Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Newman's Miracle Deacon

With word on the wire that Cardinal John Henry Newman has cleared the "miracle hurdle" to attain beatification, the "unassuming" Massachusetts deacon whose healing from spinal paralysis on the English theologian's intercession reportedly got Rome's green-light is now in the spotlight:
Lying in a hospital bed after surgery on his spine, unable to walk and in agonizing pain, Jack Sullivan propped himself up on elbows and prayed.

Not to some vast, unknowable god, but to a specific figure in the Catholic Church, vastly respected, yet mortal: Cardinal John Henry Newman, an Englishman who died in 1890.

The healing, as Sullivan tells it, was almost immediate. He felt a tingling all over, was flooded with warmth, and, as easy as that, he could walk....

For Sullivan, who said he has remained pain-free since his prayers were answered and who has lately been busy fertilizing his rose garden and celebrating 40 years of marriage to his wife, Carol, the Vatican finding confirms what he has long believed.

In an interview at his home, the good-natured, rosy-cheeked Sullivan said his most striking memory of that summer day in 1991 is the wave of well-being that swept over him as he prayed.

"The most important thing was the sense of exuberance I felt, exuberance and confidence that all would be well, all would be rosy, and a tremendous happiness," he said yesterday, sitting in a comfortable brown armchair with views of towering pine trees. "I got up and walked all over the place, twisting my cane like Charlie Chaplin."...

Sullivan's suffering erupted on June 6, 2000, he said, when he woke up with excruciating pain in his back and legs. At Jordan Hospital in Plymouth, a CAT scan showed several vertebrae squeezing his spinal cord. A doctor told him to find a surgeon fast, because his spinal stenosis could lead to paralysis. In the meantime, Sullivan said, he was forced to walk hunched over, his right hand gripping his right knee for support.

He learned that the long recovery from surgery would keep him off his feet for months and dreaded the timing: Halfway through a four-year program that would lead to his ordination as a deacon in the Catholic Church and passionately devoted to his goal, he was in the midst of classes and a 120-hour internship at a Boston hospital.

One night, watching television to escape his troubles, Sullivan happened on a show about Cardinal John Henry Newman. Born in London in 1801 and widely admired as a funny, brilliant thinker and writer on religion, Newman converted to Catholicism in his 40s after clashing with leaders of the Church of England over what he saw as a shift away from the church's roots.

The television show described the current movement, based in England, supporting the cardinal's beatification and appealed to viewers for news of miraculous happenings that might help make the case. Sullivan wrote down the address. And that night he asked Newman for help.

"I said, 'Please, Cardinal Newman, help me so I can go back to classes and be ordained,' " Sullivan said. "The next morning I woke up, and there was no pain."

Sullivan remained free of pain for eight months, but after his last class, the pain returned, he said. He had surgery at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston on Aug. 9, 2001. Five days later, his second prayer to Cardinal Newman was answered. He was ordained in September 2002, and now serves as deacon at St. Thecla Parish in Pembroke, where his duties include assisting at Mass, performing baptisms, and teaching classes for local prisoners.

After Sullivan shared his story with leaders of the campaign for Newman's sainthood, years of investigation followed, culminating in hearings in Boston where Sullivan and his wife both testified about his recovery.

The inquiry was exhaustive, he said, and for good reason. "Just because you want to believe something, it doesn't mean it's so," he said.

He said he does not know why Newman helped him, except that he wanted so badly to become a deacon. "The point is, there is a greater reality," he said. "We don't have to worry."

Sullivan isn't the only US Catholic whose verified cure recently put a heavenly cause over the top.

Last year, the inexplicable healing from cancer of Audrey Toguchi, a retired Hawaiian teacher, secured the canonization of Blessed Damien deVeuster, the Belgian "leper priest" who ministered there and will be formally declared a saint on 11 October in Rome.

PHOTO: Debee Tlumacki/Boston Globe