01/20/2011 10:10 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

What is a Miracle?

The word is sprinkled breathlessly into our conversations, our sports celebrations -- and, lately, into our headlines.

We think we know what it is, what is means. But typically, we misuse it, over-simplify it, and wedge into places and situations where it doesn't belong.


Case in point: Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords offers a thumbs-up to doctors and family after taking a bullet through the brain. Her neurosurgeon tells the world that Giffords' ability to follow commands is "a miracle."


She survived -- and began to recover -- due to the skill and swiftness of paramedics, thanks to the delicate maneuvers performed by her surgeons and, fortunately for Giffords, because of the bullet's trajectory. Technology, medicine and physics.

Astonishing, definitely. Heart warming, certainly. But not miraculous. While we cheer her comeback, there is nothing medically unfathomable going down in that Tucson ICU.

So what is a miracle?

Simply put: a phenomenon that defies the laws of nature. And, by strict definition -- whether you are a believer or not -- an act of God.

As part of its exhaustive saint-naming rituals, the Roman Catholic Church has for centuries investigated alleged miracles. Such claims of scientifically inexplicable moments are the currency of Catholic sainthood, the price of admission to that elite club.

In order for the pope to elevate a virtuous, deceased person to sainthood -- a process called canonization -- Vatican detectives first must hear sworn testimony that living folks prayed to the saintly candidate in moments of desperation. Hard proof must be presented that, immediately after their prayer, a corresponding, positive event took place, a happening that evaded all scientific rules and maxims, usually a physical cure.

The Vatican's experts -- including its paid team of Roman physicians -- must ultimately agree that the healing was instantaneous, perfect, definitive and that it cannot be explained by science. Those are the four cornerstones of a pope-approved miracle. Each of those four boxes must be checked.

Theologically, Catholics believe that miracles are signs to the living that the prayed-to person is close to God -- has God's ear -- and, therefore, is worthy of saintly worship among the living.

But routinely, the Vatican's miracle jury sees something quite earthly -- a clear explanation -- in the supernatural claims it dissects. They also reject many claims due to a lack of supporting evidence. By some accounts, more than 90 percent of the alleged miracles that reach the Vatican's eyes are ultimately vetoed.

The vast majority of claimed miracles are mysterious cures. There are two reasons. First, a true health crisis, such as a terminal diagnosis, commonly prompts urgent prayers to heaven for a life-saving cure. A medical "Hail Mary," if you will. Second, serious illnesses are almost always tested, scanned, photographed, charted and measured for weeks or months, offering an easy paper trail for the Vatican's doctors to follow and consider.

Blood-crying statues? Images of the Virgin Mary in your morning oatmeal? "That's not our concern here," Monsignor Robert Sarno told me during our interview at the Vatican in 2009. As the highest-ranking American in the Vatican's saint-naming wing -- the Congregation for the Causes of Saints -- Sarno explained the subtle objectivity with which they inject their assessments: "We never ask doctors if this was 'a miracle.' We ask them for the flow of events. We try to find the direct link between prayer and cure."

In other words, cause and effect -- a prayer followed by something supernatural.

Last week, Pope Benedict XVI approved perhaps the most crucial miracle in the Church's modern history -- the healing of a 49-year-old French nun who reportedly was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease (the same ailment that afflicted John Paul). Weeks after the late pope's death in April 2005, Sister Marie Simon-Pierre Normand prayed for John Paul to "intercede" in her healing, to ask God to cure her. The tremors that had long prevented the nun from driving and writing vanished almost immediately. Sister Marie returned to her job as a maternity nurse and the faithful who were campaigning for John Paul's sainthood believed they had discovered a strong candidate for their first miracle claim.

Reports later emerged that Sister Marie's quivering fits eventually returned. Looking at the apparent facts, one doctor even publicly suggested that the nun had not been suffering from Parkinson's after all but from a similar neurological disorder known to come and go.

Shortly before Sister Marie's case made headlines in 2005, Pope Benedict had decided to waive the usual five-year waiting period for John Paul's sainthood campaign. The Vatican stipulates that for all causes, five years must elapse after the death of a saintly candidate. Only then can the faithful launch the often-costly push for their beatification and canonization. This cooling-off stretch is meant allow public frenzy and adulation around the candidate to settle, to make sure people still feel the same passions for the saintly contender five years later.

The only other time the Vatican allowed a sainthood cause to start early? The campaign for Mother Teresa. That had been John Paul's decision.

After the Vatican's team of experts probed the sworn testimony medical records behind Sister Marie's remarkable cure, Pope Benedict took his turn to peer deeply into the case file. And despite those earlier reports of relapse, Benedict agreed that her healing hit every necessary note: instantaneous, perfect, definitive, and that science could not reveal how she had beaten a chronic and debilitating disease without medicine. He stamped it a miracle. He scheduled the late pontiff's beatification ceremony for May 1.

The irony here: John Paul -- the pope who changed many of the beatification and the canonization rules, making it far easier to reach that lofty status -- will reach that threshold faster than anyone in Church history.

In an era when the Roman Catholic Church still struggles with the stigma of a sex-abuse scandal and cover-up, John Paul's celebratory gala in St. Peter's Square is expected to draw hundreds of thousands of pilgrims and tourists to Vatican City. After that day, he will be known as Blessed John Paul II.

The beatification will take place six years and 29 days after John Paul's death, edging the speed of Mother Teresa's post-death beatification by 15 days. A new record.

A happy, global story will unfold, allowing the Church to bask in the sunlight for a few precious days.

The faithful will get needed booster shot of emotional adrenaline.

Almost miraculous timing.

Bill Briggs is author of 'The Third Miracle,' released last week by Random House/Broadway Books. You can learn more here.