Largely forgotten today is the extraordinary achievement of a gifted young South African cardiac surgeon who was the very first to transplant a human heart.

In 1967, Dr. Christiaan Barnard transplanted a human heart from a young woman who was mortally wounded in an automobile accident into the chest of a 54-year-old man who, at the time, was close to death. He had first received permission from the young woman's family to perform the operation, the outcome of which was uncertain.

Dr. Barnard's successful work did not go unnoticed. The worldwide media lavished praise on the pioneering surgeon and used a religious term to underscore that extraordinary moment in the history of medicine: Journalists maintained that the good doctor had performed a "miracle."

A miracle is a highly unlikely, if not impossible, stupendous feat. In view of his acclaim, Dr. Barnard was received in audience by then-Pope Paul VI in January 1968.

In our secular age, it is easy to overlook one of the most neglected miracles of our Catholic faith, which is firmly rooted in the supernatural: the creation of "a new heart."

In one of the penitential psalms of the Old Testament, Psalm 51, the psalmist makes a fervent appeal to the Lord: "Create in me a new heart, O Lord, and renew in me a steadfast spirit."

The word used for "create" is the same Hebrew word that God uses for the creation of the universe. God is asked to fashion a new heart for the one who acknowledges himself or herself to be a sinner and repents of past misdeeds.

Later, through the mouth of the prophet Ezekiel, God answers the prayer of those who desire a new heart: "And I will give you a new heart, and new Spirit. I will put within you and will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh" (Ez 26:6).

This clearly marks a divine intervention in the personal lives of the people of God. It affords them a new lease on life.

One of the key figures in the liturgical season of Advent is John the Baptist. This inspired prophet had a keen sense of the diseases of the human heart and what was absolutely essential for a lasting cure. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the baptism of repentance is linked to confession: an acknowledgement of sins of the persons to be baptized.

Recall the inspired words from Matthew's Gospel: "At that time, Jerusalem, all Judea and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to [John] and were being baptized by him in the Jordan as they acknowledged their sins" (Mt 3:6).

It is worth noting that modern-day cardiologists who treat patients with heart disease insist that their patients change their behavior and live a more healthy life. Certain foods are to be avoided, smoking is forbidden and physical exercise is indispensable.

No different is the spiritual life of the Christian in which a "pure heart" (Mt 5:6) is desirable. To that noble end, Christians are called to embrace the teachings of the Gospel and live lives worthy of their vocation.

At the end of the day, God judges us not externally, but according to our hearts. Those who refuse the Word of God as the criterion for their conscience are rejected for their "hardness of heart," a common theme in the Old Testament.

The long-neglected sacrament of reconciliation affords those afflicted with "heart disease" a much-needed healing. Hearts that are calcified can find a remedy in the abundant graces of the sacrament.

The joy of knowing that "a new heart" has been created by our merciful Lord is, without question, an answer to our prayer.

(Father Yanas is pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Troy.)