Can a handicapped girl, unable to move or speak, be the vessel of God’s divine intervention? Thousands believe this to be the case. Since 1996 people have made pilgrimages to the home of Audrey Santo of Worcester, Massachusetts, who, after an accident in 1987, lost the functionality of essential centers of her brain. In her presence miracles take place that seem to outdo all known records of miracles considering their frequency and tangibility. Together with pilgrims from all over the world, we went to visit the Santo family. We saw at least a dozen icons and statues that were weeping impressive amounts of oil, and we saw little Audrey, who was lying down with her beautiful long hair hanging over the edge of her rosy bed. Audrey’s handicapped existence has made many people think about the value of any soul, no matter how weak or disabled the body may be that contains it.
Audrey Santo was only three years old when the accident happened, the accident that would change not only her own life but the life of her entire family. She was playing in the front yard with her four year-old brother Stephen, but when he suddenly moved into the house, she was left alone. Somehow she made her way to the backyard where the family swimming pool was. From the time her brother left her until Audrey’s mother, Linda, noticed her absence, only a few minutes had passed. Linda’s first thought was the pool, and that’s where she found her, face down in the water. "Oh God!" she cried, "my Baby!" Audrey was rescued, but only after four minutes of time during which she was deprived of such an amount of oxygen that important centers of her brain were damaged.
The doctors did not give her more than a week to live – so bad was the brain damage. The fact that she is alive today, puts her in a category of her own. Since the accident, Audrey has been in a state in which she is not able to move, speak, or eat on her own. If she would be left to herself without care, she would die. To many people such an accident would seem to be the beginning of the end of a meaningful existence. But God does not seem to agree, nor do the thousands of believers that have been touched by the wonder of little Audrey, for miracles happen in Audrey’s presence. Dozens of icons and statues are weeping oil in Audrey’s room and in the garage that the family turned into a small chapel. Many people have reportedly been healed of various diseases after they prayed in Audrey’s presence. And Audrey is leading people to God.
The Fame of Little Audrey
Thousands of people have made their way to Worcester, to pray near Audrey. So many pilgrims asked for the permission to come and visit the Santo home that there is a waiting list of one and a half years before a visit is possible. Last year, close to 9 August, the anniversary of the accident, Audrey was brought on a stretcher to a nearby Catholic Church, where a mass was held that attracted more pilgrims than the Church could host. On 9 August of this year a mass will be celebrated at the Holy Cross Stadium in Worcester. It is expected to attract around 20.000 pilgrims. Audrey will be brought to the mass and put in a house. Dr. Thomas Petrisko has written an excellent book about Audrey, and the Washington Post on 19 July, 1998, had a two and a half page feature about her with the title "Tears for Audrey." ABC News is preparing a program about her due to appear in the fall on 20/20, one of America’s most popular news-programs. They would have broadcasted it earlier but decided to postpone it, as the program would be likely to draw more people to Worcester, putting additional strain on a stadium already expecting full capacity.
A Miraculous Journey
The accident happened 9 August 1987. The year after with the consent of Audrey’s pediatrician, Linda, with the help of Joyce, one of Audrey’s nurses, took Audrey to the little village of Medjugorie in Bosnia, near the coastal town of Split. It is here that six children have reported seeing the Virgin Mary on a daily basis since 1984. 20 million pilgrims have visited Medjugorie, making it one of the most visited pilgrimage places in the world. Medical reports testify to people having visited Medjugorie who were healed of diseases such as Alzheimer Syndrome, Multiple Scleroses, and Cancer, and in fact, Linda went to Medjugorie with the wish that God would cure her daughter too.
Linda, Joyce and Audrey were allowed to be present twice during the apparitions. Linda portrays these moments as very emotional: "When Ivan [one of the visionaries] went into ecstasy and Our Lady appeared, I cried, we all cried. The apparition lasted about seven to ten minutes." On both of these occasions something curious happened. Normally the visionaries did not speak with people after the apparitions, but on these two occasions, Ivan did speak to one of the people who were present. He spoke to Audrey. Immediately after the apparition ended he went straight to Audrey, bent over her and spoke to her in Croatian for an impressive period of time. Audrey did not verbally reply but was very affected. The fact that Audrey did not reply did not prevent him from speaking to her. Nobody ever learned what he told her during those magic moments. "I never found out and I never asked him," says Linda. "I figured if I were supposed to know, he’d tell me" (qtd. in Petrisko 49). Linda believes that during this time, Audrey communicated with the Virgin Mary in some mysterious way.
No matter what happened during those moments, Audrey’s mystical manifestations began upon returning from Medjugorie when she started to show signs of Christ’s passion. The first Easter back in Worcester it was evident to the people close to Audrey. Her medical journal is massive and confirms what the family and the nurses have testified to many times: On Audrey’s hands, side, and forehead open wounds have appeared spontaneously without any natural explanation. At certain periods her whole body has been covered by red stripes, just like someone who has been hit by uncountable scourges.
Linda Santo in an interview with Thomas Petrisko in detail discusses the sufferings of her daughter.
During Lent, Audrey is in so much pain. But beginning at three o’clock on Holy Thursday, there are times when she is just agitated. We would carefully, the nurse and I, hold her up above the bed. Audrey would then cry so much that you couldn’t put her on the bed. That’s how much pain she would be in. On Good Fridays she would be in intense pain till three o’clock. We are talking copious amounts of tears, to the point where Audrey’s eyes are bloodshot, and her face is red. I mean, if you could imagine the most painful hurt that you would have and you would just cry over it, you know there are no words – you just cry and cry. This is what Audrey would do.
"There was also a lot of bleeding. Audrey bled from her trachea for a week and a half. She’s had other experiences. When Audrey has bleeding experiences, she bleeds from almost every orifice of her body. It’s not like I know how to explain it. There’s blood from her nose, blood from her ears, blood from her mouth, blood from her trachea and from her hands and feet…" (96-100).
The Meaning of Sufferings
The sufferings of Audrey correspond to the sufferings of Christ as the Gospels recall them. But Audrey is not the first to share in Christ’s passion. Without exception all known mystics have suffered, from the apostle Paul to Francis of Assisi to Padre Pio. Saint Paul, called one of the greatest Christian Mystics, in many passages of his writings points to the value of sufferings. The most important of these is found in his letter to the Church in Colossae where he exclaims, "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (1:24). Christ’s passion is perfect from the point of view of reconciling mankind with God. He has given the possibility for each human being to enter the kingdom of God. However, as the terrible events in the 20th century indicate, there is still much work needed before God and creation are fully united and reconciled, and it is in this process of the coming of the kingdom that the prayers and sufferings of every single believer have their place and meaning.
Although Audrey’s mystical sufferings do not make her the first known mystic to share in the sufferings of Christ, her case is extraordinary. She is certainly the most silent and the most humble of them all and she is perhaps the first mystic to share in the sufferings of Christ through the results of an accident of such impact. Theologians have raised one important question: Where is the consent of Audrey? God never imposes himself on anybody; he never forces a mission onto a person. If this mission has come from God, Audrey must have willingly accepted it, even though the functionality of her brain is impaired. Did God lift her handicap during those magic moments in Medjugorie, allowing her to make a free choice? Or does Audrey somehow communicate with God directly, soul to soul, without needing the full activities of the brain? Laurentin, the most famous Catholic Mariologist of our century and a foremost expert on mystical phenomena puts it well when he says: "What God has realized by her unfortunate circumstances, to be a source of healing for the world, we will only be able to understand fully in the life to come!" (qtd. in Petrisko 95)
A Visit at the Santo Home
We went to visit the home of little Audrey on a hot July Wednesday. Wednesdays are the only days pilgrims are received. "We are a normal family. I go to work every day. My kids go to school. We need our peace during the week in order to function as a normal family," says Audrey’s father Steve Santo, a well-built man around 45 years of age. We ask him how it feels to be the father of such a child, a child not only handicapped but also chosen by God for an important mission. "Yes, it is true, I do feel awe when I consider the mysterious work God is doing through the life of my daughter. At the same time, however, this does not change the most basic thing about our relationship: Audrey is still my baby!"
Linda is a strong woman; she speaks to the pilgrims with wit and humor, and nobody can resist her charms. "Audrey is not in a coma," she says. "She is very alive. She communicates with us by moving her eyes or squeezing our hands. She is gorgeous!"
Volunteers devote their time to help the Santo family receive the pilgrims. The believers, who on this day have come from all over the USA as well as from several European countries, are led into the backyard where mass is celebrated under a temporary tent. Immediately upon arriving the miraculous events are evident. To the left of the altar are two statues – one of Jesus and one of Mary. Both obviously exude oil. The oil hangs on the chin of the face of Jesus and once in a while drips on the table. At the end of the celebrations the statues are brought back into the house, but not before leaving two considerable pools of oil on the table where they were standing. Eight priests are present at this wonderful sunny day in Massachusetts, and the pilgrims attend mass with fervor. "I have never seen people pray with such devotion," says Father Mike, the primary celebrant and spiritual director of Audrey. "I have seen so many lives change here."
The Eucharist is celebrated with special devotion, for the miracles point to its importance. Altogether four Eucharistic miracles have taken place in Audrey’s home. One of these was captured on video; the wonder can be seen quite clearly. On the film the priest suddenly notices a dark, fresh red spot on one of the hosts. Three other hosts have been reported to bleed, and believers are able to venerate them after the mass.
On the day on which we visit the Santo home another miracle happens. At the time the hosts are put in the communion bowls, the bowls are dry. However, very soon the priests realize that oil gathers on the inside of the bowls, and by the time of the distribution so much oil has gathered that most of the pilgrims notice that their hosts taste of oil. At the end of the distribution of the Eucharist all the priests dry their hands in silent awe – all have oil on their hands, oil that was not there at the beginning of the ceremony.
Praying Near Little Audrey
After mass we enter the house, ten by ten, to greet the person we have come to see. We enter a room which is separated from Audrey’s by a thin wall. Looking at her through a framed window, we see her lying on her bed, motionless with Pat Nader, her grandmother, at her side, talking happily to her. She does not answer audibly, but her grandmother says she knows when Audrey is happy or when she is sad. The pilgrims are obviously in awe. Perhaps they are wondering, "What does Audrey think? What happens inside her soul behind the veil of her motionless body? Does she pray for me? Does she communicate with God, in an unknown way?" We say a prayer and ask for God’s graces on behalf of his daughter. Some cry, others say silent prayers to God. Some have brought letters to Audrey in which they ask her to pray for special intentions. Later the nurses will read these letters out loud to her.
The procession moves on from Audrey’s room to the Santo garage, transformed into a chapel, and this is where the majority of the weeping images reside. A big picture of the Virgin Mary cries tears of oil. The oil does not emerge from just any place. It is obvious that the oil forms in the two eyes and flows from there. We see a small crucifix standing on a table. A little plate at the foot of the cross collects some of the oil, the rest flows onto the table.
According to Boguslaw Lipinski, a Boston biochemist who analyzed the oil that appears on the icons and statues in Audrey’s home, it is of mysterious nature, unlike oil known from any plant or vegetable. Between November 1993 and July 1995 a total of thirty-three statues and images have wept (Petrisko 85). But why oil? We addressed this question to Father Joseph Iannuzzi, a Catholic priest from Connecticut and a good friend of the family. "Oil is a sign of the presence and anointing of God," he says. "In the Old Testament the kings were anointed with oil. The New Testament gives indications to use oil when praying for sick people. Priests use oil for baptism and confirmation as well as for the anointing of sick people."
All pilgrims receive a little piece of cotton soaked with the miraculous oil, and it is said to have had great effects on sick people. The reports of people recovering from diseases are impressive. The following reports may serve as excamples:A sixteen year-old boy was healed of a form of paralysis after his mother implored Audrey to pray for his healing and conversion. The boy answered the door the same day his mother returned home from praying at Audrey’s house. A young man immediately came out of a coma after tears from Audrey’s eyes were placed on him. A woman with a tumor on her ovary came to see Audrey. Immediately afterward, the tumor disappeared while Audrey became symptomatic of the excact same condition. A woman visiting Audrey with multiple sclerosis let out a yell and fell to her knees. She reported that all her pain was suddenly gone. (Petrisko 169). It is not surprising, thus, that several people with diseases come today, bringing with them maladies of all kinds. One has even come in a wheel-chair.
The Meaning of the Events
So far the Church has not addressed by way of an official commission the occurrences at the Santo home. The Church is very careful with alleged miracles, as there is always the possibility of fraud. However the Church has permitted mass to be celebrated in the family garage and a tabernacle to be placed in Little Audrey’s room.
It looks as if God could not have chosen a weaker vessel through whom to tell his story, but what exactly is this story all about? To Father Joseph Iannuzzi, it is quite clear. "I believe God is telling a wonderful story of love to his creation through Audrey. He proves that his love and his creativity are so great that he can embrace and use any human being no matter how weak he or she may be.
"However, it is also a story of sorrow," he continues. "Audrey represents the Church today. There are so many Christians who have forgotten God and are unaware where they come from, who is their creator and where they are heading. Jesus and Mary are weeping tears out of grief over the lethargy of their Children. God, nonetheless, avails himself of what little we offer. If like little Audrey we make our offering with filial abandonment, he will work the greatest prodigies.
"Simultaneously God is telling a story of life to our society today which increasingly cultivates death. I believe it to be no coincidence that Audrey’s accident happened on the ninth of August. The atom bomb fell on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945 at the same time of 11.03 AM.
The Value of Life
Father Joseph Iannuzzi continues: "In many countries today parents expecting a baby can ask for a medical examination of their child at an early stage. If it proves that the embryo has some kind of defect, they have the legal right to kill the baby. The prospects of these possibilities are terrible. We are not far from the situation were parents who prefer a child with blue eyes can get rid of their child if medical tests prove that the embryo has brown eyes. Through Audrey, God is aiming at the heart of this discussion of the dignity and worth of every human being. He speaks through a profoundly handicapped child in order to tell the world that all life is valued equally.
"Audrey appears to be the first multipl handicapped mystic in the history of the Church. God could have chosen a prophet to repeat the message of life which he already revealed to Moses: "You shall not kill." I do not believe, however, that he could extend this message to us more powerfully than through a soul whose life is so challenged as the disabled one of little Audrey."
The interpretations of the wonder of little Audrey Santo are many and she is sure to arouse a plethora of emotions and reactions. However, one thing is certain: The story of life which motionless little Audrey is telling to the world is far from over. It has only just begun.
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