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(E) Father Sudac in New York Magazine
By Nenad N. Bach | Published  05/8/2002 | Religion | Unrated
(E) Father Sudac in New York Magazine

 

The following appears in the May 13, 2002 issue of New York Magazine
concerning Father Sudac. The writer clearly displays some scepticism
toward Father Sudac, but I think it is interesting what an impact he has
been having in the New York area. John Kraljic

Cityside
Sudac the Mysterious
The bleeding markings on the wrists and feet of Croatian priest Zlatko
Sudac have made him an ecclesiastical superstar. He usually doesn't
display them -- but have faith.
BY MARK JACOBSON



"Which one is he?" asked the 70-year-old lady from Yonkers. Near blind,
seeing "only gray shadows," she had come to the St. Athanasius Church on
Bay Parkway in Bensonhurst on this rainy, windswept evening, hoping to
be healed.

"The one in the purple vestments," said the lady's companion, who was
leaning on a cane. "The one who looks like God."

Truly, there was no mistaking the singular presence of Father Zlatko
Sudac. He sat in a velvet-covered chair to the right of the altar.
Moments before, the 31-year-old Croatian priest, russet shoulder-length
hair pulled away from his pasty complexion, had spoken of the
unsurpassed joy of devotion, but now his thick brows arched above
mournful brown eyes; everything about his frail frame suggested an
otherworldliness of suffering.

"Can you see it?" the half-blind woman asked her companion.

"Yes. On his head . . . I see . . . a notch," replied the second old
lady, squinting hard.

This much was visible: an indentation perhaps an inch long, like a coin
slot, in the middle of Sudac's (pronounced SOO-dots) wide, flat
forehead. It could be the horizontal plane of a cross, which, it is
said, Sudac first "received" in May of 1999. This was followed the next
year by bleeding markings on his wrists, feet, and side.

These were the outward signs that the former philosophy student from the
Adriatic island of Krk had received the mystical stigmata: wounds
corresponding to those suffered by Christ on the cross.

Amid the church's appalling sexual scandals, news of Sudac's stigmata
has been cause for tentative celebration. The most celebrated stigmatic
since the revered Padre Pio (the Italian priest who received the wounds
of Christ in 1918 and will be officially canonized this June), Sudac,
who came here from Croatia last fall, has become the hottest
ecclesiastic ticket in town. At St. Athanasius, four hours before the
beginning of the Mass, 2,000 people were standing on line in the rain,
hoping to get inside lest they be shuttled off to the auditorium across
Bay Parkway and have to hear the service on closed-circuit.

As church officials say, "No church is big enough for Sudac now." Two
weeks earlier, 300 people, unable to fit inside Immaculate Conception
Church on Gunhill Road in the Bronx, huddled on the church steps in a
sleet storm, listening to the Mass on a loudspeaker. Two Masses at Our
Lady of Pompeii in Greenwich Village attracted nearly 4,000 people. At
St. John the Baptist in Paterson, New Jersey, fire marshals attempted to
clear the seriously overcrowded room, leading one firefighter to say
with a sigh, "Burning buildings is one thing, but throwing people out of
Mass? That's not how I was brought up. Especially now . . ."

Especially now. It was no surprise God had chosen this particular time,
in the neo-apocalyptic wake of 9/11, to send a messenger like Father
Sudac, said Pat F., a fortyish typist who had driven down from
Peekskill. The world was a mess, said Pat, always a "good Catholic" even
in her punk-rock phase. People had deluded themselves into thinking
TV-inspired materialism, the rat race of work, and relativist ethics
were the actual state of things, Pat said. It was like The Matrix, where
evil, soulless computers generate "fake reality" and humankind is either
too beaten down or too "plain lazy" to do anything about it.

"Nine-eleven changed that," Pat said. Like Oz, 9/11 "punched a hole" in
the cheap curtain. Nine-eleven made it clear that pop culture and "the
rest of what they hand you is not cutting it." Bush's version of
"political good and evil" was just more confusion. The real battle was
between God's truth and men's lies. That was the value of people like
Sudac. Pat said that he showed "a way to see through to the real truth."

The first known receiver of the mystical stigmata (The Catholic
Encyclopedia cites 321 recognized cases) was Saint Francis of Assisi,
afflicted while in deep prayer on Mount Alverna in 1224. Suddenly,
according to Felix Timmermans's often-quoted retelling, "it was as if
the heavens were exploding and splashing forth all their glory in
millions of waterfalls of colors and stars." Inside the "whirlpool of
blinding light" was Jesus on a fiery cross, his wounds like "blazing
rays of blood." Like a "mirrored reflection," Jesus' fiery image
"impressed itself into Francis' body, with all its love, its beauty, and
its grief." Then, "with nails and wounds, through his body, his soul and
spirit aflame, Francis sank down, unconscious, in his blood."

Sudac, whose wounds have been declared "not of human origin" by Vatican
doctors at the Gemelli Clinic in Rome, is somewhat less dramatic when
discussing his holy affliction. It happened at "a friendly get-together
in one family's home," the priest says in his only interview available
in English (given soon after his initial stigmatization). Unspecifically
noting that the wounds imbued him with "a tremendous fear of the Lord,"
Sudac says he suffers little pain from the stigmata, except when he is
praying. "Then I feel it pulsing," he reports. "On first Fridays . . .
it's known to bleed and leak as though it is crying."

Other marvels Sudac received along with stigmatization include "gifts of
levitation, bilocation, and knowledge of upcoming events." Of these,
bilocation, the ability to be in two places at once, is particularly
"interesting," Sudac says. "You have the feeling that you are at one
place, but your heart and imagination want to be somewhere else." The
priest says he wouldn't have believed he'd been in two places at the
same time until "some people had come forward and confirmed it all." One
would like to engage Sudac, to discuss why he doesn't bleed to death. Or
whether his wounds smell like roses and tobacco, as Padre Pio's were
said to. But Sudac does not speak English and is not currently talking
to the press.

Nor does Sudac display the stigmata at his Masses, a fact that does not
seem to bother many of the people on line in the rain outside St.
Athanasius. A young Caribbean woman who described herself as a "black
Catholic" says, "What's in it for you to say it isn't so?" It was a
question of faith, people on line agreed. St. Athanasius is still an
Italian parish, but Russians have moved in, Mexicans and Filipinos, too.
Outside is the usual New York babel, half a dozen languages and accents,
from wherever Roman Catholics came in black robes and conquistador
armor. Tom, an Eastern European-born postal worker, says these various
ethnicities will matter little tonight. Of course, Father Sudac would
appear to be talking in Croatian, but actually his words would be
uttered in "another tongue altogether." It was something he'd come
across in this reading, Tom said. Stigmatics, due to their special
relationship with God, often entered a meditative state in which they
could "communicate" with others bearing the wounds of Christ. Since more
than 60 saints have borne the stigmata, Tom said, there was every reason
to believe that Sudac would not simply be speaking for himself.

Sudac would be speaking the universal language of Saint Francis, Saint
John of God, and Saint Catherine of Siena, and Saint Catherine de'
Ricci, and Saint Clare, and Padre Pio, too, Tom said. "Saints from 600
years ago, right here, down the block from grocery stores and laundromats."

Inside St. Athanasius, a fifties-modern church devoid of the medieval
ambience the soul-hungry religious tourist might hope for, Sudac is
delivering his sermon. The room is silent, aside from the outbursts of
autistic children brought by their parents to be blessed. Aware of his
celebrity, and also of the strong resemblance parishioners often draw
between his looks and traditional depictions of Jesus, Sudac, speaking
in low, controlled tones, never mentions the stigmata. He cautions the
congregation "not to look at the gift, but the Giver." Anyone who has
come to Mass because of him rather than Jesus Christ is "making a very
big mistake," Sudac says.

Standing beside Sudac, translating the sermon, is Father Giordano
Belanich. The 53-year-old pastor of St. John's Church in Fairview, New
Jersey, Father Gio, as he is called, left Croatia with his family back
during the Tito days, and has now been asked by church officials there
to "look after" Sudac. In addition to his translation duties, Father Gio
arranges Sudac's schedule (for $2,300, you can take a trip to
Medjugorje, the Bosnian-pilgrimage package-tour destination, air and
hotel included, which includes five days with Father Sudac) and compiles
long lists of e-mailed "healing petitions," which he prints out for
Sudac to bless en masse. He also drives Sudac to and from Masses in the
New York area in a Toyota Avalon.

This takes some planning, due to Sudac's growing popularity. Sudac's
already had to move out of the rectory house in Fairview to some
"undisclosed" place in the metropolitan area. At Mass, Sudac arrives
through the back door and begins without delay. When finished, he leaves
immediately, Elvis-style.

"It was always like that with these mystics," notes Father Gio, a big
man with a stern, down-to-earth manner that gives him the aspect of a
hard-knuckle Karl Malden waterfront priest beside Sudac's ethereal
Robert Bresson character. Saint Francis could talk to the birds without
interruption, but now saints and mystics needed "spiritual directors,"
Father Gio said. People with "special gifts" need to be "kept in line,"
lest they "fall prey to distraction." This was very important, Gio said.

Asked what sort of fellow Sudac was, on an everyday basis, Gio, who runs
Croatian Relief Services, which supplies aid to his still war-torn
homeland, cocks his giant Easter-egg-shaped head and says, "Oh, I'd say
he's pretty normal." Did this mean Sudac liked to put on overalls and
operate a forklift truck, as Gio often did in his Croatian Relief
Services warehouse? Did he like to get out on the lawn and toss around
the old football?

Well, not exactly, Gio replies. It would be a mistake to say Father
Sudac was "a regular guy . . . even for a priest. Let's say he spends a
lot of time in his room thinking about the Eucharist," Gio says. But
then again, "it took all kinds to do God's work and fight the devil."

"Don't look into politics! don't look into ideologies! Don't look into
magics!" Father Sudac implored, delivering his sermon at St. Athanasius.
Father Gio translated with matching fervor, a mighty, rising call and
response. "Don't look into spiritism! Don't look into Santería! Don't be
afraid of sin! There is no sin! Jesus Christ died to banish sin from
this world! Open yourself! Make room in your heart. Then he will come in
there in those places. He will come real fast!"

Then, growing quiet, Sudac began to talk about himself. "You've heard of
me, you know who I am," he said plaintively. "I am a young priest. Only
31. But I am not so young not to see that many crazy things go on in
this world. Things beyond explaining. Does it matter if I am a saint? I
don't think so. Only Jesus matters."

With that, Sudac slumped down into the thronelike velvet chair to the
right of the altar. For a moment, there was a hush in the room as Sudac,
seemingly spent, took a Kleenex from his vestments and wiped his eyes.
"He's crying," said a young girl. Several flash cameras went off.
Visibly angry, Father Gio, who had asked people not to take pictures,
yelled, "This is not a show, not a circus!"

But it isn't every day you hear a Mass given by a stigmatic. You never
know what might turn up on a photo. Last year, someone took a picture of
Sudac in Chicago in which the priest appears to be transparent. A few
days later, news of the picture was all over the Internet. In the
strobing light, you could watch Sudac, home in on his wan, desperate
face, study him. A few days earlier, I'd called up a priest friend who
also practiced as a university psychologist. What would he do, I asked,
if someone had come into his office bearing the wounds of Christ?
"Well," my friend said, "as a psychologist, I'd give him the Minnesota
Multiphasic test and treat him as a hysteric . . . As a priest, I might
do the same thing, but I'd pray for him. Because I'd think, Better him
than me."

At St. Athanasius, however, it was possible to discard rationality, even
skepticism. It was possible to stop, for a moment, trying to spy up his
sleeves to see if he really had bandages blotted red by "blazing rays of
blood." Because whatever anyone else thought, including yourself, you
knew he believed it.

A few minutes later, Sudac was peering intently into the monstrance,
host of the body of Christ. Holding the vessel inches from his face,
Sudac walked through the church, blessing the faithful. As promised, he
went out into the rainy night, across Bay Parkway, to those who had
heard the Mass in the school auditorium. The police had the streets
blocked off. With their cruiser lights sweeping across the slick
streets, they formed a corridor for Sudac and the monstrance to pass
through the waiting crowd. Dozens of people, some on crutches and others
holding small, sick children, pushed toward the priest. It might have
been part of a Law & Order remake of an early Fellini movie. Right then,
several men pushing a wheelchair barged through the crowd, the tires
running over an older woman's feet.

"Father! Father! . . . Him! Our brother! Bless him!" the men screamed at
the passing Sudac, indicating the teenage boy in the chair. The boy was
crippled, his dense black eyes crossed. The boy had had "a stroke . . .
since birth," the men declared. One reached over the police line and
grabbed Sudac's garment.

"You have the stigmos!" the man yelled. "Bless him. We are Greek! Bless
him! He has always been like this! Please, Father."

Sudac turned and, Eucharist in front of his face, bowed once, turned
both left and right, and walked on. Immediately, the men, now crying,
began kissing the boy in the chair. "He blessed you," they shouted. "Now
you have hope."

One of the men sprinted after Sudac, again reaching for his garment.
Falling to his knees, the man said, "Bless you, Father. Bless you!"
Sudac turned toward the man. For a moment, it seemed as if he might
smile, even say "thank you." But Father Sudac, afflicted with the wounds
of Christ, kept walking, into the night.

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