Published November 17, 2014
MARSHFIELD, Massachusetts (AP) — The pain overwhelmed every drug Jack Sullivan's doctors gave him to fight it, coursing through his back in vicious bursts that made sleep impossible.
The aspiring Roman Catholic deacon had hoped for a quick recovery from spinal surgery to keep his ordination on track. But five days later, he was hunched over in agony beside his hospital bed, trying to walk but unable to stand. That's when he prayed to 19th century cardinal John Henry Newman.
"Please, Cardinal Newman, help me to walk so I can go back to classes and be ordained," pleaded the retired county magistrate from south of Boston.
Instantly, Sullivan's body began tingling, joy filled him and he felt heat like "walking into the open door of a huge oven," he said. Minutes later, he yelled to his nurse: "I have no more pain!"
Since then, the pain has not returned and Pope Benedict XVI has ruled Sullivan's quick recovery a miracle that resulted from Newman's intercession with God. The ruling clears the way for Newman's beatification in his native England by the pope. Sullivan plans to attend the Sept. 19 ceremony.
Beatification is a step toward possible sainthood in which a person is declared blessed and worthy of veneration. The pope's decision has brought Sullivan a measure of notoriety and invited deep skepticism from those who say Sullivan simply benefited from a successful surgery.
Neurosurgeon Michael Powell, interviewed for a column in The Sunday Times of London, said nothing is remarkable about Sullivan's five-day recovery from an operation the doctor called "essentially quite easy" — except the claim it was a miracle.
"I am afraid I have had a good chuckle with spine surgeons here over that one," said Powell, of the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London.
But the church says skeptics are ignoring evidence, including testimony from Sullivan's own surgeon, Dr. Robert Banco, who said Sullivan's instant, pain-free recovery was inexplicable and incomparable to any among his hundreds of patients in 15 years of practice.
No waters parted or poured from a rock, but church officials say what happened was undoubtedly a miracle.
"We know that he's free of pain and immobility and he was freed 100 percent, instantaneously and permanently and it's never come back," said Jack Valero, spokesman for Newman's beatification cause.
Sullivan shows little interest in swaying the doubters. "For those without faith, no explanation is possible," he said, paraphrasing an old saying. "For those with faith, no explanation is necessary."
Sullivan, 71, has a medium build, lively eyes and a head of white hair that hasn't surrendered a strand to age. If retelling his story has worn on him, the good-natured man hides it well.
He grew up with three siblings in suburban Braintree, 10 miles (16 kilometers) south of Boston, and remembers the day he became a regular churchgoer. His wife of 41 years, Carol, appeared at the breakfast table with his young son, both dressed in their Sunday best for Mass, and asked: "Aren't you coming?"
Belief didn't immediately follow. Sullivan was an attorney (he has argued before Massachusetts' highest court) and to him religion seemed all emotion and no evidence.
But as he became immersed in Catholicism, the faith not only seemed logical, but God's presence became indisputably real to him. By the mid-1990s, he found himself buried in religious texts for hours and feeling a strong calling to become a deacon — clerics that perform various parish functions, from preaching to hospital visitation.
Sullivan began the four years of schooling before ordination. But halfway through, he woke with a screaming pain in his legs and was unable to walk unless he bent over and leaned on his right leg with every shuffling step.
Tests showed several of Sullivan's lower vertebrae had turned inward and squeezed his spinal cord to the circumference of a pea. The condition threatened paralysis so doctors scheduled a September 2000 surgery and an indefinite interruption of his schooling.
"I was demolished," Sullivan said.
Seeking distraction, he turned on a Catholic TV station that night and watched a special on Newman, a converted Anglican considered one of Catholicism's great thinkers. The program ended with a request for information from anyone who received a "divine favor" from Newman. That got Sullivan thinking, and he prayed to Newman for relief. He stumbled to bed and woke up the next day pain-free.
Sullivan was ecstatic, but the relief was temporary. Nine months later, the pain returned as he walked from his car to his house. Surgery was scheduled for August 2001, and the recovery the pope has deemed miraculous followed.
Sullivan spoke about the two incidents of healing to Banco, who did not respond to a request for comment, and the doctor told him: "You want an answer? Ask God." Soon after, Sullivan contacted church officials seeking Newman's beatification.
Before a person can be beatified, a miracle attributed to that candidate's intercession must be confirmed. The Congregation for the Congregation of Saints appoints experts to determine if there are medical explanations for the cure, which must be instantaneous, complete and lasting. Theologians then determine if the cure resulted from prayer to the candidate.
If panels of bishops and cardinals agree that a miracle occurred, they forward the case to the pope, who makes a final decision. A second miracle is necessary for sainthood.
Sullivan was ordained a deacon in 2002. His duties at a local parish include visiting prisoners, bringing communion to the sick and assisting at Mass. Outside of church, he points to his landscaped acre of shrubs, trees and stone in seaside Marshfield as testimony about his healthy back.
There's a simple message in his healing, Sullivan believes. Although there is no guarantee of a miracle, he said, God is faithful to those who face pain and hardship with him and don't flee.
"There will always be some good, even if it's only to grow in faith," Sullivan said.
Associated Press Writer Nicole Winfield in Rome contributed to this report.