- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2000

A Polish nun credited by the Vatican with saving the life of a Baltimore priest 57 years after her death is the first new saint of 2000, a holy year, Pope John Paul II proclaimed yesterday as he welcomed throngs of hymn-singing fellow Poles who had come for the canonization of one of their own to a festive, flower-filled St. Peter's Square.

Among them was Father Ronald Pytel, the Baltimorean who believes he owes his life to Helena Kowalska, Sister Faustina of the Krakow Order of God's Mercy, by answering his prayers in 1995 when he suffered from a painful and likely terminal heart condition.

John Paul, who himself prayed at the tomb of Helena Kowalska of Krakow as a clandestine seminary student in Nazi-controlled Poland, called her a "daughter of Poland … tightly connected to the history of the 20th century."

Sister Faustina, born in 1905, was known for her concern for the poor. She died of tuberculosis in 1938 at 33, leaving behind a diary in which she recorded visions of Jesus Christ entreating His followers to mercy.

"To those who remember, who were witnesses and participants of the events of those years and of the horrible suffering that pursued millions of men, they know well how necessary that message of mercy was," John Paul told an audience that included Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek and representatives of the Solidarity labor union.

In Poland, about 70,000 faithful watched the ceremony on big-screen TVs at Sister Faustina's shrine outside Krakow.

Sister Faustina claimed visions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary and stigmata starting in 1931, a degree of mysticism with which the Vatican itself at times was uncomfortable.

The Vatican also credits her with healing Maureen Digan of Stockbridge, Mass., afflicted with what was said to be an incurable form of lymphadema.

John Paul, as Krakow archbishop in the late 1960s, initiated efforts for her beatification. He had prayed at her grave soon after her death, when he was secretly studying for the priesthood despite a ban on new seminary admissions by the Nazis, who were trying to squelch Poland's influential Roman Catholic Church.

Poles know her as a patriot, with her diaries revealing countless prayers for her homeland.

One of her greatest miracles came 57 years after her death when Father Pytel suffering from what was believed to be an irreparably damaged heart and his parishioners prayed for healing to the Polish nun who died in 1938.

Father Pytel, whose grandparents came from Poland, is a priest at Holy Rosary Church in Baltimore.

In June 1995, he was diagnosed with a calcium dome over his aorta, preventing about 80 percent of his blood from flowing naturally through the valve. A few days later, he underwent surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Among the things he packed for his stay at the hospital was the diary of Sister Faustina.

"During my recovery, I read the Diary of Blessed Faustina whenever I could. I also prayed the chaplet everyday," Father Pytel wrote of his experiences which are chronicled at the church's Web site (www.holyrosarypl.org).

On Oct. 5, Sister Faustina's feast day, he was cured.

"That evening, a group of individuals who have a ministry entitled 'Our Father's Work,' prayed over me for continued healing," Father Pytel wrote. "Blessed Faustina was invoked to join in the prayer, and I venerated a first-class relic of Blessed Faustina. During the prayer, I rested in the Holy Spirit. I laid on the floor for about 15 minutes. I was totally conscious and awake, but I could not move. I felt like I was paralyzed as the healing ministry and my parishioners gathered around me and prayed."

On Nov. 9, Father Pytel visited his doctor, Nicholas Fortuin, on the complaint that his heat medication was causing him pain. More tests were taken.

To the best of Father Pytel's recollection, Dr. Fortuin said, "Ron, someone has intervened for you… . Your heart is normal."

"We don't expect to see in cases like this, recovery of heart function to normal," said Father Pytel's physician, Dr. Nicholas Fortuin, who attended a press conference yesterday with Father Pytel. "The degree of recovery is extremely unusual."

In cases such as Father Pytel's, patients' hearts actually worsen after valve replacement in some cases, some stay the same and some see marginal improvement, Dr. Fortuin said. He said the speed of Father Pytel's recovery was also unusual.

"In medicine, you can't always take a purely scientific stance," Dr. Fortuin said. "There are too many things in the world that go beyond the explainable, and this is one of those things."

The pope declared the cure a miracle on Dec. 20, 1999.

Despite his good fortune, Father Pytel, said prayer cannot cure every illness.

• This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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