What Would Sherlock Holmes Do?

THE MIRACLE DETECTIVE: AN INVESTIGATION OF HOLY VISIONS

by Randall Sullivan

Atlantic Monthly Press, 2004

448 pages, $25

Available in bookstores

Maybe it's my Protestant tendencies, a holdover from my former life as a Lutheran. In any case, I've always shied away from Marian apparitions — even since becoming Catholic. My thinking has been: If it's not explicitly

approved by the Church, I'd just as soon not bother with it.

Randall Sullivan was an even bigger skeptic. Raised in an atheistic home, he was undisposed toward believing in any type of miracle. And, as an editor for Rolling Stone magazine, he considered himself far above the silly religious enthusiasms of the tragically un-hip. Therein lies the key to this page-turner's appeal.

The account begins in 1994, when a Mexican woman living in a dilapidated trailer in Boardman, Ore., claims the Virgin Mary is appearing to her. Intrigued by the oddness of the story, Sullivan begins to look into how the Church makes sense of such occurrences. His curiosity sets him on an eight-year investigation that leads him to Rome. There he meets with Catholic theologians, historians and postulators from the Congregation for Sainthood Causes.

Then it's on to a number of current apparition sites for a firsthand look (or not) at some phenomena as they occur (or don't).

Along the way we get a backgrounder on historical apparitions, approved and unapproved, from Lourdes and Fatima to Zeitun and Betania and beyond. But it ends up being Medjugorje, the Yugoslavian village where six ethnic Croats have been claiming to speak with Mary since 1981, that causes Sullivan to think about trading in the detective's spyglass for the believer's prayer beads.

In chronicling the alleged apparitions and seeing the Balkan civil war's impact upon the region, Sullivan expresses his doubts about the religious occurrences being reported. But a mysterious encounter with a young woman on Mount Krizevac, along with a later run-in with a demonic presence at Rome's Piazza Navona, suggest there is more to the world than meets the eye.

The book is as much a personal story of Sullivan's search for religious truth as it is an investigation into how miracles are investigated and declared. His account is filled with fascinating interviews with the likes of Dominican Father Gabriel O'Donnell, Father Slavko Barbaric and Carmelite theologian Father Ernest Larkin.

Gradually, through his investigation and experiences, Sullivan is brought from a place of disbelief to one of faith. “To shun claims of the miraculous,” he realizes, “was to deny God.” In the end, the book makes a good case for the authenticity of Church-approved Marian apparitions.

What about the others? “Either the visionaries are lying, they are delusional, or they are telling the truth,” Sullivan concludes.

“Or it may be a mixture of the three,” Father Benedict Groeschel advises before telling Sullivan that he believes God did use Medjugorje. The apparitions might have begun as a means of preparing people to survive the war, he suggests. However, what may have started out as authentic has since changed. “This is a field for people who don't have it all figured out, who don't need it cast in black and white,” Father Groeschel adds. “There's a lot of gray mist around this stuff. … [O]nce in a while a bright, shining light comes through. True belief is a decision. It's also a gift.”

Watching Sullivan embrace that gift is what makes his book so enjoyable to read. One gathers from the story that Sullivan has been brought to the very cusp of conversion. He's had his children baptized Catholic. Judging from that, he's now just one step away himself.

Tim Drake is the Register's staff writer.