Miracle Man Prayed to Cardinal Newman After Viewing Show on EWTN
By Michelle Laque Johnson
The morning of June 6, 2000, John “Jack” Sullivan woke up in excruciating pain.
“It seemed like the back of my legs and my back were on fire,” he said, and with good reason.
A CAT scan revealed all or most of the vertebrae and discs in his back had turned inward and were squeezing his spinal cord. A neurosurgeon told him he needed surgery as soon as possible to prevent paralysis, which could occur at any moment.
At the time, Sullivan was in the second year of a four-year diaconate program, which he loved. However, he knew that the surgery and the recovery period, not to mention the pain, would have made it impossible for him to complete to make the arduous twice-a-week trip from Plymouth, Mass, where he worked, to Boston, where he took classes.
Despondent and sicker than he had ever been in his relatively healthy life, Sullivan turned on EWTN one day and happened to catch a program hosted by Father C. John McCloskey III, STD, a devotee of Cardinal John Henry Newman.
“I wanted to help viewers to appreciate the greatness of this seminal figure of English-speaking Catholicism by examining facets both of his life and his work in 13 episodes,” said Father McCloskey. “I wanted to inspire devotion to Newman…by encouraging the viewers to pray to him and also by playing a prayer card on the screen at the end of each episode.”
Sullivan caught the episode with Fr. Ian Ker, another expert on Newman.
“They were discussing not only Newman’s teachings, but the process of beatification. At the end of the program, they had on screen an address of the Oratory in Birmingham [England] and they said, if you receive any Divine favors, please contact that Oratory. I happened to have a piece of paper and a pen on the table in front of me and I wrote it down. Then, I thought, ‘If I wrote it down, I might as well pray to Newman.”
So what complicated set of prayers did Sullivan say to obtain a miracle?
“I prayed, ‘Please Cardinal Newman, help me with God so that I might walk and go back to classes and be ordained.’”
Sullivan said he didn’t pray for a miracle because he thought that was too much – just cessation from the pain so he could finish his classes. The next morning, the pain was gone and it stayed away for one year. But it was not to last.
“The pain came back with a fury [one year later], right after my last class,” Sullivan said.
It was the spring of 2001. Sullivan had surgery, and that is when his surgeon discovered that, in addition to everything else, the protective membrane surrounding his spine had been torn in at least two places. Despite many attempts, Sullivan could not walk and the agonizing pain was his constant companion.
“I had the prospect of not being able to return to classes for my final year – it was the same situation as the year before,” Sullivan said. He also faced at least a year of physical therapy before he might be able to walk normally again.
So, on Aug. 15, 2001, the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a mere four days after the surgery, Sullivan breathed the same prayer he had prayed the first time he experienced relief. What happened next left everyone involved astounded.
“I felt tremendous heat and a tingling feeling all over that lasted for five or 10 minutes,” Sullivan said. “After I experienced this, I immediately stood up straight. There was a nurse in the room with me. I was able to walk, not with a walker or cane, but on my own, without any difficulty or pain. I walked all over the hospital, just joyful. I never needed any pain medication after that.”
Within five days, Sullivan was walking a mile. He now walks a mile-and-a-half every day and performs “rigorous” outdoor work in his flower and vegetable gardens, which includes lifting boulders and building stone walls.
Sullivan, 70, says: “I’ve been told I have the back of a fellow 30 years old!”
The “miracle man,” as he is now being called in the secular press, said he asked his doctor, renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Robert J. Banco of Boston, if this kind of recovery was normal.
“He said, “Jack, I have no medical scientific explanation for you as to why the pain stopped throughout your third year and why the pain stopped after very intensive surgery after four days. If you want an answer, ask God!”
Sullivan said, at that moment, he knew “something was happening.”
“That’s when I thought, ‘I better write that petition to the Oratory in Birmingham, England.’ It took a while and pondering all of this. To have my surgeon, who is very much a scientist and an accomplished spinal surgeon, make a statement like that, I said, ‘Wait a minute. This is more than just a quick healing. This is something unusual. If Cardinal Newman interceded with God for me, the least I can do for him is to write a letter to the postulator for the cause saying this is what happened to me, thanks to him.’”
Sullivan was ordained on Sept. 14, 2001, the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross. When he arrived home that afternoon, Father Paul Chavasse, postulator for Newman’s cause, called to let Sullivan know he was going to Rome to initiate Newman’s cause for beatification on his behalf.
“I prayed that I could be ordained through Newman and, lo and behold, I get word that the cause is formally beginning the day of my ordination!”
Deacon Jack, a father of three who is expecting his first grandchild, says his ministry today is a celebration of God’s gift to him through the intercession of St. John Newman. To thank him, he does parish work, assists at Mass, performs baptisms and is involved in prison ministry, which he finds particularly gratifying. That’s because Sullivan, who was born to a Protestant mother and a fallen-away Catholic father, had no religious upbringing. Now, he wants to set the prisoners spiritually free, just as he was set free from his spiritual darkness thanks to the Holy Cross Fathers at Stonehill College outside of Boston and his wife, Carol, “a very religious young lady.”
He also performs healing services many Fridays after benediction at St Thecla Catholic Church in Pembroke, Mass., using a very rare first class relic of Newman, a clump of his hair.
“A lot of the results have been remarkable,” Sullivan said. “A young man in New Hampshire was literally brain dead after an automobile accident. I touched him; he came to life. That may be the subject of the second inquiry. There were many others.”
In an age where many are losing hope, Sullivan said his miracle gives him a lot of hope and his life a lot of meaning. He says in the back of their minds, many people wonder if God really exists, if He’s in touch with us, if He loves us intensely, if there really is life after death and a communion of saints.
“It’s my relationship with Newman that taught me, without question, that there is life after death,” he said.
Sullivan, who is Chief Magistrate of the court in Plymouth, Mass., said he has spent a lot of time worrying about the diminution of standards in society, the breakup of the family, and the problems it causes to couples and their children. It turns out someone else was concerned about these same things.
“This is the same thing that Newman fought against in England in the mid-1800s – the rise of secularism and so-called enlightenment and a subjective outlook on everything,” Sullivan said. “Interestingly enough, we are enduring the same problems today as they had in Victorian England in the mid-1800s.”
It’s been eight years since Sullivan penned the letter to the Oratory about his miracle. Plymouth’s Chief Magistrate has been very impressed with the thoroughness of the Vatican’s investigation into his miracle.
“I’ve been in a court most of my life – I’ve seen thousands of police investigations – and I’ve never seen such an intense investigation as I’ve experienced with this.”
In Sullivan’s case, there were three panels of doctors convened and each doctor cast a secret ballot. “All three panels were unanimous in favor of my healing.”
A group of theological consultants also met to determine if the unexplained medical cure was accomplished through the intercession of a particular saint in heaven and if the cure was immediate and permanent.
“I had to file numerous affidavits and documents throughout the period,” he said. “People from the Vatican came over twice to Boston. On one occasion, our local tribunal conducted hearings on it, and interviewed witnesses, and all the testimony and findings were sent back to Rome – so it’s very involved.”
The theological consulters gave their findings to the Cardinals who comprise the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. They voted on it and sent it to the Holy Father. On July 3, 2009, the Holy Father signed the decree authorizing Newman’s beatification.
While no date or place has yet been set, beatifications are normally celebrated in the country or province where the beatified lived or functioned. However, Sullivan said that because of Newman’s worldwide prominence – there are Newman Societies at most colleges and universities throughout the world and his teachings are considered quite valuable by the Church – it is possible that the beatification will be in Rome.
Recently, Sullivan asked Father Chavasse if he was looking for a deacon to help celebrate the mass of beatification.
“Why,” said the Postulator, tongue in cheek, “do you have somebody in mind?”
Says Deacon Sullivan: “Hopefully, I might be one of the deacons. That would be really something.”