The miracle of Marshfield

When John Sullivan prayed for healing, he had no idea he would get a miracle… never mind one that would play a key role in the making of a saint

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By Traci Neal


As told by Deacon John Sullivan

I always had a very strong back. I never any problem and was always very active both in athletics and gardening, but on June 6, 2000, I woke up with severe pain in my lower back and on the back of both of my legs. My wife Carol rushed me to the hospital, where the physician in the ER did a CT scan of my back and said that I had a very serious problem: Most of the lower lumbar vertebrae — about five of them — with their discs were impeding upon and squeezing the spinal cord.

The neurosurgeon I saw next told me that this was the worst back he’d seen in 17 years of operating on spinal conditions. He said if I didn’t have surgery, I could become paralyzed. I was devastated. At the time, I was a court magistrate in the small harbor town of Marshfield, Massachusetts. I’d just completed my second year of deaconate formation and was looking forward to returning for my third in early September. But I could barely move.

I came home that afternoon and turned on the TV to get my mind off things. I happened to turn to an EWTN program hosted by Father John McCloskey, who was interviewing theologians about Cardinal John Henry Newman and the attempts to have him beatified. I didn’t know much about Cardinal Newman at the time. I knew there were a lot of Newman clubs at universities and around the world, I knew he was an Anglican convert, and that he’d already been declared venerable by Pope John Paul II in 1991.

Bordering on desperation, I thought, I should pray to Newman. I didn’t ask for healing, I just said, “Please, Cardinal Newman, please help me to walk so I can return to classes and be ordained.” The following morning when I woke up, the pain was completely gone. I could walk upright for the first time in months.

I had an MRI, and my spinal surgeon said this was the strangest thing he’d ever seen. My condition physically hadn’t changed, but I wasn’t experiencing any pain. He recommended I return to classes and avoid the difficult and risky surgery.
“Jack, I have no scientific or medical explanation for this event,” he said. “If you want an answer, ask God.”

Eight months went by without any pain whatsoever. But on the day after my last class in April 2001, the pain came back more debilitating than it had been before. I had the surgery, but it didn’t go as well as expected. I was on strong pain medication but in utter agony. They didn’t know whether or not I could walk. They had to extend the recovery period, which was initially three to six months, to eight months to a year because of complications during surgery.

My concern was the same as it was the year before, How can I finish my internship? How can I return to classes? Five days after the surgery, the physical therapist came in and I wanted to make an attempt to walk. It took me about 20 minutes to get to the side of my bed. The pain was throbbing, agonizing. Finally, with her help, I got to my feet. Leaning over the bed, with my head down, I prayed as before: “Please, Cardinal Newman, help me to walk so that I can go back to classes and be ordained.”

Immediately I felt a tremendous warmth, very noticeable and for quite a long duration, and at the same time a tingling feeling all over my body that lasted a long time. I also felt a sense of tremendous peace, wellbeing, and even more, a sense of confidence. I stood up and said to the therapist, “I have no more pain.” I hadn’t even had my medicine that morning. 

Within a week I was walking a mile every day. I returned to classes and really enjoyed my final year without any pain or back trouble.

Reflecting on this experience, this tremendous gift that I’ve received, two things alone concerned me: First, that I might exercise this gift that I received in a way that’s most pleasing to God, and second, that I may become more and more worthy of it.

In September or October of 2001, I wrote a letter explaining both events and sent it to the postulator for the cause of Cardinal Newman. The least I could do for Cardinal Newman would be to publicly acknowledge what he had done for me, I thought. I didn’t know what would come of it. I left it in God’s hands.

About a year later, on the day after my ordination on September 14, 2002, I received a phone call from Father Drew Morgan of the Pittsburgh Oratory, who told me he’d received an e-mail the day before from Father Paul Chavasse, who is the postulator for Newman’s cause for canonization and provost of the Birmingham Oratory, a congregation of priests and lay Brothers that Newman founded in Birmingham, England. He said that they had read the letter that I had sent, and after a vote of all of the priests and Brothers in the Oratory, decided they were going to take my situation to Rome.

From that time on, I received numerous calls and e-mails from the postulator for Newman’s cause and from the Vatican official who was designated by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to investigate. They requested all the medical materials, the MRIs and CT scans and the other films, plus medical statements from my surgeon and the hospital.

In 2005, Rome sent the cause to a tribunal in Boston in order to interview and take testimony from local witnesses, including my wife and myself, and my surgeon from Baptist Hospital. I made probably 20 or 30 trips over the course of a year and a half. It was very complicated and involved, and sometimes difficult, but you have your mind set on what you have to do and then leave it up to God for the results.
After all the testimony was taken, the tribunal in Boston returned all the documents to Rome. The documents are put together in brown paper packaging, wrapped with a red ribbon, and the ends of the ribbon are then affixed with melted wax with the seal of the Archdiocese of Boston to guarantee that the documents would not be tampered with.

All of this, then, was given to three panels — altogether about 15 to 30 spinal surgeons and doctors from Europe who reviewed the evidence and then voted independently by secret ballot. The question put to them was whether or not there was any scientific or medical explanation for my healing. All of the doctors unanimously voted there was not.

The next step was an investigation by a board of theological consultants. The question put to them was whether or not this extraordinary healing was the result of my prayers to Cardinal Newman and whether my healing from God was brought about by his intercession. They deliberated for about eight months and sent frequent questions that I had to reply to in the form of affidavits stamped with the archdiocesan seal by the tribunal in Boston. There were many, many questions: about my medical stay, the significant moment, the prayer I made to Cardinal Newman, whether or not there were any witnesses, what I did after the healing, etc.
The whole process took eight years. They don’t take these things lightly. If there had been one fact that might naturally explain my extraordinary healing, the case would have been dropped.

Ultimately, on March 28, 2009, we heard that all seven consultants unanimously voted in favor of the cause. The next step was for the matter to go to the cardinals and archbishops comprising the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. They appointed a cardinal who spoke English and Italian. It was supposed to take a couple of months for the cardinal to go over everything and then report to his brother cardinals and archbishops. We expected we’d probably hear from them in September. Well, lo and behold on June 2, I was informed that the cardinal had endorsed the petition and recommended it to the Holy Father, which was unbelievably quick.

On Friday, July 3, 2009, my wife called me at the courthouse and said she was going crazy; she was getting calls from reporters from all over who wanted me to comment about Newman’s miracle.

Oh my God, I thought, the pope has made his announcement! He’s made the decree known!

The Holy Father declared that Newman was to be considered by the Church as being blessed. I was overwhelmed and grateful that Newman’s message might be heard.
I do think these events have created an occasion where Newman can speak to our contemporary society. Newman was, perhaps, one of the greatest writers in Church history and fought most vehemently in 19th-century Victorian England against the onslaught of secularism. This certainly is a movement that we’re experiencing today, and the effects have been devastating in terms of the decline in culture and morality. This very much concerned Newman. Perhaps his being beatified will cause us to rethink the path that we’re taking and get back to our roots of love and self-giving.

Why me? I wish I knew. If you read the Gospels, Jesus performs miracles not for the skilled, not for the self sufficient, not the worldly. He performs miracles with those who are low and poor and, in many cases, almost desperate.

When you get supernatural intervention, you have to rethink the reality of God, the reality of Christ’s message. If Christ gave up his life in sacrifice for our sins, would He abandon us now, or abandon me at the hour of my greatest trial? And people see this and they think about the trials they’re going through, both physical, emotional, or trials involving a crisis of faith, and they find hope. CD

John Sullivan is now a deacon at St. Thecla’s Parish in Pembroke, Massachusetts.

Copy Chief/Bookshelf Editor Traci Neal

Traci joined Catholic Digest as copy chief and bookshelf editor in July 2006. She received her journalism degree from Southern Connecticut State University and has worked as a newspaper and magazine writer, editor, and/or copy editor since 1988.