Looking at Miracles With a Skeptical Eye
BY Tim Drake
November 7-13, 2004 Issue | Posted 11/7/04 at 1:00 PM
Randall Sullivan, at first glance, seems an unlikely believer.
The son of atheists, and a writer and editor for Rolling Stone and Men's Journal, he began investigating alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary. That investigation led not only to his recent book, The Miracle Detective, but also led him to the Catholic Church. Sullivan is enrolled in the Catholic Inquiry program at St. Mary's Cathedral in Portland.
“That puts me on schedule to formally enter the Church this Easter,” he told Register staff writer Tim Drake in an interview.
Where are you from origi-
I grew up in a pretty tough blue-collar town on the Oregon coast, finished high school in Portland, began college at the University of Oregon, then won a creative writing fellowship to Columbia…. I have two brothers, one an avowed atheist, the other whom I've reduced at least to agnosticism. My father was a longshore foreman — the king of the docks in that small town — when I was growing up. My mother was mostly a housewife, who occasionally worked as what would today be called an administrative assistant. They're both quite intelligent but relatively uneducated people.
Tell me about your religious upbringing.
My parents were avowed atheists when I was growing up, although since the publication of this book, my mother has insisted that she would like to be known as an agnostic. During my childhood, they took what I've referred to as the Jesse Ventura view of religion: that it is a crutch for the weak-minded. Entirely as a result of this book's publication, I've learned that my mother did have a religious upbringing in Australia, where she was raised, within the Anglican/Episcopalian tradition, but that she abandoned her faith when a priest attempted a sexual assault on her as a young woman. Some resonance of her belief must be the reason that I, alone of all her children, was baptized as an infant. The only times I visited churches (Methodist and Episcopalian) as a child was at my own request, “to see what it's like.” I never attended as an adult and had little interest in Christianity (although I did harbor a secret fascination with Christ) until I began the process that resulted in this book.
What attracts a
I've realized over time that my underlying motivation for starting this book was to discover my own faith, or lack thereof. I think that the sincerity and confusion of the seer whose reported visions open the book in some way mirrored my own inner state and touched me. I began, though, simply by taking the position that I would investigate the investigation of alleged miracles and purported mystical revelations by the Church. I think I sensed, and have come to believe, that mystical experience, however one defines it, is the origin of faith. These things don't sustain faith, certainly, but they do spark the fire, in my opinion.
Did you believe in miracles prior to writing the book?
I would say that I believed in the possibility of miracles, and that this concession alone proved to be a major turning point for me. I was a skeptic, but a very open-minded one. My job at Rolling Stone was something I kept separate from all this (although that would prove quite difficult at one point), other than that the magazine provided me with credentials as a war correspondent that helped me get around in Bosnia during my first and most important visit to the country and to Medjugorje.
Your search eventually led you to the Vatican. What did you learn there?
I went to the Vatican to meet with and interview the priests who, for lack of a better word, vet claims of the miraculous before they are presented to the hierarchy. I was astounded and overwhelmed by much of what I learned, especially about the complexity of certain events and of the mystics at the center of them. There was often a mix of elements — spiritual and psychological — that I found most perplexing, all the more so because these two realms of understanding seemed to have almost no dialogue with one another. So many occurrences that I learned about were completely inexplicable to me. The sense of mystery that began to envelop my inquiry was absolutely compelling, and yet frightening to me, as well.
I was struck also, and considerably impressed, by the intellectual rigor of the Church's investigation of miraculous cures. In those cases, but especially in regard to reported mystical revelations, the Church seemed to be doing just about all it could to disprove or discredit them. The Church most definitely does not encourage the phenomena, or at least does not encourage the cults of devotion that form around them.
I was fascinated by the different approaches to faith I found among the priests I met at the Vatican, and especially intrigued by the influence of Pope John Paul II. I had very little interest in the Pope when I arrived in Rome, and yet, at the end of two weeks, I was deeply curious about this man whose faith and devotion seemed to mark a sort of divide between two very different ways of viewing religious life. In some way I didn't understand and couldn't articulate, Catholicism started to become an all-or-nothing proposition in my mind.
How did your trip to Medjugorje shape your beliefs?
It's difficult to say how Medjugorje shaped my beliefs, but I feel quite confident in reporting that I found my faith there. At a minimum, I would agree with what Father Benedict Groeschel told me, that “Medjugorje is part of the providential plan.” People have had and continue to have life-changing experiences there. I was one of them.
My time in Medjugorje transformed me in so many different ways that I had to write a whole book about it. Apart from the seers and the visions, the “atmosphere of prayerfulness” that so impressed Father Groeschel had the same effect on me. What most convinced me that something of an extraordinary nature had taken place there at the beginning were my contacts with some of the most solid citizens of the parish, who described how they had come to believe. I think I was lucky to have first visited the place during the war, when the religious tourism business was depressed and the intensity of daily life was magnified. I was especially lucky to have received so much time and attention from Father Slavko Barbaric, whom I consider to be the one truly holy man I have ever met. He actually had more impact on me than my contacts with the seers did.
As to the apparitions, I never have drawn a definite conclusion. I am convinced that something of a profound nature has happened and is happening in Medjugorje, but I have my doubts about whether what happened at the beginning is the same as what is happening now. The seers are human beings and subject to human failings. I agree with Father Groeschel that I created some problems for myself by relying too much upon Medjugorje as the foundation of my faith. And yet I still believe that what happened to me there was the most important development of my life.
I do believe that the events at Medjugorje have been shaped by divine intervention. I also believe that, beneath all the crass commercialism, the petty human motives, the heavy-handed exploitation, the historical complications, the lies and the craziness, the pure essence of Medjugorje's purpose remains, and that those who are able to reach it receive an enormous and sustaining gift.
Do you believe in miracles now?
Absolutely. I don't pretend to understand their operation, or even their specific purpose, and I live with doubts about every assertion I've heard or read in these regards. But I've come to the conclusion that to believe in God is to believe in miracles. And I believe in God.
I understand that you've had your children baptized as Catholic. What's holding you back?
These are the most difficult questions to answer. The fact that I had my children baptized Catholic clearly shows where my heart lies on the matter. I want them raised as Catholics. As to why I haven't formalized my relationship with the Church, that's complicated. Part of it was my probably misguided belief that I was trying to maintain some sort of independent status until I finished the book. As it is, interviewers have already questioned whether I could be objective, given that I had my children baptized and admit that I attend Catholic Mass. Also, there was this nagging belief that writing The Miracle Detective would mark my “religious phase,” and that this would begin to dissipate when I finished the book. One of the most remarkable results of the book's publication, for me, has been the discovery that my faith has actually deepened. In some way, I feel freer to experience my love of God, my devotion to Christ and my gratitude to Our Lady.
A problem for me during the past couple of years has been what I learned about the failings of the Church in addressing the clerical sex scandals. While I still feel that these were terrible, and for me they indict the whole Church, I have come to recognize that the mystical heart of Catholicism remains, for me, untouched. I've been hoping, to be honest, that I would find a priest near at hand who was capable of speaking to me on the level that Benedict Groeschel and Slavko Barbaric did, and who would help me navigate my difficulties with certain dogma. I've just about come to the point of realizing that this is a vain hope and not really necessary to my conversion.
What has really broken me down is my overwhelming desire to receive Catholic Communion. I was baptized as an Episcopalian and can receive Communion there, but (and I mean no disrespect to Episcopalians) for me, their Mass is a watered-down version of the Catholic Mass. I have just about reached the point of conceding that being “Catholic in my heart” isn't enough, and that I will have to formally join the Church to achieve any real peace on this question.
Tim Drake writes from Saint Cloud, Minnesota.
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