Heroes, Holiness & Mystical Phenomena


Recently, NBC wrapped up its first season of an interesting
television series called Heroes. For those who haven’t seen it –and
you should see it–the show centers around a group of people who
discover they have special abilities beyond the ordinary, including superhuman
powers like telepathy, time travel, flight, invisibility, the ability
to walk through walls, to heal, and to paint the future, among others.
These “superheroes,” one by one, come to realize that they each have a
particular role to play in preventing a catastrophe and “saving the
world.” It is science fiction, to be sure. But this concept is not
without precedence in the real world throughout history. The Catholic
Church has had its own “heroes” – like the Cure d’Ars, Padre Pio,
Joseph of Cupertino and Mother Teresa of Calcutta–who were, at least
through parts of their lives, blessed with “supernatural powers.” The
Church calls them “mystical phenomena,” and those saints who have
wielded these inexplicable powers understood their role in advancing
the kingdom of God.

Though the modern world is fascinated by the idea of men and
women possessing unique superhuman powers, as evidenced by the huge
success of Heroes and movies like Spiderman and Unbreakable, the modern
world has little room to accommodate the idea of mystical phenomena,
especially in connection with religious concepts like evil and
holiness, blessings and curses. Even in a time when belief in UFOs,
Elvis sightings, and animated gnomes is on the increase, most people
remain highly skeptical of any claims of mystical phenomena in the
lives of the saints. They believe these claims are in the realm of
myth, even though numerous examples of mystical phenomenon have been
studied and examined by modern scientific methods.

It is instructive to note that the Catholic Church has always
approached claims of mystical phenomena with a healthy dose of
skepticism. By design, Church officials throughout history have not
accepted at face value any phenomenon which purports to be from God.
The Church carefully weighs all the circumstances, evidence and
personalities of those connected with the phenomenon to determine
whether or not there is any possibility of either a natural explanation
or a psychological explanation such as hysteria, schizophrenia, or some
other form of insanity. The Church also attempts to determine whether
or not there is the possibility of fraud or demonic activity, both of
which are not uncommon.

If, after all, the facts and evidence of a particular mystical
phenomenon lend themselves to God’s supernatural intervention, then the
Church will accept a particular phenomenon as having no other
explanation than the supernatural. In many cases, especially with
phenomena that are specifically connected with manifestations of
holiness, the Church waits until after the person dies to determine
that the phenomena associated with them were truly manifestations of
their heroic virtue and holiness. Then and only then will the Church
confirm that a particular phenomenon, even when witnessed by hundreds
of people, was truly from God.

Here are just a few examples of the mystical phenomena exhibited by the saints throughout the ages:


The suspension of the human body in the air without aid of
outside physical forces is known as levitation. There are many accounts
of the saints being lifted up during prayer or during the Holy
Sacrifice of the Mass. This has been witnessed by hundreds of people at
a time. One of the most famous cases of a saint levitating is that of
St. Joseph of Cupertino (d. 1663), an Italian Franciscan Friar who
seemed to fly all over the place. He would rise not rise just a few
inches but would actually be suspended in the air 18 to 35 feet and
remain suspended in this ecstatic manner for fifteen minutes to as long
as six hours at a time. Because of his many flights of ecstatic
levitations, St. Joseph is the patron of airplane passengers.

Eucharistic fasts

There are a number of documented saints who have stopped eating
any food whatsoever and lived on the Blessed Sacrament alone –not for
days or weeks or even months, but for years and decades. Many of those
given the gift of stigmata (bearing the wounds of Christ) also exhibit
the phenomenon of Eucharistic fasting. The bed-ridden Theresa Neumann
in our own day was a good example. She abstained from all food and
liquid, except for one small Eucharistic host a day, after receiving a
miraculous healing from paralysis while praying to St. Thérèse of
Lisieux. She lived thirty-nine years, until she died in 1962, without any
earthly sustenance.

Smelling sin

One of the more unusual gifts of mystical phenomena is the
ability to smell the stench of sin when coming into contact with
someone in the state of mortal sin. It can be a very terrible thing
which in some cases has caused not only uncontrollable vomiting by the
saint but even passing out because the stench is so overwhelming to
him. St. Philip Neri was known for this ability and its side-effects.
In his Life of Hilarton, St. Jerome says that St. Hilarion had the gift
of knowing what sins or vices anyone was inclined to by simply smelling
either the person or his garments.

The odor of sanctity

It has been reported in many cases, especially of those who have
been given the stigmata, that an overwhelmingly beautiful and
“heavenly” perfume seems to exude from the bodies of some saints, both
living and dead. Often described like roses or delicate flowers, it
seems to permeate everything around them. This happened quite
frequently with St. Theresa of Avila. Her body threw off this scent
even after her death in 1582. When her body was exhumed during the
canonization process the odor of perfume coming from her incorrupt body
was so strong that it permeated the room and everything in it for three


All will agree that “being in two places at once” is physically
impossible. That’s what makes bilocation another mystical phenomena
that has been granted to certain saints. This is one of the many gifts
attributed to Padre Pio, and is corroborated by witnesses all over the
world. Among the most remarkable incidents was Padre Pio’s appearance
in the air over the city San Giovanni Rotondo during World War II. As
American bombers were preparing unload their munitions on the
Nazi-occupied city, Padre Pio appeared before their aircraft, and
attempts to drop the bombs failed.

There are many more different authentic mystical phenomena that
reflect, in this world, properties of the resurrected body in the world
to come such as the faculty of distinguishing between holy and profane
objects or between priests and laymen, the reading of hearts, the gift
of prophecy, the gift of healing, glossolalia, and even the ability to
walk on water, to name but a few. The saints blessed with these
supernatural abilities were all heroes in another sense, too. Not only
did they willingly participate with the will of God, they also
exhibited heroic virtue– in one way or another. In some cases,
observers believe that their heroic acts of virtue led to the mystical
phenomenon and not vice versa.

Perhaps the most hopeful bit of all this is that, even though
most of us will not be able to bilocate, levitate, or (Heaven forbid)
smell the stench of sin, we all have the opportunity to take hold of
virtue and practice that virtue in a heroic way. We can, in a matter of
speaking, play our part in advancing the Kingdom of God and, help “save
the world.”



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