CASTELLAMMARE DI STABIA, Italy (AP) — Maria Esposito was ready to give up. Wasted away at 42 kilos (92 pounds), she couldn't bear another dose of chemotherapy to fight the Stage IV Burkitt's lymphoma that had invaded her body while she was pregnant with her second child.
But as she and her family had done since she was diagnosed with the rare and aggressive form of cancer in July 2005, Esposito prayed to the man who had appeared to her husband in a dream as the only person who could save her: Pope Pius XII.
Esposito survived, cured after a single, six-week cycle of chemotherapy — a recovery that, she says, stunned her doctors and convinced her that the World War II-era pope had intervened with God to save her.
Esposito's case, which the 42-year-old teacher recounted to The Associated Press in her first media interview, has been proposed to the Vatican as the possible miracle needed to beatify Pius, one of the most controversial sainthood causes under way, given that many Jews say he failed to speak out enough to stop the Holocaust.
Pius' main biographer, American Sister Margherita Marchione, has championed Esposito's miracle case and personally presented it to the Vatican's No. 2 official, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone.
Pope Benedict XVI moved Pius one step closer to possible sainthood in December 2009 when he confirmed that Pius lived a life of "heroic" Christian virtue. All that is needed now is for the Vatican to determine a "miracle" occurred.
"I'm certain that inside of me there was the hand of God operating, thanks to the intercession of Pope Pius XII," Esposito said during a recent interview in her cheery dining room in the seaside town of Castellammare di Stabia on the Amalfi coast. "I'm convinced of it."
Doctors and church officials aren't so sure.
Esposito's local bishop, Monsignor Felice Cece, summoned Esposito earlier this year to testify about her recovery to determine if indeed it was medically inexplicable, one of the key thresholds required by the Vatican to determine if a miracle occurred.
After consulting two outside doctors, Cece determined that Esposito could have been cured by even a single cycle of chemo and essentially closed the case.
But Esposito's supporters, led by Marchione, have gone over the bishop's head and are sending her full medical file directly to the Vatican's saint-making office for review.
"I was saved. I thank the Lord," said Esposito. "If he did something for me, then I now want to do something for him."
The Rev. Peter Gumpel, the Jesuit historian who has spearheaded Pius' saint-making cause for some two decades, said the case was under consideration but was noncommittal.
"We are at the very first preliminary stages of pre-investigation, and we are not even sure whether it will go ahead," he said, stressing that regardless the process is still years away from fruition.
The Vatican's saint-making process has long been subject to skeptics' doubts.
Some question, for example, whether the original diagnosis was correct for the French nun whose inexplicable cure of Parkinson's disease paved the way for Pope John Paul II's beatification. Others have questioned whether the Jewish convert Edith Stein should have been canonized based on the survival of a 2-year-old girl who overdosed on Tylenol.
As such, the questions surrounding Pius' possible miracle are just further evidence of the obstacles and deep theological, historical and political divisions that his cause has run into ever since it was launched in 1965.
Pius was pope in 1939-1958. Before his election he served as the Vatican's No. 2 and before that as papal nuncio to Germany. Given his deep involvement in the Vatican's diplomatic affairs with the Nazis, what Pius did or didn't do during the war has become the single most divisive issue in the Vatican's relations with Jews.
More recently, his beatification case has become the symbolic battleground in the debate over the future of the Catholic Church. Progressives are opposed to it because to them, Pius represents the church before the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Traditionalists and conservatives are in favor of it for precisely the same reasons.
The Vatican insists Pius used quiet diplomacy to save Jewish lives and that speaking out more forcefully against the Nazis would have resulted in more deaths. Critics argue he could have and should have said and done more.
"To talk about the pope as anything other than a moral coward as far as the murder of Jews of Rome is concerned is difficult for any of us who study what actually happened to take," said Brown University anthropologist and historian David Kertzer, author of a forthcoming book on Pius' predecessor, Pope Pius XI.
Despite opposition, Pius' cause is progressing at an impressive clip amid an increasingly concerted effort by Benedict and Pius' supporters to highlight his virtues and discredit his naysayers. A museum is planned in his honor, as are conferences and exhibits.
The Vatican's newspaper, Pius' chief cheerleader, recently ran an article about how Pius had Jews sheltered in convents around Rome during the Nazi occupation. A Vatican-sponsored film festival in May screened three glowing films about his papacy. Benedict himself recently extolled Pius as a hero during the war, saying he'd earned the "everlasting gratitude" of its victims.
Jewish groups and historians have argued for years that the Vatican had no business moving forward with Pius' beatification cause until the Vatican's full secret archive of his papacy is opened to scholars for independent research. That process is expected to take several more years.
"My position has always been to say — and I've said it to Pope Benedict XVI — that this is a matter that should be deferred until at least the generation of Holocaust survivors is no longer with us, so it's not as if rubbing the salt into their wounds," said Rabbi David Rosen, head of interfaith relations at the American Jewish Committee.
Last year, 19 Catholic scholars appealed to the academic in Benedict to give researchers more time to study the full archives. "The question isn't 'Did he do anything?' but whether he might have done more or sooner," said the Rev. John Pawlikowski, ethics professor at the Catholic Theologcial Union who co-wrote the letter.
Pius' supporters, however, are getting impatient. They charge that few scholars ever consult the 11 volumes of World War II archives that have already been released and put online, along with thousands of other documents, by a foundation headed by a Long Island Jew who admires Pius.
"It annoys me terribly that such an injustice is being done to such a great man, that he should be treated the way he is," said Marchione, the Pius biographer who is promoting Esposito's miracle case.
Sitting in her order's convent a stone's throw from the Vatican, Marchione said her religious congregation alone, on orders from Pius, sheltered 114 Jewish women at three separate convents during the Nazi occupation.
"I'm just tired of the whole thing that people can't go back to the documents that prove it and accept it as historical truth," she said in a recent interview.
Marchione flips through one of her nine books on Pius to prove her point: a photo of Jewish women and children sheltered in the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo; a photo of a pro-pope rally after Rome was liberated in 1944; a shot of the pope with members of the Israeli Philharmonic who in 1955 performed a concert for Pius in the Vatican in gratitude for having saved Jews.
Marchione has been unflagging in her support for Esposito's case, presenting it first to Bertone, the Vatican's secretary of state, in 2009 and recently sending her secretary to Castellammare di Stabia to gather Esposito's testimony and medical file to send directly to the Vatican's saint-making office.
For Pius' supporters, the hunt for a miracle is all the more urgent because he isn't a household name like Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul II. Where he is known, it's most often in the context of his controversial record, not necessarily because people would think to pray to him for a medical cure.
Esposito, in fact, said she had never heard of Pius until she fell ill.
Her husband, Umberto di Maio, said the family had been praying to John Paul II, who had died just a few months before, when Esposito was diagnosed in July 2005. But as di Maio recounts it, John Paul appeared to him in a dream one night and said he couldn't help Esposito but showed a photo of a slim, bespecled prelate who could.
Di Maio said he wasn't able to identify the priest until he saw Pius on the cover of a Catholic magazine a week later. As soon as he did, the family began fervently praying to Pius.
The family became convinced of Pius' intervention when Esposito's case was referred to a cancer specialist in Rome, an atheist who, after reviewing her charts, asked the family if they believed in God.
When di Maio replied they did, the doctor said: "Then pray, because she needs it," di Maio recounted.
Esposito, who still keeps the same dog-eared photocopy of Pius in her book of prayers, says she and her doctors were stunned when her PET scan, which detects lingering traces of cancer, came out clean after her six-week chemo cycle at the Umberto I hospital in the southern city of Nocera, near Salerno.
Her doctor, she said, was flabbergasted: "'Do you see this? It's clean! How is it possible?'" Esposito recalled Dr. Alfonso Maria D'Arco, head of oncology and hematology at Umberto I, as saying.
"And spontaneously I said to him, 'Doctor, doctor, isn't it possible that it came from above?" she said, pointing heavenward.
"No, no, no. Don't say shocking things," she said he responded.
"But for me it was a miracle, because it wasn't possible," she said, fighting back tears. "It wasn't possible. Not even they believed it in that moment."
D'Arco didn't respond to email requests for comment and couldn't be reached by telephone.
Dr. Ann S. LaCasce, an assistant professor of medicine at the Harvard Medical School's lymphoma program and affiliated Dana Farber Cancer Institute, said Esposito's speedy recovery wasn't all that remarkable.
"Not surprising at all," LaCasce said after reviewing the protocol Esposito received. "The key is this aggressive, multi-agent chemotherapy regimen that she got. It doesn't sound like a miracle at all. She did great, as expected."
LaCasce, who said she treats four to five cases of Burkitt's a year, said the prognosis for the rare subtype of non-Hodgkin lymphoma is usually very good, particularly for children and young adults who can tolerate the high toxicity that the aggressive chemo entails.
"Burkitt's is a disease we like to treat because they do really well, they feel better so quickly," LaCasce said. "She was cured of her disease with the appropriate chemotherapy."
Esposito and her supporters, however, are undeterred. Just last week, she traveled to Rome to take part in a ceremony outside St. Peter's Square marking the anniversary of the day the city of Rome dedicated a piazza to Pius to thank him for having defended Rome from the Nazis.
Esposito says she wants people to know Pius not just for what he did for Rome but for her.
"I am here. I want to say I'm alive. I know what I went through and
I assure you, it was really serious, something awful. Death was very
close. And I am here."