For more than a year, Gutierrez struggled to adjust to her disability, which now included occasional seizures, as well as blindness. Then, in January 2016, when Phoenix’s St. Joseph Maronite Church announced that the relics of St. Charbel Makhlouf (also spelled “Sharbel”) would be visiting the church, Gutierrez’s sister encouraged her to visit and to pray for the saint’s intercession.
Although she is not a member of the Maronite rite, Gutierrez visited the church Jan. 16, prayed before the relics, went to confession and was blessed with holy oil by the pastor, Father Wissam Akiki. Gutierrez recalled that, immediately afterward, her body felt “different.”
The following morning, she rose and returned to the church for Sunday Mass. Again, she experienced a different sensation.
And early in the morning Jan. 18, Gutierrez awoke with a searing pain in her eyes. She remembers how much they burned. And when her husband turned on the lights, she said the brightness hurt her eyes. She claimed, at 4 a.m., that she could see shadows; but her husband insisted that was impossible because she was blind. He later described what he called “an odor of burned meat” coming from her nostrils.
According to The Maronite Voice, the newsletter of the Maronite Eparchies of the U.S., “That morning she called her ophthalmologist, and she was evaluated the next day. Her exam showed that she was still legally blind, with abnormal optic nerves. Two days later, she saw a different ophthalmologist, and her vision was a perfect 20/20, with completely normal optic nerves. Subsequently, she saw her original ophthalmologist one week later, and her vision was documented to be normal, with completely normal exam.”
No Medical Explanation
Dr. Anne Borik, a board-certified internal medicine physician who later testified regarding Gutierrez’s healing, was called in by the Church to review the case. Earlier this month, Borik – a member of St. Timothy’s Roman Catholic parish nearby, but who attends St. Joseph Maronite frequently – talked by phone with the Register about her findings. She explained that the brain condition Gutierrez suffered from causes the optic nerve to constrict. Once the optic disc – the spot at which the optic nerve enters the eyeball – is damaged, it’s too late to fix. Because, when the pressure in the brain reaches high levels, as it did in Gutierrez’s case, the optic nerves become strangulated.
“Unfortunately, once the blindness occurs,” said Borik, “it’s irreversible.”
Images of Gutierrez’s optic disc revealed significant damage: “We have pictures,” said Borik, “to confirm that the optic disc was chronically atrophied. There was significant swelling, or papilledema.”
But after Gutierrez’s vision returned, Borik reported, there was no evidence of the aberrations that were evident on earlier images. “In the post-healing pictures,” Borik said, “her optic disc is back to normal. Her vision is completely restored. She has no more seizures. That is why I, as a medical doctor, have no explanation.”
A medical committee, led by Borik, undertook a thorough review of Gutierrez’s medical records, as well as repeated examinations. The committee wrote, “After a thorough physical exam, extensive literature search and review of all medical records, we have no medical explanation and therefore believe this to be a miraculous healing through the intercession of St. Charbel.”
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Unexpected Healing Strengthens Faith
Borik is enthusiastic about the healing, telling the National Catholic Register, “It has changed my practice! It has changed how I relate to patients. Now,” she said, referring to her relationship with those entrusted to her care, “prayer is such an important part of what we do.”
Father Wissam Akiki, pastor of St. Joseph Maronite Church, had a devotion to St. Charbel, and he installed a large picture of the saint in the parish shortly after his arrival in 2014. Then, in 2016, he arranged to bring St. Charbel’s relics to his parish as part of a U.S. tour.
Father Akiki remembers when Gutierrez showed up to venerate the relics. Father Akiki approached her. “I heard her confession,” he told the National Catholic Register. “We prayed together, and I said to her daughter, ‘Take care of your mom, and your mom is going to see you soon.’ Then, in only three days, she called the church to report that she could see.”
Father Akiki acknowledged that Gutierrez’s healing has strengthened the faith and changed the face of St. Joseph Maronite Church. “People are coming here to pray, traveling from Germany, Bolivia, Canada, Australia, Jerusalem.”
Following the healing, Father Akiki planned to erect a shrine to St. Charbel at his parish, with a two-ton sculpture of the saint cut from a single stone and imported from Lebanon. The shrine will be open seven days a week, 24 hours a day. Father Akiki expected that the dedication of the shrine March 26 would draw crowds, including Maronite Bishop A. Elias Zaidan, Phoenix Bishop Thomas Olmsted and many local dignitaries.