On a summer night 10 years ago, Jack Sullivan was despondent.
Doctors had just told him his painful spinal degeneration required surgery to prevent paralysis. But that also would prevent him from completing his third year of training to become a permanent deacon in the Catholic Church.
The 61-year-old magistrate from Marshfield, Mass., turned on the TV and happened to catch a program on Cardinal John Henry Newman. The 19th-century convert and theologian was a candidate for beatification, but his cause was stalled for lack of a miracle. The prayer that the Massachusetts magistrate addressed to Cardinal Newman became the basis for his upcoming beatification Sept. 19 in England.
"My exact prayer was, 'Please, Cardinal Newman, help me walk so that I can return to classes and be ordained,' " said Deacon Sullivan, who will preach at 5 p.m. Aug. 5 at St. Paul Cathedral. The public Mass is the opening event for the National Newman Conference Aug. 5-7 at the nearby Gaillot Center for Newman Studies.
"I didn't ask for healing. I thought it might be too much to ask for. I simply asked to return to class and continue on somehow," Deacon Sullivan said. "The next morning I woke up totally free of pain."
For beatification and usually also for sainthood, the Vatican requires a healing that doctors testify cannot be explained medically. It is taken as evidence that the deceased person is in heaven and, therefore, in such close relationship to God that his or her prayers for those on Earth are very powerful.
At the time of his first plea to Cardinal Newman, Deacon Sullivan knew little about him. "All I knew was that he was a convert and a great writer -- both for the Anglican Church and the Catholic Church," he said.
Born in London in 1801, the future cardinal became an Anglican priest, rector of the parish at Oxford University. He was a founder of a renewal movement that encouraged Anglicans to explore the biblical roots of their faith and the writings of the early church.
Such studies led him into the Catholic Church in 1845. He became a priest of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in Birmingham, England, and ministered to the poor while continuing to write books that remain influential. He was never a bishop, but in 1879 Pope Leo XIII made him a cardinal. He died in 1890.
"Newman was the absent father of Vatican II," said the Rev. Drew Morgan, director of the National Institute for Newman Studies in Oakland. The institute's Gaillot Center and the nearby Oratory congregation in the Ryan Catholic Newman Center will host the August conference, which is sponsored by the Newman Association of America.
The Second Vatican Council, 1962-65, led to important changes in the church. The foundation for many of them was Newman's teaching that the church can only be renewed by going back to the Bible and its earliest teachers, Father Morgan said.
"His ideas were present at Vatican II, and influenced that whole generation of church leaders," he said.
His official case for sainthood opened in 1959. In 1991, Pope John Paul II declared him "venerable," meaning he had led a holy life. But he lacked a miracle.
One joke in Catholic circles was that his case languished because his followers were intellectuals who thought they were above praying to saints. "Cardinal Newman doesn't have a prayer," the saying went.
"Another saying was that Newman will never be a saint because the people who love Newman don't believe in miracles, that they're all a bunch of rationalists," Father Morgan said. "But Newman believed in miracles. He wrote extensively about them. But he didn't believe that he was a saint."
Deacon Sullivan believes otherwise. His doctors couldn't explain why his pain had stopped. Five of his vertebrae were rotating inward, the bone cutting into his spinal canal. But he felt fine and his surgery was canceled. He completed his studies for the diaconate.
"The day after my last class, the pain returned in full fury," Deacon Sullivan said.
He began a required internship as a hospital chaplain, even as he walked bent in pain. Tests revealed no reason for the change. He had surgery. There were complications, and he was told he would be unable to walk for at least four months.
That would prevent him from being ordained with his class. He tried to get off his hospital bed, he said, but even with morphine, it was impossible to stand. Once again he prayed to Cardinal Newman, to be able to walk so that he could be ordained.
"Suddenly I felt tremendous heat and a strong tingling feeling all over that lasted for some time. I also felt an intense sense of joy and peace," Deacon Sullivan said. He shouted to a nurse, "I have no more pain!" He stood erect and began striding through the hospital halls, he said.
Some people have criticized his miracle, saying that the cure was due to the surgery. But his surgeon testified that nothing could explain the speed or totality of his recovery, he said. He walks at least a mile every day, does ministry in his parish and in a prison, and is an avid gardener.
As to why Deacon Sullivan's pain came back after his initial appeal to Cardinal Newman, Father Morgan believes it was in keeping with the cardinal's very precise mind, and his sense of humor.
"Jack didn't pray to be healed, he prayed to finish his classes. It was a specific answer to a specific prayer. And it was sooo Newman," he said.
He was ordained Sept. 14, 2002. It was the same day that the British church official responsible for Cardinal Newman's cause for beatification sent the documentation on his healing to Rome.
"I'm certainly not deserving of it. I'm no saint by any means," Deacon Sullivan said. "I'm an ordinary person with as many faults as the next guy. All I know is that sometimes God uses those who are bowed down in sorrow and misfortune. If there is a message in this, it's that if it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone."
For more information on the conference, call 412-681-4375 or go to www.newmanassociationofamerica.org. Fees range from $25 to more than $200, depending on the number of sessions and whether food and lodging are included. Student discounts are available.
Ann Rodgers: email@example.com or 412-263-1416.