A Miraculous Healing
My mother was born in 1929, and I’m the youngest of her five children.
If I could use one word to describe my mom, that word would be “class.” Or maybe “elegance.” She is the classiest, most elegant woman I have ever known. Born and raised in Grosse Point, Michigan, she is a true white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Her folks were Methodist, and she attended the Metropolitan Methodist Church in Detroit, not far from the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament. Her decision to marry my dad, who was dirt-poor and a Catholic immigrant, didn’t go over too well with her family. In fact, my grandmother tried to talk her out of it by saying, “If you marry this man, you will never own a car in your life.” Which is ironic, since my dad went on to become a fairly high-ranking executive in an auto company!
A few years before I was born, my mom suffered a debilitating back injury. After I was conceived, her doctors told her that they didn’t think she would be able to carry me to term. They gave her several alternatives, and I am grateful that she chose life. Somehow my mom was able to carry me and give birth. Until I was about twelve or thirteen years old, my mom was seriously disabled. She lived in a hospital bed in our living room. She wore a special brace around her back all the time. She had special chairs to sit in. She couldn’t sit or stand for a long time. She couldn’t walk. She was in many ways an invalid. She had a whole host of surgeries on her back, going back and forth to a hospital in New York that specialized in such care.
Then my oldest sister graduated from college and moved away. She was living in another city and went to some kind of Pentecostal or charismatic prayer meeting. And while she was there, someone had a strong sense that God wanted to heal a person with a serious back injury who wasn’t even in the room. And so my sister got very excited and called my mom and said, “Mom, I just came from this meeting. There was this person there with this sense—I think it’s you!” My mom said to her, “Honey, I wish I had your faith.” My mom was a devout woman, but I think she would tell you that she really didn’t know Jesus at the time. But she was about to meet him in a really powerful way.
Mom hung up the phone and said to herself, “What do I have to lose?” So she started to thank God for healing her. Within a month, my mom was playing tennis! Out with the braces, out with the chairs, out with the hospital bed. We built a tennis court in our backyard. My mom joined a tennis club and became the club champion. All of a sudden, she was the most athletic person I had ever seen in my life! It was right out of the Gospels, right out of the Acts of the Apostles; it was a New Testament miracle extraordinaire.
Because of her disability, for years my dad had been going to company meetings and events without her. Then he started bringing her along. People would come up to her and say, “Oh hi, who are you?” “I’m Thelma Riccardo.” “Oh, I’ve never seen you before.” “Oh, that’s because Jesus just healed my back.”
Talk about a conversation stopper! But that’s what happens when you have experienced a miracle. You let people know, especially when it’s something as dramatic as this—she couldn’t move, and all of a sudden, she can move! My mom was completely healed—from that day until some time in 1995, about a year before I was ordained a priest. So for almost twenty years, my mom had no pain. The doctors couldn’t explain it. All we knew was that God had dramatically broken into Mom’s life.
In 1995, about as quickly as Mom’s pain left, it all came back and became more intense than it had ever been before she had been healed. And that’s how my mom has lived since then. People have prayed often for my mom to be healed. But my mom will tell you, in all honesty, that what she has is a gift. She knows God can heal her. He did heal her. And for whatever reason, he has chosen to bring this back to her. A lot of us think our moms are saints. But because of the witness of her life, I know that for me, it’s true—my mom is a saint. People love to talk to her. She is the most amazing person, together with my dad, that I know. They are filled with wisdom.
Suffering Is a Vocation
Here are the Scripture passages that have been most helpful to my mom as she lives with this pain every day of her life.
First, “Take up your cross and follow me” (cf. Mark 8:34; cf. Luke 9:23; cf. Matthew 16:24). I’m not sure what we think today when we hear that verse, but for a first-century Jew, we certainly know what they thought. First-century Jews were used to seeing crucifixions. “The cross” was no figure of speech. The cross was the manner of execution for the rebels in the area, a way for the Romans to show off, boast of their power, and make their authority felt. So when Jesus tells us to pick up our cross and follow him, he’s clearly trying to make it known to us that this is going to entail hardships of a variety of different kinds.
Alluding to this passage, here is what St. John Paul II said:
People react to suffering in different ways. But in general it can be said that almost always the individual enters suffering with a typically human protest and with the question “why.” He asks the meaning of his suffering and seeks an answer to this question on the human level. Certainly he often puts this question to God, and to Christ. Furthermore, he cannot help noticing that the one to whom he puts the question is himself suffering and wishes to answer him from the Cross, from the heart of his own suffering. Nevertheless, it often takes time, even a long time, for this answer to begin to be interiorly perceived. For Christ does not answer directly and he does not answer in the abstract this human questioning about the meaning of suffering. Man hears Christ’s saving answer as he himself gradually becomes a sharer in the sufferings of Christ.
The answer which comes through this sharing, by way of the interior encounter with the Master, is in itself something more than the mere abstract answer to the question about the meaning of suffering. For it is above all a call. It is a vocation. Christ does not explain in the abstract the reasons for suffering, but before all else he says: “Follow me!” Come! Take part through your suffering in this work of saving the world, a salvation achieved through my suffering! Through my Cross. Gradually, as the individual takes up his cross , spiritually uniting himself to the Cross of Christ, the salvific meaning of suffering is revealed before him. (Salvifici Doloris, 26)
Suffering is a vocation, and we will all be called to it if we haven’t been already.
The second passage that my mom has found very helpful is the ending of Matthew 28, the Great Commission, when Jesus instructs the disciples to go out into all the world to preach and baptize. This is the last thing Jesus says: “I am with you always” (verse 20). That was the great promise of Christmas. God is Emmanuel—he is with us. He is always with us—no matter what. Nothing, nothing, can separate us from him.
The third passage is from St. Paul. As you might remember, Paul had this affliction, which is translated as a “thorn.” It is really more like a “spike” in his flesh. There have been countless theologians and Scripture scholars who have speculated what it was. God hasn’t chosen to reveal that to us. But it was something serious enough that Paul begged the Lord three times to take it from him. And this was the Lord’s answer: “No.” He told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
And here’s the last passage, which comes from Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane. As he is lying there sweating blood, he prays, “Father, if you are willing, remove this chalice from me; nevertheless not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). When we are grieving, when we are suffering, when we are in the midst of trying to discover the meaning of what’s going on, when we can’t think of anything else to do but throw ourselves on the ground, we cry out to the Lord, “Not my will, but yours, be done.” Still, to be a Christian is not to be a masochist. We do ask him to take away our suffering. We ask the Lord to heal us.
Read more about the meaning of suffering, growing in holiness, and becoming saints in Heaven Starts Now: Becoming a Saint Day by Day (The Word Among Us Press, 2016) by Fr. John Riccardo. Available at wau.org/books