Becoming a saint just ain’t what it used to be. In the past, according to the canon law of the early 20th century, any prospective saint needed as many as six acts deemed miraculous, depending on the strength of the evidence for each miracle.
But with science and medicine taking so much of the credit these days for incredible recoveries from illness and other unlikely events, a current potential saint needs one miracle to be beatified and a second to be canonized, as canon lawyer Cathy Caridi explains. And even that line can be bent a bit: In cases of truly virtuous people, the pope can override the miracle requirement, as Pope Francis did with Pope John XXIII last year.
Under these conditions, three of the past ten popes have achieved sainthood; one has been beatified.
Miracles didn’t become a common qualifier for canonization until the 12th century, when the church had become powerful and popular enough that martyrdom was launching fewer exceptional Christians into sainthood. Instead, a life of piety and miracles after death became the main criteria by which potential saints were judged. But that doesn’t mean that first millennium popes weren’t performing miraculous feats. Some early papal miracles were even more astounding than more modern ones. Here we have collected an incomplete accounting of miracles performed by popes, arranged in order of increasing wonder, awe and amazement.
12. Pope Fabian I
Miracle: Was made pope when a dove landed on his head
Fabian was a layman—a Roman soldier—but when he attended the synod that was meeting, in the year 236, to elect a new pope, a dove flew into the room and landed on his head, a miraculous sign that this otherwise unknown man should be elected the next pope.
11. Pope Urban I
Miracle: Knocked down an idol that killed 22 people
Towards the end of his life, in 230, Urban and his followers had been imprisoned and brought before an idol, to pray. Instead, Urban prayed to the Christian God, and the idol fell down, killing 22 priests.
10. Pope Pius V
Miracle: Beat the Ottomans, and knew it
In October of 1571, the Vatican, along with its European allies, went into battle against the Ottoman navy, which was aiming to take over more of the continent, starting with Italy. The Pope led prayers for Christian victory—and when the European forces did triumph, he announced it before the news had returned from the battlefield.
9. Pope Alexander I
Miracle: Escaped a well-guarded prison cell
Early in the second century A.D., after Alexander had converted a Roman governor, Hermes, and his 1,500 person household, the emperor sent an official to investigate. The official put Alexander in jail and Hermes in the custody of another high-ranking official, Quirinus. Hermes asserted that Alexander could escape jail, with the help of Jesus Christ, and Quirinus accepted the challenge, doubling the guard. When he came back, Alexander was in the same room with Hermes.
8. Agapetus I
Miracle: Made a paralyzed man walk
In the early 6th century, a paralyzed man was brought to pope; after Mass, the pope took the man by the hand, and he was able to stand up.
7. John XXIII
Miracle: Cured a dying 23-year-old nun
In 1966, an Italian nun was on the verge of death, from a gastric hemorrhage, when another nun took a relic of the recently deceased pope and put it on the stomach of her suffering sister. Within days, the director of the hospital says, she saw Pope John in a vision and the suffering nun’s condition disappeared.
6. John Paul II
Miracle: Cured Parkinson’s and a brain aneurysm
Pope John Paul II died in 2005 of Parkinson’s, and three months later, Sister Marie Simon Pierre, who suffered from the same disease, prayed to him; one day, she woke up able to move again. Later, doctors told a woman in Costa Rica, Floribeth Mora Diaz, that she would die within days, of a brain aneurysm; she prayed to the pope, heard his voice tell her not to be afraid, and was healed, with no medical explanation.
5. Pope Celestine V
Miracle: Sheer number (7 dubious miracles, 11 real ones)
Celestine V, a monk and hermit, was pope for just five months of 1294, before abdicating the office. In his 1313 canonization hearing, a panel considered 18 miracles; they only approved 11. One allegedly miraculous cure might have actually been a medical success; others had too few or contradictory witness. Still, 11 miracles isn’t bad.
4. Pope Pius X
Miracle: Cured a paralyzed child, etc.
After Pius X became pope in 1903, he was credited with many healing miracles. He returned a man’s paralyzed arm to life and cured an Irish girl covered with sores. His sock cured another girl’s foot disease. A nun with abdominal cancer was cured after she swallowed a bit of his clothing. Another was curid of a hip disease after one of her young students asked the pope to pray for her. He blessed two ailing nuns who were so restored that the driver who took them to see the pope didn’t believe they were the same people when they came out. One of his most dramatic healing miracles, though, was curing a child who had been paralyzed since birth. He sat on the pope’s lap and within a few minutes started running around the room.
3. Pope Cornelius I
Miracle: His statue blessed the marriage of an unlikely couple
In medieval Germany, a lord’s daughter fell in love with an artist hired to decorate a chapel dedicated to Cornelius, a third-century pope. The lord said he would not give his blessing to the marriage unless the pope did; a devotional statue of Cornelius bowed from the altar and blessed the couple
2. Pope Gregory II
Miracle: Made Christian soldiers immune to Muslim enemies
In 720, when the Duke of Aquitaine was heading into battle against a Muslim army, he fed his soldiers bits of three pieces of bread that Pope Gregory II had blessed, and everyone who ate that bread survived the battle with a wound.
1. Pope Clement I
Miracle: Underwater tomb revealed by ebbing sea
After he was martyred and thrown into the Black Sea in 101 A.D., the waters of the sea receded until they revealed a marble tomb, where Clement’s body was found in a stone coffin. Every year after, once a year, the sea would recede and reveal the shrine.