Sports fans in the U.S. and beyond may be disappointed to learn that reports of baseball Hall-of-Famer Roberto Clemente being recently beatified by Pope Francis are nothing more than fake news.
Vatican officials confirmed to the Washington Post that rumors of Pope Francis beatifying the Pittsburgh Pirates star are false. The rumors appear to have originated with a Christian News Wire post late last month, and were slowly picked up by other media outlets and social media accounts. The Christian News Wire article quotes Richard Rossi, who has been pushing for Clemente’s canonization after directing a film about the baseball star’s life, entitled “Baseball’s Last Hero.”
At the center of the claims is former Olympian high jumper Jamie Nieto, who played Clemente in the film. Nieto broke his neck in a back flip accident in 2016, leaving him paralyzed from the neck down. After months of rehab, he was able to walk about 130 steps down the aisle with his bride on his wedding day. According to the article, Rossi claimed that he had foreseen the healing in a vision, and had written to Pope Francis about it, and that the Pope agreed to beatify Clemente if the healing were to take place.
Normally, one Vatican-approved miracle is necessary for beatification, and a second miracle is necessary for canonization, when the Church officially recognizes someone as a saint. But while enthusiastic fans may be willing to take Rossi’s alleged claims at face value, the Vatican follows a very specific, formal process in determining the validity of an alleged miracle, with a commission of theologians and scientific experts examining the facts of the case.
When it comes to medical miracles, the Vatican must determine that the healing could not possibly have had any therapeutic or natural explanation, in order to ensure that the healing could only be attributed to divine intervention. In Nieto’s case, however, doctors said there was a small possibility that he would be able to walk again, and he then spent months in rehab, working toward that goal.
The Vatican also must confirm that the healed person prayed exclusively to the potential saint in question, thereby determining that it was that individual’s intercession before God that resulted in the miraculous healing. However, in the AP story detailing Nieto’s steps down the aisle for his wedding, the former Olympian does not mention praying to Clemente at all, instead saying, “I’ve worked really hard to get to this point.”
This is not the first time that false rumors have circulated regarding Clemente’s sainthood status.
In early 2015, Catholic News Wire claimed that his canonization cause had received a “papal message of support.” The article included a photo of a letter that it claimed was a show of support from Pope Francis for Clemente’s canonization cause. However, the letter was in fact from an official at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and did not convey a papal message of support, but rather instructed Rossi that the local bishop, not the Pope, is the correct person to contact about potentially opening a canonization cause.
Translated into English, it reads: “Distinguished Mr. Rossi, Recently you addressed a letter to Pope Francis calling attention to the figure of Roberto Clemente. Given the specific competence of this congregation, this letter was sent to this dicastery. In this regard, I wish to inform you that the competent authority to introduce a cause of beatification is the bishop where the person has died. Hence you would have to address your request to the Bishop of San Juan in Puerto Rico. Wishing you God's blessing, Fr. Boguslaw Turek.”
Clemente, a devout Catholic, was known for both his immense talent on the ball field and his extensive charitable efforts. He died in a 1972 plane crash on his way to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. He was 38 years old at the time of his death.
With a legacy marked by his Catholic faith and humanitarian work, it is possible that the legendary right fielder could have his canonization cause opened. But the process would be lengthy, and each official step would be announced through authorized Church channels.
A beatification of the baseball star would undoubtedly be a highly anticipated event, especially on the largely Catholic island of Puerto Rico, where Clemente grew up. Sports fans can rest assured that should such a high-profile beatification occur, an official announcement would be made with enough notice for them to follow along, or even attend the historic event.