NEW BEDFORD, MASS. — Could the case of a Massachusetts man be used to advance Pope John Paul II toward sainthood?
Though there have been hundreds of cases reported of cures possibly attributable to John Paul’s intercession, one of them might involve a New Bedford, Mass., man who experienced healing after praying to the late Pope.
The Portuguese-American man sought to overcome the suffering and isolation that accompanied a worsening spinal condition. Spinal stenosis, a narrowing of the spine, accompanied by severe arthritis, forced him to give up his work as a real estate appraiser trainee and finally put him in a wheelchair.
By 2008, Joe Amaral had become increasingly depressed by his inability to meet the needs of his family, especially his aging mother. Yet he sensed that a spiritual crisis was at the heart of his struggle: After five years in a wheelchair, he still hadn’t fully accepted God’s will for his life.
“Joe is a man who has sought to serve his family. But he was 47 and sat at home, while his wife worked and his kids did their own thing,” recalled Ann Marie Amaral, his wife of 25 years. “He rarely complained and tried to do what he could. When I’d come home, I’d notice that the house had been vacuumed. I asked how he managed to do that and discovered that he did it on his knees.”
Yearning to overcome his sense of helplessness, Amaral, who is now 49, used his solitary hours to pray to the late John Paul II, seeking his intercession. He also began to meditate on the story of Jesus healing the paralytic, recounted in Mark 2:1-12, and pondered the Lord’s words:
“Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your pallet and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he said to the paralytic — “I say to you, rise, take up your pallet and go home.”
In early January 2008, Amaral felt called to repent of his inability to follow the late Pontiff’s example and fully embrace the physical suffering that constrained his life. Amaral went to confession at his New Bedford parish, St. Anthony of Padua, and as he spoke with the priest, he felt a palpable sense of warmth course throughout his body.
He went home and continued to pray to the Pope and meditate on the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. A few days later, he felt called to stand up and walk. He began to move about the house, feeling stronger with every step.
He placed a call to his pastor, Father Roger Landry, but the two played phone tag for several days. In the meantime, Joe rejoiced with his family.
His mother was the first to hear the news. She had stopped over that day, and he asked her, “Do you believe in miracles?” She said she did. And when he got up and began to walk unaided, she broke into prayer and began to cry. His son, a teenager who cared deeply for his father and often assisted him with daily tasks, was jubilant at the news.
Then Ann Marie returned from work. She was thrilled by the spectacle of her husband moving about the house, but worried that it was a temporary improvement. Two years later, she has accepted the great blessing of his spiritual healing.
“He told me that he doesn’t feel he was cured, in the sense that all his nerve endings were healed and his back was normal,” said Ann Marie. “Instead, something is holding him up and keeping him from falling. The feeling that someone is guiding you and keeping you strong is an act of faith.”
Joe soon began to visit his friends and relatives, confirming the truth proclaimed in the story of the paralytic. “I have been healed so that you might know the Lord’s power to forgive sins,” he told them. His witness has strengthened the faith of his many relations and also of the parishioners of St. Anthony of Padua.
For years, members of the parish had watched Joe use forearm crutches to drag himself up the aisle to receive Communion. The painful spectacle led churchgoers to urge Father Landry to make the building handicap accessible. But the parish couldn’t afford the $200,000 price tag for the structural changes that would allow wheelchairs inside.
Amaral could have gone to another parish, but he loved the faded grandeur of St. Anthony’s, where Portuguese fisherman had long come to worship. Now the parish shares in the hard times of that declining industry, but Amaral, who immigrated to the United States from Portugal when he was 5, clung to it as his spiritual home.
‘Nothing to Do With Me’
Joe still had not spoken to Father Landry when he arrived at St. Anthony’s soon after his healing. Father Landry was talking with a parishioner when he caught sight of Joe and noticed that something was different. Father Landry continued his conversation for a moment longer until it dawned on him that Joe was standing and walking freely.
The pastor rushed over to Joe, who told him what had happened. The two embraced, and soon the whole parish knew that something extraordinary had occurred in their midst.
Since then, Father Landry has forwarded all the documentation related to Joe’s case to Rome, where it will be added to several hundred cases that attribute miraculous cures to the late Pontiff’s intercession.
“Given the numbers, I don’t know if Joe’s case will play any role in the cause of John Paul II’s canonization,” noted Father Landry.
“But here at St. Anthony’s, Joe’s story is a continual reminder that the Lord’s healing power did not expire at the Ascension. Jesus continues to work miracles in response to faith. I am moved every time I see Joe walk up the aisle and solemnly genuflect before the tabernacle.”
Some parishioners have asked, “Why did the Lord hear Joe’s prayers, but not mine?” noted the pastor. “I remind them that the Lord didn’t heal everyone in Palestine. The first purpose of suffering is to prompt others to become good Samaritans who assist those in need. The second purpose is to help those who suffer to unite themselves ever more to Christ’s redeeming love, turning the curse of human suffering into a divine caress.”
Ann Marie Amaral has an additional explanation for her husband’s healing: “Maybe he was chosen because he’s not afraid to tell the world, ‘This happened to me so that you might have faith.’”
Indeed, these days, Joe uses his newfound physical strength to affirm a profound truth he has experienced in a radical way.
“This has nothing to do with me; it’s for the great glory of God. I’m hoping people will realize that God’s mercy is in the confessional. He gives us tribulations and suffering, but he also gives us his mercy.”
Joe Amaral still can’t drive, and residual nerve damage around the spine leads him to approach physical exertion cautiously. But he is happy to be on his feet.
“Something is holding me up,” he said. “My legs keep moving, and while I walk I pray. God gave me this suffering to decrease what I have in the world and increase what he wants.”
Joan Frawley Desmond writes from Chevy Chase, Maryland.