Saturday, September 11, 2004


By Randall Sullivan

Atlantic Monthly Press, $25, 450 pages


Like its title, this book has something miraculous in it. Imagine, if you can, a book written by a hip editor of Rolling Stone… a book that deals with delicate religious matters … and a book — called a “spiritual whodunit” — that will interest, and satisfy, both the pious and the skeptical. That very book is this one.

How does the Roman Catholic Church certify a miracle as genuine? With elaborate, prosecutorial doubt, with ponderous delay, and with miles of red tape. It is a miracle that any miracle runs this course. In the tradition of St. Thomas the Doubter, Randall Sullivan examines the process, interviews the people who claim to have seen visions and the people who insist the visionaries are crazy or fakes.

But first, cards on the table. I am a relaxed, secular Episcopalian who can easily empathize with doubters. I have no idea what Mr. Sullivan’s religion may be, though he asserts once, “I am not a Catholic.” He presents his facts and anecdotes with careful neutrality. He lets his possible saints, his possible villains, and his probable crackpots tell their own stories, vividly and personally. He gives quotation marks a tough workout.

One clergyman asserts that most bishops would “rather have a child molester in their diocese than a weeping statue of the Virgin Mary.” It’s less work. A molester does not bring a parade of pilgrims, profiteers, hysterics, investigative theologians, and journalists. Of the 295 alleged apparitions investigated by the Roman Catholic Church between 1905 and 1995, only 11 have been approved — fewer than one in 25.

Mr. Sullivan starts with one in an Oregon trailer park, when a glowing figure of the Virgin appears to a young Hispanic woman named Irma. After interviewing Irma and her friends in Oregon, Mr. Sullivan begins to read about miracles — and also about hysteria, heresy, and witchcraft — and comes across references to a village in the Balkans, Medjugorje, with apparitions that “had been subjected to perhaps more medical and scientific examination than any purported supernatural event in the history of the human race.”

Although much that he read was “your basic devotionalist drivel, written in breathless prose,” he still found the facts tantalizing. His interest thus takes Mr. Sullivan to Rome and the Vatican, then to the Balkan war zone and the village of Medjugorje — and the central story in his book.

In June of 1981, six children — five girls and one boy age 10 — reported seeing a “shining, beautiful young woman” at a place called Podbrdo, or Foot Hill. Terrified, one of the girls kicked off her shoes and fled to the village. The boy spilled a basket of apples he had been picking. But in the village, the young people “told everything,” as one of them put it: They had seen the Virgin Herself.

She had told them, “Go in the Peace of God,” and when they asked whether she would return, she nodded. At first, villagers laughed. But soon, crowds joined the six visionaries at Podbrdo. Word of miraculous events spread through the mountain settlements, and thousands were soon joining the six visionaries for regular Virgin sightings.

Mr. Sullivan arrived in 1995, expecting to stay briefly. But, through what he calls “unlikely luck,” he stayed in the home of one of the visionaries, Mirjana, “the brightest and best educated of the group,” as one investigator reported. Like others, she was soon in trouble with the Yugoslavian Communist authorities; the secret police angrily interrogated her time and again.

The local bishop was almost as hostile, and called the visions fraudulent. Mr. Sullivan notes the jurisdictional disputes between the diocese and the Franciscans, who were far more hospitable to the idea of visions. But such views were dangerous in Communist Yugoslavia. One priest and two Franciscan brothers were charged with sedition and sentenced to prison.

“Secular and religious authorities seemed equally perturbed that the visionaries were such ordinary teenagers. Ivan made a particularly poor impression.” In fact, Mr. Sullivan admits, “I took an immediate dislike to Ivan, and the feeling was mutual. ‘Stupid and surly’ I would call him afterward.” No breathless prose for this author.

One of the visionaries is stabbed by an onlooker during one of her trancelike visions, blood runs from her blouse, and she shows no sign of pain. A team of Italian medical doctors arrive in the village. The seers are hooked up with wires for electrocardiograms during their visions. The youngsters are jabbed, punched, and pinched and show no change of expression, no change in heart rate.

Then there was the story of a little boy named Daniel Setka, at two-and-a-half unable to walk or speak. He had been diagnosed as suffering from spastic hemiparesis and epilepsy. His deeply religious family had taken little Daniel to various shrines in Yugoslavia to no avail.

When they heard about the apparitions in Medjugorje, they brought him to meet the six young seers. “The little boy looked half dead,” said one of the visionaries. But they took him to “meet” the Virgin at their next religious session.

“Do you think the boy will get well?” a priest asked young Mirjana, who nodded. “When will the boy get well?” “In a year or so, I think,” Mirjana answered. But events moved faster than that.

After “meeting” the Virgin, Daniel was taken by his parents to a cafe near the church. In a voice heard by a number of bystanders, the child said, “Give me a drink” — the first words, according to his mother, that Daniel had ever spoken. After that, he walked and talked with apparent ease.

Daniel’s story, and others like it, fed the frenzy of the public. And as the war in Bosnia grew more intense, the village attracted a wide variety of travelers and hangers-on: religious pilgrims, vision groupies, black marketeers, arms dealers, smugglers, at least one authentic Hapsburg, and charitable volunteers.

The group of almost-resident visitors — “permanent pilgrims,” the author calls them — had easy access to the visionaries and to the local priests. They were called “loopers” (since they were “in the loop”) by a British humanitarian worker.

One unlikely looper was Karen, overweight, loud, rude and profane, and “at least slightly drunk every time I saw her.” Karen reserved special noisy scorn for “namby-pamby priests and nice-nasty nuns.” But she was also gutsy, “one of the relatively few humanitarians willing to carry medical supplies into any part of Bosnia … including those that lay under siege of Serb artillery.”

No namby-pamby priest is Father Slavko Barbaric, the appointed spiritual adviser to the visionaries, and a man with a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Freiburg in Switzerland.

At first glance, “unimpressive … slender, wiry, middle-aged.” But with long conversations and the passage of time, the author calls him “the only wise man I had ever met.”

Other interviews are hard to forget. There is Dr. Marco Margnelli, neurophysiologist and avowed atheist. After his careful studies, he concludes, “Whether we are dealing with an authentic apparition or something else … I cannot say. It is a question I prefer not to put to myself.”

The author ranges far and wide. He studies the reports of apparitions in Kibcho, Rwanda, and Scottsdale, Ariz. He wonders about his own “faltering faith.”

And then he meets a man described by different people as a “living saint” and as “Groucho Marx in a monk’s habit,” a friar of the Capuchin order and author of books on mystical theology, Benedict Groeschel. He “sounded more worldly than he looked … with a thick accent formed in … New Jersey.” The author finds Groeschel “a threatening presence … not intimidating, but daunting. I liked, admired, and trusted him.”

In a way, Mr. Sullivan’s cast of unlikely characters recalls the inhabitants of other mountains, Thomas Mann’s “Magic Mountain” or Thomas Merton’s “The Seven Storey Mountain.”

This book is a subjective spiritual quest. It ends, as it began, with Irma, the Hispanic visionary from Oregon. Nothing is proven. Nor disproved. But the quest itself endures.

Bart McDowell is a former editor of National Geographic.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide