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By Nenad N. Bach | Published  03/3/2004 | Religion | Unrated



The Miracle Detective: An Investigation of Holy Visions
By Randall Sullivan
Atlantic Monthly Press; $25; cloth
ISBN: 0-87113-916-2
Pub Date: April 9, 2004

Contact: Linda Shockley
(212) 614-7868


March 1, 2004 -- What starts out as an in-depth investigation into the phenomenon of Marian apparitions becomes an eight-year personal and spiritual journey in "The Miracle Detective: An Investigation of Holy Visions," a gripping look into the extraordinary phenomenon of Virgin Mary sightings around the world, the priests and scientists who investigate them, and a powerful examination about what constitutes the miraculous in the contemporary world.

In a tiny, dilapidated trailer in northeastern Oregon, a young woman saw a vision of the Virgin Mary in an ordinary landscape painting hanging on her bedroom wall. After being met with skepticism from the local parish, the Catholic diocese officially placed the matter "under investigation."

"I was drawn to those initial reports of an apparition in that trailer park in Eastern Oregon by the realization that I was unwilling to simply dismiss them as hallucinations or confabulations, and that to me the fundamental source of them was a mystery," says "Miracle Detective" author and "Rolling Stone" contributing editor Randall Sullivan.

"Admitting the mysterious left me with a sense of wonder, in both meanings of the word: puzzlement and awe. I wondered what was there, and I wondered how I felt about it. Also, I felt compelled to learn more about how the Church proposed to 'investigate' an alleged miracle or purported revelation. What possible criteria, I wanted to know, would one apply?"

Sullivan set off to interview "the miracle detectives." These were the theologians, historians, and postulators from the Sacred Congregation of the Causes for Saints who were charged by the Vatican with testing the miraculous and judging the holy.

"My first visit to the Vatican in the summer of 1995 was an overwhelming education in the theological underpinnings of Catholicism," says Sullivan. "I became fascinated not only by how the church goes about authenticating miracles, but also by how it deals with its mystics, and their claims of divine revelation."

What Sullivan didn't know was that his own investigation would lead from Vatican City in Rome to the tiny village of Medjugorje in the former Yugoslavia, where the Virgin Mary reportedly first appeared to six young people in 1981.

"The more I learned about the controversy surrounding Medjugorje within the Church," says Sullivan, "the more remarkable it seemed to me that an event considered to be on par with Lourdes and Fatima was happening right now in a country that was being torn apart by the bloodiest European civil war in fifty years. I had to go there."

Sullivan's harrowing search for an explanation of the miraculous, specifically in Bosnia-Herzegovina, occurred at the very same time that the country was being torn apart by the worst of humanity's evils: war, ethnic cleansing and mass graves.

"The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and all its attendant horrors was an essential aspect of my experience and of this book," says Sullivan. "This was the first time I had ever seen the effects of war in person, and I doubt anyone is not changed by the direct and visceral engagement of humanity's capacity for savagery. In that place, at that time, it was difficult to doubt that evil exists. Equally impressive, though, was the human capacity for heroism, for charity and for sacrifice. I sensed almost immediately that the events in Medjugorje were somehow inseparable from the war, and I wanted to understand how that could be. What I learned about this was disturbing and inspiring in equal measures."

It was in Medjugorje that Sullivan encountered an unexpected turn in his investigation -- a personal religious experience in which a mysterious young woman came to his aid as he made a pilgrimage up the mountain of Krizevac.

"What happened to me in Medjugorje was a kind of conversion experience," says Sullivan. "I was raised by a pair of atheists who took the Jesse Ventura view of religion -- that it is a crutch for the weak-minded. Both my siblings are avowed atheists. I was never really comfortable with this; even as a child I sensed that there was a divine source. Yet I had an experience of God's mercy and of Christ's sacrifice that was unprecedented in my life, and that I found myself unable to deny and unwilling to disavow even after I returned to my secular reality in the United States."

Sullivan interviewed dozens of theologians, believers, skeptics, and apostates in an attempt to make sense of what he found in Medjugorje, from the compassionate Father Slavko Barbaric, an intellectual priest known as the Medjugorje seers' "spiritual director," to the legendary Father Benedict Groeschel, who is continually called upon to investigate supernatural -- or at least strange -- phenomena across America, culminating an eight-year investigation of predictions of apocalyptic events, false claims of revelation, and the search for a genuine theophony, that is, the ultimate interface between man and God.

Although these raptures in Medjugorje have been the subject of more medical and scientific examination than any other purported supernatural event ever recorded, "The Miracle Detective" has already been hailed as "one of the most comprehensive and engaging modern works on the subject." (Publishers Weekly, starred review). Sullivan himself has been profoundly shaped, spiritually, by the eight-year journey he took to write and finish this book; first and foremost is that he now he considers himself a believer in miracles.

"I don't pretend to understand their operation, or even their specific purpose," says Sullivan, "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."

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