I imagine that I was not alone this summer in learning about Blessed Carlo Acutis. When I heard he was going to be the patron saint of our diocesan Eucharistic Congress, I actually had to look him up. I was surprised to see pictures of such a modern-looking teenager and realize that I may even have passed him in the street during my travels in Italy in the early 2000s – we frequented the same cities! When I saw his relic at the Eucharistic Congress, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of how real Carlo was, how real his life had been, and how familiar he felt.
Blessed Carlo had a profound devotion to the Eucharist. One of the first things I learned about him was that he had created a website listing Eucharistic miracles. In the history of the Catholic Church, there have been many reported Eucharistic miracles. The oldest is that of Lanciano, Italy. According to tradition, an 8th-century priest who had been struggling with doubt about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist consecrated a host, which then turned visibly into bleeding flesh.
Visitors to Lanciano can still see that miraculous host today – which is itself no minor miracle! In 1970, a team of secular scientists was granted permission to analyze a fragment of it. They determined the fragment was, in fact, human heart muscle. Additional testing revealed the blood type to be AB positive – one of the rarest blood types and one that can be used as a “universal donor” in plasma transfusions.
Inspired by Blsd. Carlo, I continued to learn more about modern Eucharistic miracles. Some may be surprised that the Church does not accept every purported miracle as authentic. Those that are deemed authentic have been subjected to rigorous scientific and medical analysis (often by non-Catholic scientists and medical professionals). It is only when these groups conclude that there is no known natural or physical explanation for what has taken place that a miracle is declared. For example, despite the thousands of healings that pilgrims to the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes in France have reported over the past 150 years, only 70 have been recognized as official miracles.
Given the high standard for declaring an event a miracle, two recently authenticated Eucharistic miracles caught my attention. The first occurred in 2006 in Tixtla, Mexico; the second in 2008 in Sokolka, Poland. In both instances, scientific and forensic analysis of the host revealed that it had partially changed into human heart tissue that continually effused type AB blood. Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., in an article published on his website, clarified the meaning of the dense forensic and pathological report on the Tixtla host: “the blood contains proteins indicating elevated metabolism in the person from which the tissue came, perhaps suggesting trauma. The blood also contains white blood cells, suggesting that the tissue is still living (or was removed from the body while alive)” (magiscenter.com).
The analyses of the Sokolka host produced similar findings. This miracle was unique, however, in that the analyses revealed that the heart tissue was “inextricably interwoven with the rest of the fragment, which had kept the form of bread.” There is no current technology that could have been used to fake this. The studies on the Sokolka host also concluded “that the structure of the transformed fragment of the host is identical to the myocardial (heart) tissue of a living person who is nearing death” (aleteia.org, September 23, 2017).
As I reflected on these miracles, the blood type, and the common finding of tissue from a heart that is in agony, I couldn’t help but ask what the purpose of the miracle was. In scripture, we don’t often find Jesus performing miracles for the “wow” factor or to convince people that he is the Son of God. He performs miracles in response to faith. He performs miracles that are themselves like parables to be unpacked. Jesus wants us to ponder the miracles he performs because each miracle reveals a deep mystery of our faith.
In other words, saying that these Eucharistic miracles prove that the Church’s teaching about the real presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine just seemed too obvious. The deeper mystery that called to me was that this tissue was from a living heart with clear evidence of trauma. It was obvious to those who examined it that the tissue had come from one who had been beaten around the chest, who had suffered untold physical torture, and whose body was trying to heal itself even as that person approached death. As I reflected on this, the reality of Jesus’s humanity crashed upon my consciousness anew. His body is like my body, like your body: it is a human body that functions not just visibly as a human body but microscopically, metabolically, and immunologically as a human body.
I believe and teach that Jesus is true God and true man. But, like most, I find it far easier to think about Jesus as God than to think about him as a human person. Learning that the tissues of Jesus’ heart bore witness to his physical suffering made him suddenly so real and so heartbreakingly familiar. Perhaps this is what the Eucharistic miracles of today are meant to teach us. In an age of intellectual, technical, and often polarizing debate, we cannot forget that there is a real person in our midst whose heart is in agony.
Amanda Alexander is currently the Director of the Department of Ministry Formation Institute for the Diocese and a parishioner of St. Adelaide in Highland. She has a Ph.D. in systematic theology and has taught at numerous Catholic universities.