But, before too much time passed, I did want to record my little brush with Church history. At a luncheon Monday to promote the Newman Legacy Project, I met (and received a blessing from) Deacon Jack Sullivan of Marshfield, MA.
The miraculous healing of this joyful and self-effacing gentleman (pictured above) paved the way for John Henry Newman’s beatification this September.
Here is Deacon Jack’s story from an article by Jonathan Wynne-Jones published last November in The Telegraph:
Lying in a hospital bed in Boston, Massachusetts, barely able to lift his head, Jack Sullivan was in such pain he was struggling to breathe.
There had been complications with the operation on his back. Doctors had warned that he would be left paralysed unless he underwent surgery, but on opening him up they discovered his spine had been so severely ruptured that protective fluids had leaked out.
Devastated and desperate, his hopes and plans for the future fading, Sullivan prayed to Cardinal Newman. He had turned to Newman after once watching a documentary about the Anglican cleric who had converted to Roman Catholicism in the 19th century, finding his life inspiring.
Almost immediately, the pain disappeared and he felt a surge of strength in his body. Pulling back the sheets, he tentatively felt for the floor with his toes – and then walked upright for the first time in months.
A Boston hospital might be an unlikely setting for one of Catholicism’s most significant events of the past decade, yet his healing has been hailed as a miracle by the Church. It has prompted the first papal visit to the UK for 28 years and paved the way for Britain’s first saint since 1982.
This week, Sullivan begins a tour of England, following in the footsteps of John Henry Newman, the cardinal he turned to in his darkest hour. He has been invited here by the Most Rev Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, who believes that the American’s visit is an important antidote to growing scepticism in Britain around issues of faith.
“His presence and testimony will help us to understand more deeply the power of prayer and the importance of intercession to those who can pray for us in the presence of God,” says the archbishop.
It is set to ignite a debate between those who consider miracles to be little more than figments of superstitious and confused minds, and those who firmly believe that they are the work of God.
In an exclusive interview with The Sunday Telegraph, Sullivan concedes that there will be many who doubt his claims – even his wife was initially unconvinced – but hopes that others will be encouraged by his story.
“For some heavenly reason, I was selected. I don’t know why, because I’m not unusual in any way. I’m just an average guy,” he says.
A chief magistrate at Plymouth District Court in Massachusetts, the 71-year-old has become living proof to millions of Catholics that miracles can happen to anyone, anywhere.
His debilitating back problems began in 2000, when a CT scan revealed a succession of spinal disc and vertebrae deformities, compressing the spinal cord and nerves and causing stenosis, an abnormal narrowing of the blood vessels, in his legs.
At the time he was training to become a deacon in the Catholic Church and was deeply upset that he would be unable to finish the course. Hunched over in his armchair at home, struggling to come to terms with his plight, he stopped flicking through the television channels to watch a documentary on Newman.
Feeling compelled to pray to the cardinal, he asked for the courage to confront his challenges and to somehow overcome his disability so that he could become a deacon.
The following morning he awoke virtually free from pain and able to walk, leaving doctors baffled. Scans had shown significant problems with his spine.
“I continued to pray to Newman every day after that. I was so grateful. I couldn’t believe what had happened.”
Having been told by doctors that the bulges on his spine were no longer visible on X-rays, Sullivan experienced further pain the following year, forcing him to undergo surgery.
It was his healing from this operation, in 2001, which surgeons had told him would take months of recovery, that was this year confirmed by the Catholic Church as a miracle.
Sullivan says there can be no other explanation. “I had been in agony for days. The expectation was that I’d be unable to walk for a long time, if at all, but after I prayed to Newman I immediately felt an intense heat. I felt joy and confidence.
“I said to the nurse that the pain had gone. I then walked up and down the corridors, with the nurse struggling to keep up with me.”
Discharged from hospital the same day, he returned home where he sat down to write to the Birmingham Oratory. His letter set in motion a long and complicated process that only finished this summer, when Pope Benedict XVI decreed that what had happened could only be explained as a miracle. The announcement was made in a formal proclamation by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the Vatican department responsible for examining claims of a cure.
There is none of the frenzied celebrations whipped up by “televangelists”, who cry that a miracle has occurred as they lay hands on believers before theatrically pushing them to the floor.
Such claims are rare and precious in the Catholic Church, which requires a thorough investigation including interviews with any witnesses and all relevant medical documents.
There is then a series of tests that the case must pass, beginning with analysis by the Congregation’s panel of medical experts, the consulta medica, before rounds of voting on the validity of the miracle.
If it is passed by the consulta medica, the case goes to the Theological Consultors, who consider the spiritual dimension of the claim. A verdict that concludes there has been a direct link between healing and the invocation of a “servant of God” is passed to cardinals and bishops for another vote, before the case finally reaches the Pope.
Although Sullivan’s case took eight years to complete, it was aided by the fact that doctors who treated him were plain baffled by his recovery.
Referring to his improvement the first time he prayed to Newman, Dr Robert Banco, chief of spinal surgery at the New England Baptist Hospital in Boston, wrote: “Because of this persisting and severe stenosis, I have no medical explanation for why he was pain-free and for so long a time. The objective data, CT, myelogram, and MRI demonstrated that his pathology did not at all change, but his symptoms [pain] improved drastically.”
After the second healing, he told Sullivan that the recovery to his spine was so complete that the 71 year-old now had the lifting capacity of a 30 year-old. “With the tear in your dura mater, your condition should have been much worse,” he said. “I have no medical or scientific answer for you. If you want an answer, ask God.”
While Dr Banco was willing to testify at the tribunal investigating what had happened, Sullivan says that his wife, Carol, was initially reluctant.
“She didn’t believe it at first,” he says. “She thought there must be some explanation. 'You must heal fast,’ she said to me. But she realised after the second event that it was definitely a miracle.”
Dr Peter Saunders, general secretary of the Christian Medical Fellowship and a former surgeon, stresses that claims of miracles should be treated with caution, but says that as a scientist with a faith, he would not rule them out.
“It is hard to say whether it [Jack Sullivan’s cure] is inexplicable enough to be declared a miracle. I believe God can do anything He likes. I don’t think there must always be a natural explanation.
“I can’t exclude the possibility of a divine footprint, but as a I scientist I would want to see the evidence.”
Others are not so open to such a possibility. “Show me the pictures,” says Jonathan Lucas, a consultant spinal surgeon at Guy’s and St Thomas’ hospital, London.
“I just don’t believe it. I’m very sceptical about the idea of miracles. Spinal surgeons often pray to God because the risks are very high. If you get it wrong, you can cause catastrophic damage and potentially paralyse. But I think it was just a lucky day at the office for these surgeons.”
According to Mr Lucas, the spinal problems suffered by Sullivan can occur in about 3 per cent of adults. He admits that a period of recovery would be expected following complications during surgery, but said that if the operation had gone well he should have been able to walk within days.
While he has not seen the medical documents that were presented to the Vatican’s medical council, his comments are likely to be shared by many who see such beliefs as an anachronistic relic from the Middle Ages.
However, Alain de Botton, the philosopher and author, argues that we shouldn’t rush to be so dismissive. “Atheists who mock miracles frequently miss that they actually tell us something interesting about human beings,” he says. “They aren’t merely nonsense. They tell us that someone is struggling with something big, that they have been subject to an intolerable strain that has led them to this belief. There are moments when reality is so bleak that we want and need it to be a miracle.”
He continues: “The belief in miracles tends to be the province of desperate people. They are either very short of money or very ill.”
Yet de Botton suggests that all of us believe in miracles to some degree, whether it’s finding that cancer has vanished or wanting to believe that a loved one hasn’t died.
Rather than scorn Catholics who hold to this view, he says that there is something admirable about such faith.
“Anglican tradition has downplayed miracles. Ever since the Enlightenment, it is something they have found very embarrassing, whereas for Catholics it is mainstream.”
He says that in some ways the belief in miracles, such as the cure of Jack Sullivan, should not come as such a surprise. “They are nothing next to the miracle that is at the heart of Christianity, the belief that Jesus is the son of God.”