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The Mystery of Miracles

An AARP The Magazine Survey Shows That Most Older People Believe in Miracles.

I am standing in one of the world’s largest plazas, at the Basilica of Our Lady of Fatima in Portugal. Across the length of the square I can pick out small knots of the faithful, inching along a well-worn path, each group encircling and encouraging a believer crawling or walking on his or her knees, thanking the Virgin for a favor or asking one. Here in the blazing Portuguese sun the believers are working their way toward an open-air chapel where, in a glass case, stands the Virgin’s statue. In her crown dangles a lump of lead—what’s left of a bullet that tore through Pope John Paul II in a 1981 assassination attempt. Although he stopped short of calling it a miracle, John Paul credited his survival to Our Lady of Fatima.

Europe is dotted with sacred sites like Fatima—the United States, less so. Still, in our poll 38 percent say they would travel to such a place if they had the chance. And 6 percent have actually made the trip, among them Cary Canli, 54, of Troy, New York.

“I was a nonbeliever until I went to Lourdes,” says Canli. “But I saw frail and fragile people walk out of there perfectly fine.”

The whole idea of traveling long distances or enduring physical discomfort to earn a miracle raises a fair question: What are the criteria for receiving one?

Nearly 75 percent of those who believe say that the people most worthy of miracles are those who have faith, and 67 percent say prayer is important. But 55 percent also say that “desire and conviction” that a miracle will happen plays a role. Miracle beneficiaries are “good, decent” people, according to 44 percent of respondents, and 33 percent agree that those who receive miracles have “the greatest need,” while 35 percent say they “have faced enough trials in life already.”

Only 9 percent say those who receive miracles have done nothing to deserve them. Falling into that category might be a respondent from Altoona, Pennsylvania, who told us he has survived five head-on car collisions—one of them while driving a stolen car—and walked away from them all. “I wondered, ‘How could I have survived this?’” he says. “It’s a miracle.”

Presumably, miracles should be pretty evenly distributed demographically—but there seem to be people in certain social strata who are either not getting their share or are simply missing out on the miracles around them. Seventy-one percent of those with a college or postcollege degree are believers, for example, compared with 85 percent of those with a high-school degree. And the more money you make, the less likely you are to believe in miracles: 78 percent of those making $75,000 or more believe; 86 percent of those making $25,000 or less do.

That doesn’t surprise the Reverend Forrest Church, whose Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City is in the heart of one of the wealthiest, most educated areas in the United States. The rich and the highly schooled “are the masters of the universe,” he says, laughing. “They don’t need anybody.”

Adds Kushner: “People who need miracles believe in them more, and people who are doing fine without them are more skeptical.”

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