The Third Miracle is a refreshing film deep in spiritual content. It is not a film that tends to employ the fantastical dramatics of Hollywood products like The Last Exorcism or The Exorcism of Emily Rose, or any other form of popular entertainment on the supernatural. It is also not a film that seeks to “prove” the miraculous that a documentary such as Father of Lights might seek to do. It would therefore seem that The Third Miracle is a film that can resonate with many of its viewers, both believers and unbelievers alike. This paper will thus briefly sketch out the plot and some of its key characters, and then reflect on the concept of spiritual formation as it relates to the film. The paper will also provide a personal reflection in which I examine similarities between Father Frank Shore and myself. I will also mention my theological rationalistic disposition and how that influences my spiritual formation.
The Plot & the Characters
The film centers on a postulator by the name of Father Frank Shore who resides in 1979 Chicago. As a postulator he is commissioned to investigate alleged miracles surrounding certain people who are considered for Sainthood within the Catholic Church. But life has proven far from easy for Father Shore. He is particularly doubtful of his own faith, the goodness and power of God, and has thus fallen away from his career as a priest almost completely. He also receives the infamous title the “Miracle Killer” as a result of his ability for debunking false miracle claims in the church. It is within this milieu that Father Shore commits to an investigation of a specific Helen O’Regan. It is his project to objectively examine whether or not O’Regan should be considered for sainthood given that people are crediting her, even though she has been dead for a year, with the healing of a young girl Maria Witkowski who was allegedly dying of lupus. Witkowski was allegedly cured on the first anniversary of O’Regan’s death as a statue of the Virgin Mary wept blood over her.
Surprisingly, in contrast to his doubtful disposition, the film has Father Shore discovering some convincing evidence of the alleged miracle cure of Witkowski, and he subsequently finds himself presenting the case to the tribunal. During the tribunal process he is confronted by Werner, the “Devil’s Advocate,” a powerful Archbishop within the Catholic Church, who vehemently argues against O’Regan’s nomination for Sainthood.
Other characters make their appearances in the film and whose presence bring to fruition significant talking points. Father Leone, a fellow priest, enjoys some screen time alongside the likes of Brother Gregory, Bishop Cahill, and Cardinal Sarrazin. Nuns are mostly just window dressing. Perhaps most significant of these is the unbeliever Roxanne, the daughter of O’Regan of whom Father Shore falls in love with (which tests his vow of chastity). Despite Roxanne’s mother being dead for some time, she is bitter towards her as she believes she “abandoned” her when she was a little girl so that she could work in missionary for the church. There are obvious points of discussion given this fact. For example, one that stood out for me was that if Roxanne’s mother really was deemed a suitable candidate for Sainthood, a person particularly close to God (the Catholic Church Cardinal defines a Saint to be “a special person who is with God in heaven. If you pray to that person and your prayers are answered, that means that person has a special connection with God. It means that person has convinced God to answer your prayers”), does it give grounds for Roxanne being angry with God too? Could this be the reason why Roxanne is an unbeliever? Or is God indifferent towards Roxanne and the pain of her childhood abandonment? None of these are answered, however, but are nonetheless worthy of discussion and consideration.
Defining Spiritual Formation & Talking Points
Spiritual formation is the process of becoming Christ like, and in turn seeking to mature one’s personal relationship with God (McLaren, 2008: 134.). It is through the power of the Holy Spirit that one can become a lifelong follower of Jesus, as the apostle Paul once penned that “we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.” (Eph. 4:15) (Throop, 2017). There are three process of spiritual formation, namely, that of Orthodoxy (the right-thinking about the Christian faith and Jesus), Orthopraxy (the right-action and devotional living), and Orthopathy (the right-feeling toward God, oneself, as well as others) (Castellanos, 2017; Beck, 2006). Part and parcel of this formation is discipleship, one’s own journey to becoming a spiritually mature leader, guide, and/or mentor within the faith community.
There are major differences between specifically Christian spirituality and that of other contemporary post-modern concepts of spiritualities (Webber, 2006: 50). Of these other spiritualities such as the likes of the New Age tend to mostly be quick fixes to Westerners seeking after meaning and value in life. Such spirituality is the sort of Eastern import of the “Five Minutes to Improved Spirituality” product. Christian spiritual formation is far deeper. For the Christian, key to the process is the allocation of time and effort to reading the Bible, Bible study, and engaging with scripture (Ortberg, 2017). There is also far more direction within Christian spirituality with the destination for the believing Christian clearly set for heaven and eternal communion with God.
Nonetheless, from this understanding of Christian spiritual formation, there rises a host of concerns in regards to the presentation of the Catholic Church within the film. It is quite apparent that many (not all) within the church appear to lack humility and compassion. For example, many of those within the tribunal process, most specifically Archbishop Werner, seem to care about their outwards appearance and position above anything else. The Archbishop, while opposing Father Shore, comes across as incredibly uncaring regarding, for example, the spiritual struggle that Shore is going through himself. In fact, the Archbishop actually uses this as an argument against Father Shore which, to many, suggests a severe lack of care and compassion for fellow human beings.
The members of the Catholic Church also operate according to a hierarchy, and those who are higher up the ladder are evidently deemed more important than those below them. In a scene during a dinner event, one fellow priest, Father Leone, says to Father Shore, “you can’t talk to the Archbishop like that!” after Father Shore and the Archbishop had a brief, albeit heated, exchange of words. However, Father Shore retorts, “I can. And I just did.” If there ever was a portrayal of this rigid hierarchy resembling different levels of importance and status within the Catholic Church, this lines says it all.
This is reminiscent of the Pharisees of whom Jesus rebuked. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees urging his followers to “not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others” (6:5-6). That was likely true of at least some of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, and it would be true of the members within the Catholic Church who are chauffeured around in limousines, who attend lucrative dinner parties, who occupy the biggest beds in the hotels they visit, and who almost never interact with the poor and vulnerable, as per the film.
One of the gospel portraits of the historical Jesus is that of a itinerant preacher who exercised much humility and self-sacrifice in his dealings with the vulnerable that society and the religious elite had shunned and deemed unimportant. It is hard to fathom how the film’s religious leaders can attest to following the precepts of Jesus given the way they not only present themselves but also think of themselves (pompous and superior). Jesus isn’t often discussed within The Third Miracle, though religious paraphernalia such as crucifixes, statues, and monuments of him are commonplace throughout. Given this fact, one might thus wonder at the spiritual formation of the film’s religious leaders. Have they really undergone a process of maturing in Christ? And are these the sorts of religious leaders the church should entrust to lead God’s people? It would seem that the hearts and the minds of the religious leaders in the film are in other things, namely, status, appearance, and being right and without error in matters of disagreement.
Further, the general gritty tone and feeling of the film does an excellent job at showing the brokenness of the world. Particularly prominent throughout are scenes depicting physical violence, homicide, drugs, poverty, and prostitution. It became quite evident that this brokenness was also to be found within the church and within the lives of many of its members. Though I would contend Father Shore appears the most humble and compassionate within the priesthood, there are some arguably questionable interactions between him and other people within the world. For example, several times Father Shore “bribes” individuals with money should they be able to assist him in clues and leads for his investigation into O’Regan’s case. Two particularly memorable instances involve his bribing of a prostitute as well as a drug addict for such clues. The obvious moral question is whether someone who claims to be a follower of Christ ought to do this. In Father Shores’ case, bribing these people did result in receiving important leads, hence it proved effective. However, it is likely that the money given will go to their harmful habits which implicates Father Shore as possibly contributing in their self-destruction though he obviously does not do so directly.
Personal Reflections: Spiritual Formation & Theological Rationalism
I initially admitted that I share much in common with Father Shore. Father Shore and I both tend to have periods of doubt and struggle. Memorable are Father Shore’s words to Father Leone in one such moment of doubt where he says, “We going to look like a couple of assholes if we die and there’s nothing there.”
Likewise, I have undergone, and still undergo, my own dark night of the soul in which God feels distant, separate, and “other.” I don’t go as far as to suggest deism, but just that God is totally different in essence to the material world which in my mind presents a massive chasm (though God, I believe, has no issue in crossing such chasm and interacting within the world should he desire). There are numerous reasons for this with one being, for example, that God is not directly experienced by the senses (though I do reject the logic and reductionism of positivism). The other being due to my concept of transcendence in which God, as immaterial spirit, is totally other to physical matter and creation (Wainwright, 2006). I have thought about such matters for a long time given that biblical Christianity affirms that though God is transcendent, probably existing timelessly in a timeless state, he is also temporal in the sense that he exists within time. This means that God isn’t only “out there” but in all places within time too. The problem is this fact of God’s existence is easily missable, hence the necessity of biblical revelation. I nonetheless understand why Father Shore struggled himself.
Moreover, the ontological question of miracles has been an intense area of research for me over the last few years. This is necessary given that I define myself as a theological rationalist. I desire evidence and reason, and prioritize such, when forming beliefs, especially when it comes to theology. This would explain my discomfort to Father Leone when during one scene he says to Father Shore, “I don’t need to ask questions, I know.” Such strikes me as an unwarranted and epistemically unjustified belief. Nonetheless, my engagement has taken me into the philosophy of religion and history, especially when it comes to God’s existence, arguments for and against God and the supernatural, and so on. Particularly prominent here is the question of miracles, in which I’ve enjoyed engaging the thoughts and arguments presented by David Hume and contemporary materialists and naturalists. I’ve further combed through numerous, interviews, books, and documentaries on the topic. Particularly substantive in this regard was my dialogue with American documentary maker Stephen Elijah who was in the process of filming and wished to consult me over my research (Bishop, 2016), as well as the miracles confirmed by the Lourdes Medical Bureau which is quite similar in ways to Witkowski’s miracle in the film (Bishop, 2016).
This topic was very close to me the entire way through The Third Miracle, and especially so where spiritual formation is concerned. For instance, sadly, though my research hasn’t resulted in me fully embracing the Orthopraxy component to the process, namely living a devotional life to God (which I concede is a weakness in my spiritual life that I have been working hard on), it has assisted me in Orthodoxy. By Orthodoxy I mean correct thinking about Jesus and the Christian faith, especially where truth is concerned. That miracles do in fact take place, as I believe the empirical and testimonial evidence suggests (Bishop, 2016; Bishop, 2016), demonstrates to me the truth of Christianity, God’s puzzling and mysterious involvement within the world, and also that God isn’t confined by my concept of him as something totally “other.”
However, there is also a downside to my spiritual formation which I find comes at the expense of Orthopraxy. For example, emphasizing such rationalism comes at the expense of devotion and spiritual maturity. The result, I have often felt, is a dry and merely rationalistic spirituality and spiritual experience. True Christian spiritual formation requires far more than solely deductive/inductive reasoning and syllogisms. As I believe it has well been pointed out, having a “relationship” with God is a different thing to believing in God based on reason.
There is much more that could be said about The Third Miracle. One, for instance, might credit the story’s portrayal of the Catholic Church seeking to be objective when it comes to alleged miracles, hence the church’s implementation of the Lourdes Medical Bureau in the real world. One could also produce a study contrasting the lives of the church’s members with that of Jesus and his early disciples, a study I tend to think would be quite illuminating. But ultimately the film had much resonance with the topics of spiritual formation thus making it an appropriate case study for the subject.
Bishop, J. 2016. A Look at the Medical & Empirical Evidence for Miracle Healing. Available:
https://jamesbishopblog.com/2016/11/17/a-look-at-the-medical-empirical-evidence-for-miracle-healing/ [13 August 2017]
Bishop, J. 2016. 5 Reasons I’m Certain Miracles Happen. Available:
https://jamesbishopblog.com/2016/02/07/5-reasons-im-certain-that-miracles-happen/ [13 August 2017]
Bishop, J. 2016. Medical Bureau Confirms 69 Miracle Healings at Lourdes. Available: https://jamesbishopblog.com/2016/11/02/medical-bureau-confirms-69-miracle-healings-at-lourdes/ [13 August 2017]
Bishop, J. 2016. Thoughts on my Dialogue with Miracle Film Maker Elijah Stephen. Available:
https://jamesbishopblog.com/2016/11/22/thoughts-on-my-dialogue-with-miracle-film-maker-elijah-stephen/ [13 August 2017]
Castellanos, N. 2017. The Heart and the Head of Our Christian Faith. Available: http://www.beautifulorthodoxy.com/content/contributors/heart-and-head-of-our-christian-faith.html [14 August 2017]; Beck, R. 2006. On Being a Practicing Christian: Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy. Available: http://experimentaltheology.blogspot.co.za/2006/06/on-being-practicing-christian.html [14 August 2017]
McLaren, B. 2008. Finding our Way Again: The Return of the Ancient Practices. Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson.
Throop, J. 2017. 5 Facets in Spiritual Formation. Available:
http://www.christianitytoday.com/biblestudies/articles/spiritualformation/beingformed.html [14 August 2017]
Ortberg, J. 2013. Seven Things I Hate About Spiritual Formation. Available: http://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2013/april-online-only/seven-things-i-hate-about-spiritual-formation.html [13 August 2017]
Wainwright, W. 2006. Concepts of God. Available: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/concepts-god/ [13 August 2017]
Webber, R. 2006. The Divine Embrace. Baker Books.