Where pills can’t reach: Checking out a local miracle

Deacon John “Jack” Sullivan, 70, is Acting Clerk Magistrate of Plymouth District Court, generally not the kind of place where one expects to encounter miracles. In any case, Deacon Jack is a happily married husband, father, and soon-to-be grandfather who lives in Marshfield. He went to Suffolk Law School in Boston in the 60s, but since 2002 he has also been a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of Boston, currently serving at St. Thecla’s parish in Pembroke. Describing himself as “very ordinary” though “somewhat good looking -- at least my wife thought I was,” he considers himself, “very lucky both professionally” and family-wise.

In 2000 and again in 2001, however, some extraordinary things happened to him, which make him even more fortunate. Pope Benedict XVI on July 3 decreed that he had been cured of his crippling back pain through the intercession of the Venerable Cardinal John Henry Newman and that the cure had no medical or scientific explanation. The cure therefore qualifies as a miracle, which means that Cardinal Newman, the great 19th-century English convert and Catholic theologian whom many consider the Father of Vatican II, will be beatified next year. Miracles happen -- even to Boston lawyers.

Deacon Sullivan spoke last Saturday, July 18, at Arnold Hall Conference Center in Pembroke to a gathering of diocesan priests from around the country affiliated with Opus Dei’s Priestly Society of the Holy Cross. He was invited by Father C. John McCloskey, a Newman scholar who in 2000 hosted a series of programs for EWTN on Cardinal Newman. At the end of one of his programs interviewing Father Ian Ker, the renowned Newman biographer from Oxford, Father McCloskey put a message on the television screen: if you receive any favors from Cardinal Newman, please contact the Birmingham Oratory in England. (This is where Newman had lived and died and where the postulator of his cause of beatification, Father Paul Chavasse, resides.) Deacon Sullivan happened to be watching this program, which he found interesting. He said that if there had been no notice at the program’s end, he probably would not have prayed to Cardinal Newman, whom he previously knew very little about.

The program came at a crucial time for Deacon Jack, who was eager to be ordained a permanent deacon even though the way forward then seemed impossible. Deacon Jack had just finished his second year of a four-year course of studies for the diaconate, when he woke up on June 6, 2000 with such a tremendous pain in the back of his legs that he could hardly walk. At Jordan Hospital in Plymouth a CAT scan showed five vertebrae squeezing his spinal cord and creating a bulge, which meant that he could lose his lower body function at any time and be paralyzed. He could only walk doubled over. Referred to a specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, he was told it was the worst back problem the doctor had seen in 17 years.

Surgery was indicated, which would take at least six months to recuperate from. He was told to forget about resuming his studies for the diaconate. He prayed, “Please, Cardinal Newman, intercede with God so that I might go back to classes and be ordained.” He stresses that he did not pray for a miracle, just that he could resume his studies. The following morning, he felt no pain, had full mobility, and could walk without difficulty, with strength in his legs. He then met with another specialist, this time at New England Baptist Hospital, who told him that it was no longer necessary to undergo surgery and that he could resume his classes.

Deacon Jack finished his third year without difficulty, but the day after his last class in 2001 the debilitating pain resumed, so that he was effectively confined to a wheelchair. Surgery was performed in August of 2001. Complications ensued, as the surgeon discovered that the protective membrane surrounding his spine had ruptured, and the fluids had leaked out. The prognosis was not good, and recovery was expected to last eight months to a year. He needed to be carried back to his bed in the hospital.

Five days after the surgery, he prayed again to Cardinal Newman to be able to walk and resume his studies. He then felt great heat and a tingling sensation all over accompanied by a tremendous sense of peace. Though he had no sensation of time, the nurse told him this lasted for about 10 minutes. He stood up straight, was able to walk without a walker or cane, without any difficulty or pain. When he was discharged from the hospital, they gave him a huge jar of Percocet, a potent pain-killer. He didn’t take the drug because he didn’t need it. Where pills couldn’t reach, prayer did.

He called his doctor, Robert J. Banco of New England Baptist Hospital, who said he could resume his studies. It was only in October of 2001 after his post-operative meeting with Dr. Banco that he contacted Father C. John McCloskey in order to get in touch with the Birmingham Oratory. His doctor had told Deacon Jack that he had no medical or scientific explanation for his recovery: “If you want answers, ask God.”

It was the following year, on Sept. 14, 2002, that he was ordained a permanent deacon along with his classmates. The rest, as they say, is history. He walks a mile and a half every day and does heavy lifting in caring for his large home garden. He has not had any relapse or recurrence since the August 2001 cure. A tribunal in Boston gathered the evidence, and took testimony from 10 witnesses, which was then approved by panels of medical experts and theologians in Rome before being approved by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and finally by Pope Benedict XVI himself.

One might well ask, “Why Jack Sullivan?” Father George Rutler, a well-known Anglican convert himself, uncovered an interesting coincidence from the memoirs of Herbert Vaughan, future Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, which took place in 1889, the year before Cardinal Newman died: ‘‘I slept at the Oratory and the Cardinal came in to see me for twenty minutes. I hardly knew him again: doubled up like a shrimp and walking with a stick longer than his body. But a few days before his death the next year, the Cardinal surprised his caregiver, Father Neville, by returning to his rooms ‘unbent, erect to the full height of his best days in the fifties; he was without support of any kind.’” All of which means that Cardinal Newman had an affliction like Deacon Jack’s, and that he too had been cured of it. Maybe he heard Deacon Jack’s plea for intercession because he knew from personal experience how debilitating a back injury can be. Been there, done that.

Another possible connection, also speculative, is that Cardinal Newman, the “Father of Vatican II,” thought Deacon Jack’s a good cause. Perhaps the venerable Cardinal wanted to signal approval of Deacon Jack’s studies for the permanent diaconate, a feature of Newman’s beloved Church of the Fathers. The permanent diaconate had disappeared in the West during the Middle Ages, but it was restored to the Latin rite of the Roman Catholic Church by the Second Vatican Council. It was to get back on track with his studies for the diaconate that Deacon Jack had prayed to Cardinal Newman. And he was heard.

Deacon Jack’s response? “God doesn’t raise up the mighty. He lifts up the lowly.” Humble recognition of God’s favors worked through the saints and abiding gratitude to soon-to-be Blessed John Henry Newman.

Dwight G. Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.