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Faith of Atheists, Faith of Christians

The famous French atheist Felix Michaud once stated that the regrowth of an amputated leg would be one miracle that nobody could question, but he was convinced that no such case had ever been documented and, in all certainty, never would.

Similarly, the leading nineteenth-century positivist, neurologist Martin Charcot, ridiculed the healings at Lourdes, claiming that he had never come across an instance of an amputated limb growing back. In the same way, the French novelist Emile Zola went to Lourdes with the intention of exposing the alleged healings as illusions, hallucinations, and the fraudulent fruits of religious fanaticism. On observing the hundreds of votive offerings hanging in the Grotto where Our Blessed Mother appeared, he is reported to have quipped,” I see many walking canes and crutches, but I do not see one wooden leg.”

These avowed atheists believed that science was capable of explaining all of life’s mysteries; in time it would eliminate all “Catholic superstition.” It would take — they claimed — an empirically proven fact, such as an amputated limb restored to a living body, to prove the existence of the supernatural, and of course they were certain this could never happen. This certainty shared by all “freethinkers” arises out of their blind faith in doctrinaire atheism. And yet, amazing as it may sound, it is simply not true that amputated limbs or pieces of bone with their muscles, skin, nerves, and blood vessels have never grown back or been restored to living bodies. Precisely such miracles have been documented by science.

One of the most thoroughly researched and documented miracles was the instantaneous healing of Peter van Rudder, a gardener in the employ of Viscount Alberich du Bus, in the Flemish town of Jabbecke. On February 16, 1867, a falling tree crushed the shin and splint bones of his left leg so badly that six centimeters of bone structure was destroyed beyond repair, resulting in a horrifying, festering wound. A medical team headed by the royal family’s personal surgeon, Dr. Thriart, decided to amputate the broken limb immediately. The patient, however, resolutely refused to undergo the surgery and, for the next eight years, despite enormous suffering, forestalled every attempt to have his leg removed. All this time his sense of trust and total devotion to the Virgin Mary grew ever deeper. On April 17, 1875, braving agonizing pain, van Rudder set out with his wife for Oostaker, the site of a replica of the Grotto of Lourdes. On reaching his destination, he prayed earnestly before the statue of Our Lady, begging forgiveness for his sins and the means of being able to support his large family. Suddenly, he felt a strange thrill running through his body. Throwing down his crutches, he ran up to the figure of Our Lady and knelt down at her feet. A loud cry from his wife, who was standing nearby, alerted him to the fact that a miracle had taken place and that he was healed.

A medical examination confirmed Peter’s total cure. In a single moment, over six centimeters of missing bone was restored to his leg together with the tendons, blood vessels, muscle, and skin — all this out of nowhere. Further scientific investigation reconfirmed his complete and instantaneous healing, including the replacement of the missing bone structure of his left leg. On seeing what had happened to his employee, Van Viscount Alberich du Bus, a senior member of the Masonic Lodge, converted to Catholicism.

Many similar miraculous healings have occurred in the history of the Church. Noteworthy among them is the meticulously researched miracle of an amputated leg restored to its owner two and a half years after its removal. This occurred in the Spanish town of Calanda, located 100 kilometers from Saragossa. We will take a more detailed look at this extraordinary event in the following article.

When a believer in God encounters an event or fact that bears the signs of a miracle, he does not confine himself to the supernatural realm, but remains open to an ever-fuller disclosure of a Mystery. He remains free to explore further manifestations of the Truth. As St John of the Cross observes, those who wish to attain to the Truth “must believe in the existence of God, who is subject neither to the laws of reason, nor to the will, nor to the imagination, nor to any of the senses. We cannot comprehend God in this life. God is unknowable in this life. Even the most sublime experiences and intuitions of Him fall infinitely short of the One He really is.” Only through the arduous ascent of faith do we undergo a process of spiritual growth and discovery of the supernatural reality of God, which is inaccessible to natural reason alone.

On the other hand, the atheist who rejects the existence of God and the very possibility of miraculous events remains a prisoner of his own doctrinaire thinking. He limits the range and latitude of his search for Truth, for he assumes a priori that the supernatural cannot exist, since it lies outside of man’s empirical experience. Thus he remains closed to the ultimate knowledge of Truth. He is a slave to his own ideology.

Many atheists feel driven to mount zealous crusades against belief in God, religion, and believers in general. Enslaved by their ideology, they seek to salve their tormented consciences by radically rejecting the possibility of discovering the spiritual world by the means proposed by faith. This explains why atheists so vehemently deny the veracity of well-documented miracles or any other fact that might cast doubt on their beliefs.

By contrast, those who believe in Christ are free from ideological enslavement. Their faith hinges not only on their belief in the greatest miracles of all — the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ — but also on that enduring miracle, which is the cosmos itself, with its perfect harmony and immutable laws, the mystery of life on earth, and that “quintessence of dust” — man — free and intelligent. For this reason, hardened atheists who consciously reject God cannot exculpate themselves, for, as we read in the New Testament, “the invisible things of Him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

Doctrinaire atheism forces its adherents into a ceaseless negation of supernatural reality and the possibility of any miraculous sign. As the Italian writer, Vittorio Messori, observes, atheists are forced to do this, “always and everywhere, under pain of losing their faith, for, as we all know, the lack of a religion is nothing more than a religion in its own right — only much more demanding. How free is one to ponder the Mystery, when one bases one’s whole life and thinking on the “premise” that nothing mysterious exists? To what extent can one be free in the face of the unexplainable, when he acts on the principle that (as Ernest Renan put it) “everything in human history must have a human explanation.” 

History is full of facts that undermine the assumptions of ideological atheism. God avails Himself of these miraculous signs and events to alert us to the existence of the supernatural realm. Miracles are God’s special way of speaking, an appeal to people enslaved by rigid atheism, that they once and for all cast off their unbelief and open themselves up to the mystery of His boundless love. For all Christians, belief in the Gospel hinges on their belief in the supreme miracle, which is the Birth and Resurrection of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In addition, they have the miracles that the Risen Lord constantly works through his Blessed Mother and the saints. Jesus said to his disciples, “Unless you see signs and wonders, you will not believe” (John 4:48). And He pointed to the meaning of the miraculous signs he performed: “The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who will not be offended in me (Matthew 11:5-6). God constantly uses miracles and supernatural signs in the history of our salvation. There are the miracles that Christ works in the spiritual realm, such as the forgiveness of sins through the Sacrament of Penance and His real, personal presence in the Holy Eucharist. Every conversion, every blossoming of faith and love in a man’s heart, every instance of forgiveness and love of one’s enemy — all these are miracles of God’s grace working in the human soul. Jesus also works miracles in the non-spiritual realm, such as physical healings. Through these extraordinary signs, He desires to awaken or strengthen belief in us, that we may open our hearts to His all-powerful yet ever-meek love and mercy.

To repeat, the Christian’s one foundation and source of faith is his acceptance of the miracle of Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection. Those who reject and disbelieve this supreme Fact cease to be Christians. All other miracles have the sole purpose of awakening and deepening our faith in the real presence and salvific power of God, who became true man through the Virgin Mary, so that through His death and resurrection he might accomplish our salvation. “All who reject the living God,” observed St. Ambrose, “kneel before ‘the God of nothingness.’ And he urged: “Serve Christ, for only He is the one good and merciful Master, who does not enslave but offers true freedom.”

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