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Venezuelans press sainthood campaign for revered doctor

June 29, 1997 GMT

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) _ Dalia Morales was paralyzed on her left side, blind in one eye and drifting in and out of consciousness. Suffering from multiple sclerosis, a disease with no known cure, she was expected to be dead in weeks.

At her bedside 36 years ago in the Caracas University Hospital, her mother prayed fervently to the spirit of Jose Gregorio Hernandez, Venezuela’s revered ``doctor of the poor.″

Days later, Morales woke from a semicoma. That night she ate chicken soup and strawberry ice cream, and the next morning got out of bed and walked around the room. Soon she was on her way home.

Stunned doctors who had given her only painkillers had no explanation, but Morales does.

``It was a great favor from Jose Gregorio Hernandez that I consider a miracle,″ she said of the late physician who is Venezuela’s adored candidate for sainthood.

Now 56, Morales is the mother of three, the grandmother of two and in good health. She married one of the doctors who treated her. He and his colleagues are still mystified by her recovery.

``I don’t believe in everything that people claim is a miracle, but there are some very specific cases″ that have no logical explanation, said Dr. Miguel Yaber, current head of Caracas University Hospital and a staff member when Morales arrived. ``I think this case was a miracle.″

Many Venezuelans claim similar stories of prayers to Hernandez being answered with favors or ``miracles,″ from passing school exams to curing cancer.

They feel the humble, learned and religious man who gained fame early this century for giving free treatment and medicine to the poor deserves to be made a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

When Pope John Paul II visited in February 1996, he received a petition signed by 5 million people _ nearly one of every four Venezuelans _ urging him to declare Hernandez a saint. President Rafael Caldera brought up the plea during his farewell address to the pope.

Local church officials have been trying to get Hernandez declared a saint since 1949, three decades after his death in a freak car accident.

Hernandez ``is the person who has had the most impact on our people″ besides native son Simon Bolivar, the South American independence hero, said the Rev. Alejandro Lopez, head of the Catholic Church’s local miracle review team.

Hernandez founded three medical science departments at the Central University of Venezuela, the nation’s oldest and largest. His classroom lectures were so stimulating they attracted engineering, art and economics students.

The life-long bachelor twice moved to Italy to study to become a Catholic monk, but his health couldn’t withstand the cold, damp weather and he came home.

Crossing the street one day, he was hit and killed by one of the few cars then in Caracas. He was on his way to donate medicine to a patient.

Widely admired during his lifetime for his good works, he was immortalized after death.

At his funeral procession, an estimated 20,000 men and boys _ about a fourth of the city’s population _ jammed Caracas’ streets. Women rarely attended such events in those days.

Pilgrims from across South America still trek to his boyhood home in rural Isnotu in Trujillo state, where the country’s sprawling central plains give way to the Andean Mountain region. Some of the faithful crawl the final blocks on their knees. Others carry X-rays, medical reports, crutches.

The walls of Isnotu’s church are crammed with thousands of metal plaques thanking Hernandez for favors. Schools, hospitals and orphanages nationwide bear his name.

In 1986, the Vatican declared Hernandez ``venerable,″ meaning he led an exemplary Christian life. But to achieve beatification and then sainthood, teams of doctors, theologians and cardinals must approve two miracles attributed to him.

Late last year, a Vatican screening panel rejected three cases, including Morales’ recovery, that were submitted for consideration. The news touched off disbelief and anger in Venezuela.

``We feel truly wounded and can’t find an explanation, either logical or religious,″ Luisa America Machado, 63, said recently outside Caracas’s Candelaria Church, which houses Hernandez’s tomb and attracts tens of thousands of devotees a year.

Others already were baffled by the Vatican’s decision in 1995 to beatify Mother Maria de San Jose, the first Venezuelan to gain that honor. Most Venezuelans had never heard of her.

Venezuelans aren’t giving up on Hernandez’s cause.

Lopez, who says Morales’ case was rejected by the Vatican because his review team accidentally listed different years for when she was cured and made other errors, is culling through stacks of testimonies looking for new miracles.

And Venezuelan church leaders are pressing a four-month nationwide campaign to encourage Catholics to pray for Hernandez’s canonization.

The church also is trying to distance Hernandez from superstitious practices, including witch doctors who invoke his name during black magic rituals because they believe he has supernatural powers.

Some of Hernandez’s descendants are pleased the church is combating the black magic connection.

``People invoke the names of saints for everything. It’s absurd. Saints don’t get involved in finding lost car keys,″ said Roberto Carvallo, one of Hernandez’s great-nephews.