caesarean section.

Grossi de Almeida attributes the miracle of her son's birth to a paper "pill" inscribed with a prayer that she ate during her pregnancy. The Vatican agrees, pronouncing Enzzo one of the two miracles needed to declare the creator of the pills, an 18th-century Franciscan monk named Antônio de Sant'Anna Galvão, a saint.

On Friday, while hundreds of thousands of faithful cheered and prayed, Pope Benedict XVI canonized Brazil's first native-born saint on the third day of his five-day tour of the world's biggest Roman Catholic country.

The open-air Mass at the Campo de Marte airfield took on a celebratory air as the 80-year-old pontiff praised Galvão, a Franciscan monk who lived most of his 83 years in São Paulo until he died in 1822.

Many cried upon hearing him formally proclaim Galvão a saint. It was the first canonization ceremony ever outside the Vatican.

Dressed in white, de Almeida and son Enzzo ascended the stage Friday and knelt before the pope to receive his blessing.

A renowned counselor

"He was renowned as a counselor; he was a bringer of peace to souls and families and a dispenser of charity, especially toward the poor and sick," Benedict read in Portuguese to the crowd.

Later in the Mass, Benedict hit a harder note by bringing up the social themes that have marked this visit, his first outside Europe since he became pope two years ago. He assailed what he said was "an age so full of hedonism" and warned Catholics against the "evils that afflict modern life."

He didn't mention abortion, however, an issue that stirred controversy Wednesday when he said that Mexican legislators who voted last month to legalize abortion in Mexico City deserved to be excommunicated.

Despite the admonitions, the Mass became an epic party to celebrate the church's newest saint. Many say it also will be a watershed in the Roman Catholic Church's battle to fight the loss of adherents to fast-growing Pentecostal churches.

Galvão's pills reportedly have cured thousands of Brazilians of everything from depression to hepatitis. His elevation to sainthood will be long-delayed recognition of what many believe is an ongoing miracle that's saved — or bettered — lives for more than two centuries.

Galvão's pills contain this prayer: "After the birth, the Virgin remained intact / Mother of God, intercede on our behalf." They're assembled in five locations around São Paulo state, including by women in Galvão's hometown of Guaratingüetá, who gather every afternoon in a room above the local cathedral. The pills also are made by cloistered nuns at the Convent of Light in São Paulo, where Galvão died in 1832 at age 83.

Believers swallow three seed-sized pills over nine days, during which they recite the prayer printed on the paper.

"A vehicle of faith"

"It's a vehicle of faith," said Grossi de Almeida, who miscarried twice, including losing twins, before Enzzo was born. "You take the pills, and you believe in them, you believe they will make you better and you become stronger in your faith. You know there's a God that helps you."

On a recent afternoon, Maria Carolina da Ressurreição and her husband traveled hours inland to Guaratingüetá from their home on the coast to pick up packets of the pills, which are free, though donations are welcome.

"We've always lived with Friar Galvão and his pills," said da Ressurreição, who has circulatory problems and whose husband is recovering from a heart attack. "We've always asked for his help, and he's always come through."

The canonization capped more than two decades of advocacy by nun Célia Cadorin and other Brazilian church officials who have trumpeted Galvão's story.

The church requires saints to have performed two miracles, and the process of proving them, always after the saint's death, can take centuries. Special cases, such as the ongoing beatification of Pope John Paul II, can be expedited.

The Vatican confirmed the monk's first miracle in 1998, the case of 4-year-old Daniela Cristina da Silva, who reportedly was cured of crippling hepatitis in 1990 after eating one of the monk's pills.

The monk's second proven miracle — Grossi de Almeida's successful pregnancy — was declared last December, clearing his path to sainthood.

Cadorin said she picked the two cases out of nearly 24,000 miracles attributed to the monk because they were the best documented and most inexplicable.

"It was a very scientific process," Cadorin said. "We had to interview witnesses, talk to doctors and scientists and document everything. You have to really prove that, scientifically, the events were impossible."

The church sent Grossi de Almeida to have sonographic images made of her uterus to confirm that it was divided in half. Shown an X-ray image of the uterus by a McClatchy reporter, a Brazilian obstetrician confirmed that the 37-year-old would have been unable to carry a fetus past the fourth month of pregnancy.

Not everyone believes

Skeptics of religion, however, have questioned the process' science.

"Every time someone gets healed and they don't know why, they say it must be God," said Daniel Sottomaior, the vice president of the Round Earth Society, a group of Brazilian scholars who cast a skeptical eye on such phenomena.

"They change the name from ignorance to God. Why not say it was the big alien or the unicorn or the leprechaun?"

Galvão's pills also have had their detractors within the church. Aloísio Lorscheider, an outspoken former archbishop of Aparecida, a neighboring city to Guaratingüetá, called the pill's use "superstition" and prohibited the region's nuns from producing them. The nuns continued to make the pills despite the order.

"I consider it even ridiculous that, in the evolved and progressive days in which we live, there are still people who pursue this," Lorscheider said in a 1998 interview with the newspaper Vale do Paraíba. Lorscheider, now 82, retired in 2004 in poor health, and efforts to interview him were unsuccessful.

The monk started the tradition of the pills in the late 18th century when he wrote his famous prayer on three pieces of paper in São Paulo and asked a woman who was having a difficult pregnancy to eat them. She reportedly went on to give birth to a healthy child. Demand for the pills surged.

The monk's devotees believe that his miraculous powers didn't stop there. They say he levitated while praying, was able to appear in two places at once, could read minds and could witness events where he wasn't physically present.

For more than 150 years, women around Guaratingüetá have passed around a worn-out rope that's believed to have been the monk's belt, tying it around their waists during childbirth for good luck.

People also have chipped off pieces of marble from the walls of the Convent of Light and steeped them in water, which they've drunk like tea.

"This whole emphasis on magic and practical remedies for everyday problems is a very Brazilian approach to religion," popular religions expert Lisias Nogueira Negrão said. "In a country where a great part of people live in poverty, they look for this dimension of magic that can help them just survive. They're less worried about big issues such as morality."

The main question for many Catholics is whether the canonization can revive a church that's lost millions of people to the country's growing Pentecostal congregations. While 125 million Brazilians identified themselves as Catholic in a 2000 census, Brazil became the world's biggest Pentecostal country last year.

The monk's boosters said they were confident that his canonization would reverse that trend.

"Today, with a Brazilian saint and the pope coming, it's a new life for the Catholic Church," said Tom Maia, a distant nephew of the monk who's opened two museums about him in Guaratingüetá and been a leading advocate for his canonization.

"What's happened over the years is with our numeric strength, we Catholics have become too comfortable and we've lost people. But the Brazilian church is waking up."

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