The full paper on which saints to pray to when you’ve got Covid, and a laudatory reply

August 29, 2021 • 9:45 am

Yesterday I wrote about an unbelievably weird paper in the Elsevier journal Ethics, Medicine and Public Health. It reports a survey on Facebook and Twitter by three European scientists, curious about which saints respondents thought were the best ones to pray to for those who get Covid. This wasn’t just a survey of Catholic opinion, but was presented almost as a crowdsourced guide about which saints to call upon should you get the virus. The title is below, but presents only bits of the paper, and I couldn’t access the full thing because our library doesn’t get that journal. To see the snippets, click below:

Further, trying to ascertain if this paper was real by looking on the journal’s website (yes, it’s real), I also found that there was a “comment”, which I automatically assumed was a critical letter. (Click on screenshot below to see the site, but again, it’s paywalled):

Now, however, several kind readers have gotten hold of both the entire original paper and the reply, which you might be able to see via judicious inquiry. The short original paper is as bad as I suspected from the snippet, and the letter is completely weird, as it praises the original paper and then suggests that the authors left out one important saint. San Gennaro, known to Catholics as St. Januarius. (You might recall that the young Godfather murders Don Fanucci during the San Gennaro festival in New York City, with the fireworks masking the gunshots.)

First, the original paper. The authors surveyed, over just four days, followers on Twitter and Facebook. They asked the following question (it’s not really a question; this paper badly needs editing for English):

“Which saint you would pray for fighting against a Covid infection?”

They asked 15,840 people (92% from Europe) and got 1158 responses. There’s no information on the sex, age, or cultural background of the respondents.  Here are the answers:

St. Rita is said to practice self-mortification, had a difficult marriage, and “is considered patron saint of lost causes.” The next two, Saints Roch and Sebastian, are seen as protectors from the plague. The authors go on to discuss the saints not only as if they were real, but as if the miracles they were said to perform were real! An example (I can’t copy from the pdfs so am giving screenshots).

Bow wow! Here’s your loaf!

And here’s the paper’s summary, which certainly lends credibility to my guess that the authors do think this list will help people get over the virus. You could argue that it’s just a sociological report of what Catholics think, but I suspect there’s more behind it.

As for the “letter,” it’s not a critique, but praises the “brilliant” paper of Perciaccante et al. and then adds that the authors missed an important saint—perhaps because some regions of Italy that worship St. Gennaro (e.g., Naples) weren’t included in the survey. They end by saying that there are conflicting results about whether prayer “works” in curing disease, but that it does make people feel psychologically better. Here’s the whole thing, written by three Italian researchers:

Note that the miraculous liquefaction of St. Januarius’s blood is taken for granted as a real miracle. (See here for naturalistic explanations.)

Two papers are cited (#3 and 4) that, say Brancaccio et al., show conflicting effects of remote intercessory prayer on the outcome of coronary patients. The first coronary care paper is well known, and found no effect (in fact, there was one negative effect of remote intercessory prayer on healing). The second, which I just scanned, appears to give marginal positive results, with the probability that the “improved” effect of prayer could be due to chance alone being 4% (lower than 5% is considered significant, but the authors did not correct for using multiple indices of healing, which one would normally do using a Bonferroni test). The effect of prayer, even accepting their wonky probability, is very small.

Regardless, even if researchers are going to waste their time trawling for marginally significant effects of prayer on healing, do they need to also investigate which saints should be prayed to? What is the patron saint of heart issues? Did the intercessory prayers evoke that individual, or were the prayers generic? The paper doesn’t say, so apparently the selected “pray-er” was just given the first name of the patient and told to go to town.

Given the possibility that prayer promotes favorable medical outcomes, I’m surprised that doctors and scientists aren’t doing tons of research on this important issue. I wonder why.

17 thoughts on “The full paper on which saints to pray to when you’ve got Covid, and a laudatory reply

  1. Good grief! It’s alarming that the authors of the congratulatory letter seem to hold positions in the medical and biological sciences departments of Italian academic institutions.

    I thought yesterday that the paper’s authors needed a proofreader – today’s fresh excerpts reinforce that impression.

      1. Yes, according to the 2019 Eurobarometer survey only 14% of Italians are atheist or non believer/agnostic (for comparison, the figure for the UK is 37%).

      1. Standards are slipping and they leave it to the authors these days – similarly, book publishers generally expect the author to provide an index themselves. (I’m a freelance academic proofreader.)

  2. It is shocking and suspicous that there was not a single person who answered “None” (though I suppose those might be included in the 14000 non-respondents).

  3. St. Rita makes total sense to me. She was a comely lass from the town of Meter, France, known for her good works, piety and adherence to the rules. She was particularly vigilant about carts obstructing the road, chastising drivers to “Move along! Move along!” Handing out billets inscribed with Hail Mary to offenders.

    Ah, yes, saintly Rita the Meter maid, will always help you out of a spot, put a coin in her slot and she’ll add time to what you’ve got. Saintly Rita the Meter maid, where would we be without you!

  4. “Bow wow! Here’s your loaf!” Ha!

    I guess this tale gives new meaning to the admonition to “cast your breed upon the waters”…

  5. We need to learn more about the dog who was so helpful to St. Roch. What breed of dog was it? Was it a member of a minority variety, such as the Lagotto Romagnolo, who understood the woes of oppression by the dominant Italian hunting and shepherd breeds? Was it a talking dog? When the nobleman took St. Roch in, did the dog join them? And finally, is there
    a Piacenza monument, or at least a chapel, dedicated to the saintly dog?

  6. Believing that praying to different saints have different results is superstition —it’s theologically indefensible.

    1. Among the catholics, popular religiosity does not care for theological rigour. As far as I understand, having a favorite saint is like rooting for a football team. It is an almost determinist thing, influenced by the place you grew up, your family traditions.

  7. Come to think of it, why hasn’t the Congregation for the Causes of Saints begun an investigation into the life and miracles of the dog who fed St. Roch? That would be required before canineization and bowatification. (Sorry, I couldn’t stop myself).

  8. Saint Januarius is only for people from Naples a superstar. There, he competes with the football player Diego Armando Maradona for number one (I would not be surprised if there were people praying Maradona). Elsewhere he is just a saintlet.

  9. I don’t know who to contact about covid infection but I understand that supplicating San Tander is sometimes effective if you need money (if you have collateral)!

    I’ll get my coat…

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