These tiny pills, made out of rice paper, bear words that read, in Latin, “After birth, the Virgin remained intact. Mother of God, intercede on our behalf” and are associated with numerous miraculous healings as well as the intercession of Friar Galvao. They are the prime devotional example of Friar Galvao’s significant reputation as a healing saint, and for that reason they deserve some study and background.
This article explains a bit more about their current production and use:
[The pills are] assembled in five locations around Sao Paulo state, including by women in Galvao’s hometown of Guaratingueta, who gather every afternoon in a room above the local cathedral. The pills also are made by cloistered nuns at the Convent of Light in Sao Paulo, where Galvao died in 1832 at age 83.
Believers swallow three seed-sized pills over nine days, during which they recite the prayer printed on the paper.
“It’s a vehicle of faith,” said Grossi de Almeida, who miscarried twice, including losing twins, before Enzzo was born. “You take the pills, and you believe in them, you believe they will make you better, and you become stronger in your faith. You know there’s a God that helps you.”
The monk started the tradition of the pills in the late 18th century when he wrote his famous prayer on three pieces of paper in Sao Paulo and asked a woman who was having a difficult pregnancy to eat them. She reportedly went on to give birth to a healthy child. Demand for the pills surged.
Things get even more interesting because both of the two documented cases of miraculous healings that were used in Galvao’s canonization process involved the consumption of the his pills.
This interview conducted with an Auxiliary Bishop of Brazil by John Allen, however, implies that the pills did not enjoy a significant devotion or episcopal endorsement prior to the announcement of Galvao’s impending canonization:
Q: Some have criticized the devotion to Frei Galvao as superstitious and tinged with elements of folk magic. Cardinal Alo�o Leo Arlindo Lorscheider said in 1998 that he considered the devotion �ridiculous,� and prohibited the local nuns from making the pills. (The sisters kept going anyway.) How is the canonization being received by the mainstream of the church?
A: I�m really not sure. Frankly, I didn�t know about this thing with the pill until recently. It wasn�t known in Brazil, it�s a very localized thing. It was not anything well known or popular. Now that it�s become official, obviously the church recognizes that something miraculous happened.
Sales (or more precisely, “distributions”, since I presume they are give out free of charge) are rising quickly, and “devotion to Galvao is surging before the pope’s visit, [with] tens of thousands of his pills … being hand-made and distributed every day.” [source.]
Not surprisingly, some critics and skeptics are claiming that Galvao’s canonization is a “Holy opportunity” in which the Church has a chance to make a profit:
… experts believe that the canonization of the friar is extremely opportune. It represents a Catholic reaction to try to block the growth of the evangelicals and promote a return to links with the Catholic universe. �When the Catholic Church releases medallions carrying the pope�s head for sale, it is responding to an existing demand which will also in some way increase a religious bond. In the case of the canonization of Friar Galv�lt;/span>, for example, it is creating a new fact which will probably lead to pilgrimages, stimulate religious tourism and make possible the sale of products. In this case, it is not just about marketing, but also the mobilization of emotions and sentiments. The Church is mobilizing people to buy the medallion, to go and see the pope and to buy Friar Galv�lt;/span>�s prayer pills,� analyzes the sociologist Maria das Dores Machado. [source.]
But of course, a similar accusation could be made about any saint’s canonization.
Certainly, these pills are subject to pious abuses concerning their efficacy to produce physical miracles in a gauranteed manner. This article by the AFP tries to provide some examples of that. What one has to keep in mind is that the efficacy of the pills would seem to be not the physical consumption of the rice paper (though it is a helpful sign), but the concomitant recitation of the accompanying prayers, the expression of faith in God’s power to heal, invocation of Friar Galvao’s intercession, etc. I think the news reports error in presuming that many people believe that the actual rice paper – let alone some sort of “quasi-mystical imbuing” of the pills – is the cause of the healing. And I would hope that if one were to press someone practicing the devotion on this question they would be able to make the distinction. But I’m only able to surmise.
Nonetheless, from my examination of a few articles, it seems to me that these pills are a legitimate devotion within the local church of Brazil (while of course a s
aint is proclaimed so for the benefit of the universal Church), and it will be fascinating to see if Pope Benedict makes reference to the pills during the canonization of Friar Galvao or elsewhere during the course of his journey. He is, for instance, visiting a drug rehabilitation center, which would be another prime example to talk about Friar Galvao’s healing legacy, at least in general terms.
Now that I think about it, do any comment box wags want to propose a clever way for the Pope to tell his audience that they need to switch from “bad pill popping” to “miracle pill popping”?
(Okay, I’ll stop myself right here!)
[photo: AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano]