THIS is a story about a miracle.

In May 2014, a desperate, frightened woman went to pray. This woman, who had grown up in Verona in Italy, was in her fifth month of pregnancy. Doctors told her she was suffering with an illness that risked both her life and that of her unborn child. She had been advised to have a termination.

The woman went to church and offered her prayers to the late Pope Paul VI. She asked for her baby’s life to be spared. Months later, her daughter was born. The baby was healthy and remains so to this day.

The baby’s good health is, according to the Catholic church, a miracle. It is apparently the second miracle to have occurred as a direct result of that particular pope’s intercession. This means Paul VI – who died in 1978, 36 years before his miracle – can be canonised.

It might be that you’re feeling sceptical about whether this can properly be termed a ‘miracle’. If that’s the case, you’re in good company. David Hume, for example, thought any and all reports of miracles must be absolute nonsense because such an event would represent a “violation of the laws of nature”.

Whichever side you fall on – Catholic, atheist, simply hopeful – there is no doubt we Brits love the idea of the miraculous. Last year, market research firm Comres surveyed 2,002 British adults over the course of ten days for the BBC.

Of this number, 62 per cent believed in some form of miracle. A further, achingly poignant statistic reveals 43 per cent of people said they had, at some point in their lives, prayed for a miracle.

I’m afraid Hume would look very unfavourably on this study. He said (and this may be injurious to pride for those who responded positively to the survey): “The gazing populace receive greedily, without examination, whatever soothes superstition and promotes wonder.”

So what is it about miracles that is so compelling?

A miracle is an extraordinary event that interrupts the laws of nature (and as such, you’d imagine they’re as rare as hen’s teeth. You wouldn’t necessarily be right, though. For example, there have been 69 verified miracles at Lourdes alone since 1858. No wonder tourism to the little town has been booming for more than a hundred years).

Over the long history of the miracle, semantics have changed quite a bit. The Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in the year AD 731, includes a number of accounts of miracles, all of which were seen as basic fact.

Much later, in 1719, philosopher Samuel Clarke wrote his own theological definition of a miracle, in which he argued it must constitute “the interposition either of God himself, or of some Intelligent Agent superior to Man”.

Today, the word is thinner, diluted. It’s used in headlines about Messi’s best goals, or simply to describe something surprising and good. I wonder if so many people believe in miracles because of a change in the popular definition of what a miracle is. Rather than it being the intervention of a god (or, in the case of Paul VI, the intervention of god’s henchman), perhaps we now think of a miracle as being something transcendent, something that goes beyond the range of normal human experience.

You’ll be relieved to know I won’t list in exhausting detail here the things I find, according to this definition, to be miraculous (like the gauzy petals of the magnolias currently in bloom, here so gorgeously and so briefly; or the sound of someone you love laughing suddenly; or being contentedly alone for a whole afternoon and reading a book on the beach with a beer).

I’ll defer instead to Walt Whitman, who wrote, “I know of nothing else but miracles”, and Christopher Hitchens, who listed “friendship, love, irony, humor, parenthood, literature, and music” as proof “that the natural world is wonderful enough – and even miraculous enough, if you insist.”