[Next week in my class Conversion of Mind and Heart we will study the conversion of Bl. John Henry Newman. Here's an article I wrote back in 2015 about Deacon Jack Sullivan, a friend of mine and the man whose healing was the official miracle that led to Newman's beatification.]
From left to right around the table: Dale Ahlquist, Deacon Jack Sullivan, me, my son Colin, my wife Karen, our friend Jane Davies.
I've known Deacon Jack Sullivan for many years. I got together with him again this past weekend, and he left with me a document that I'll be quoting from. It's an account of his miraculous healing (I have taken the liberty of emphasizing some of what he says in boldface) ...
This story of mine began on June 6, 2000, when I embarked on a rather incredible and mysterious journey. You see, I suddenly awoke that morning with excruciating and debilitating pain in my back and both legs. At a local hospital a CT-scan revealed a serious succession of lumbar disc and vertebrae deformities turning inward and literally squeezing the life out of my spinal cord, causing severe stenosis. I was in complete agony day and night. Walking was nearly impossible as I was completely doubled over like a shrimp, only facing the ground.
Paralysis was a distinct possibility for Jack. The chief of spinal surgery at a major Boston hospital told him, "Without question, yours is the worst back I've seen in all my years of performing spinal surgery." The doctor scheduled Jack for surgery and told him to scrap his plans to finish his training in the diaconate formation program. Jack was upset not merely because of his agonizing pain, but because his crippling condition meant he would perhaps never become a deacon in the Catholic Church.
Returning home, I was totally distraught realizing I would have to drop out! I turned on the TV to get my mind off this calamity. Switching channels, I accidentally stopped at the EWTN channel. It was there that I was introduced to Cardinal John Henry Newman. The program dealt with Cardinal Newman's uniquely difficult life and the crisis he faced in his vocation as an Anglican priest.
The program featured an interview with Fr. Ian Kerr, one of the major biographers of Newman's. Fr. Kerr explained the great challenges that Newman faced over the course of his life, especially in his conversion to the Catholic Faith. The program ended with a suggestion that if any viewers were to receive a "divine favor" through Newman's intercession, they should inform the postulator of his cause. At the time, the Church had been waiting 110 years for a miracle to beatify him.
Jack continues ...
Because of this request, I prayed to him with all my heart, "Please Cardinal Newman, help me to walk so I can return to classes and be ordained." I didn't pray for complete healing for that would be too presumptuous; merely to grant me this small "divine favor" which at that time was so urgent. Then I went to bed. To my amazement, I woke up that following morning completely pain free, when for months I was in constant agony. Remarkably, I could walk normally with complete strength in my back and legs.
Jack describes how his surgeon was astonished, for the MRI and Myelograms revealed that his spine was just as disfigured as it had been. There had been no physical change and no reason why Jack was suddenly pain free and able to walk. But Jack's joy was not confined to his deliverance from pain, as his baffled surgeon made a recommendation ...
He then suggested that I should cancel my surgery and RETURN TO MY CLASSES!
All along, Jack's focus had been on completing his training and becoming a deacon in the Catholic Church. As the capital letters above indicate, health for him was not an end in itself. A healthy back and freedom from pain were both good things in and of themselves, but also they were means to an end. They were gifts from God to be used for the Kingdom.
But as soon as diaconate classes ended, and Jack had miraculously completed the third year of his formation program, the pain returned in full force. Immediate surgery was required.
My dura mater (protective fibrous lining surrounding the spinal cord housing the spinal fluids) was very badly torn. It also seemed very unlikely that my badly damaged and compressed spinal cord would decompress to its normal size because nerve tissue normally can't regenerate. For days thereafter I continued to suffer incredible pain, day and night, with no relief in sight. Even high dosages of morphine didn't help. On the fifth day after surgery as I laid motionless in my bed, I was informed by one of the doctors that I "should forget about returning to my classes," scheduled to begin in three weeks, "because it would take many months to recover, if at all!"
And now the miracle continues ...
Upon hearing this tragic assessment, I suddenly felt a strong urge at least to try to get out of bed; to attempt to walk! Inch by inch I slid to the edge of my bed in horrific pain. With the nurse's help, I put my feel onto the cold floor, leaning on the bed with my forearms for support. It was this moment of agony and frustration that led me again to prayer. The exact same prayer I said the year before and under the same circumstances. "Please Cardinal Newman, help me to walk so that I can return to classes and be ordained."
Suddenly I felt a tremendous sensation of intense heat and a strong tingling feeling throughout my body. It seemed to last a very long time. I also felt an indescribable sense of resplendent joy and peace, the likes of which I had never encountered. It was as though I was in God's presence and lifted up to heaven! Then I felt a strong surge of strength and feeling of confidence that I could finally walk! When I began my prayer I was leaning on my bed in utter agony. But when this experience subsided, I found myself standing completely upright. I then shouted to the nurse, "I have no more pain!"
Jack then began bounding about the hospital room and walking briskly up and down the hall, the nurses worried and concerned, flocking about him and urging him to return to bed.
I was discharged two hours later without any need for pain medication nor rehabilitation! Within a few days I was walking a mile or two daily. Oh ... the date of my healing? This wondrous event occurred on August 15th, the Feast of Our Lady's Assumption, body and soul into heaven. It was later determined that my recovery and regeneration of the nerve tissue of my spinal cord on that unforgettable day was unexplainably accelerated in one mysterious moment. And to everyone's astonishment, I returned to classes on time!
To make a long story short, the Vatican assembled a "team of spinal surgeons from all over Europe", who examined "all the films and medical records" and "unanimously voted by secret ballot that there was absolutely no medical or scientific explanation for my recovery." This became the official miracle that led to Newman's beatification.
Jack Sullivan completed his classes and was ordained a deacon, and served with Pope Benedict XVI at the beatification Mass for John Henry Newman in England in 2010.
|Pope Benedict (center) and Deacon Jack Sullivan (far right) at John Henry Newman's Mass of Beatification.|
Jack reflects upon his miraculous healing (the capital letters are his) ...
I believe these remarkable events beautifully describe the concept of our communion with the saints in heaven. I soon realized that THIS COMMUNION IS SELDOM A ONE-TIME EVENT, BUT USUALLY AN ONGOING PROCESS OF GROWTH AND DEVELOPMENT IN REVERENCE AND FRIENDSHIP ALWAYS LEADING TO SOME GREATER GOOD, SOME HIGHER PURPOSE, FAR BEYOND OURSELVES!
And included in that is a share in the sufferings of your saint, which is a share in the sufferings of Christ ...
We must often endure similar sorrows, and afflictions of the saint whose intercessions we seek, before we can possibly share in that saint's victory!
Now, Newman is not easy for many people to approach. His writing is formal and his thinking quite deep. He has a great sense of the need for austerity in religion - even severity - and this goes against our modern inclinations. So at lunch I asked Deacon Jack, "How do you reconcile the friendship you feel with Cardinal Newman with what is sometimes a coldness in his writing and with his imposing intellect?"
"They key is sanctity," Jack responded. "You've got to understand Newman through his holiness. That's the key to everything he wrote and to everything he experienced and stood for."
John Henry Newman stood for the true Faith, a Faith we come to ex umbris et imaginibus in veritatem, "out of the shadows and images into the truth", out of Unreality into Reality. Newman always fought against the False Faith, what Deacon Jack Sullivan describes as man's attempt "to re-create for himself a humanly designed Heaven on earth to replace Almighty God's eternal Kingdom."
Finding this True Faith is finding not only "what a friend we have in Jesus" (to quote the old hymn), but finding what friends we have in one another - our friends here on earth and our friends in heaven. Communion with this Truth is communion with a Person - with the Persons of the Trinity and with other persons on earth and in the Kingdom. It is friendship. It is when heart speaks to heart (which was Newman's motto).
For Deacon Jack Sullivan carries with him not only the effects of his miraculous healing, but also his deep and abiding friendship with the man whose prayer healed him. It is that friendship that is one of the marks of sanctity, of holiness; it is such friendship that is one of the blessed joys of heaven.
... and here I am as Bl. Dominic Barberi, the Passionist priest who received John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church ...