John Sullivan’s dream was to become a deacon. That dream, however, was threatened when he developed debilitating back pain. A CAT scan revealed that several of his vertebrae were compressed so tightly that they were creating a bulge. Not only was it creating intense pain for him, but he was faced with the possibility of being paralyzed for the rest of his life. Medically, the only hope he had was to undergo surgery but even that could not guarantee that the pain would go away or that he would ever walk again. He would have to discontinue his studies to become a deacon and give up his dream.
Then, one evening, he was watching a documentary on the life of John Henry Cardinal Newman on the Catholic channel, EWTN. He was an Anglican priest who lived in the nineteenth century who eventually converted to Catholicism. His writings have influenced many important Catholic thinkers including our present pope, Benedict XVI. While watching the program, he decided to turn to Cardinal Newman in prayer and ask for a healing. He prayed, "Please, Cardinal Newman, intercede with God so that I might go back to classes and be ordained."
After uttering that prayer, he began to feel almost immediately relief from his pain. He was able to walk again and resume his everyday activities including his diaconate classes. However, about three years later the pain returned and he had to undergo surgery after which he developed severe complications leaving him in even more pain. Once again, he sought the intercession of Cardinal Newman and immediately felt a tingling heat shoot through his body. He got right up out of bed and began walking as if he had never had surgery.
He returned to his doctor who confirmed that there was no medical explanation for his healing. Of course, there was no doubt in John’s mind that he had been healed as a result of Cardinal Newman’s intercession. And so, when Cardinal Newman was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI in London, John Sullivan - now a deacon - was invited to participate in the Mass as a witness to the whole world of the healing power of prayer still at work in our world.
As we read in today’s gospel, before Jesus ascended into heaven, He promised His apostles that signs and wonders would accompany their preaching of the gospel. We see His promise confirmed throughout the Acts of the Apostles. Peter and John heal a crippled man at the gate of the Temple. Paul raises back to life a young man who died after falling off a balcony.
However, such miracles are not a thing of the past. As the story of Deacon John Sullivan reminds us, miracles are continuing to take place in our world today. Though Jesus has ascended into heaven, He has promised to remain with us always as we live and preach the good news of His resurrection. We should expect to witness signs and wonders, then, as part of living out our Christian faith.
While physical healings are impressive, the most wondrous miracles of all are those which take place in our heart and in our soul. It is the power to forgive someone who has deeply wounded us. It is the conversion of a heart hardened by despair and disappointment that is finally penetrated by God’s love. It is enemies who settle their differences and become friends. So many of those miracles take place on a daily basis. We may not read about them in the paper or see them on TV but they are no less wondrous than any physical healing.
And while those who receive miraculous healings will eventually get sick again and die, those who receive spiritual healings will keep them through to eternal life. We can expect to see such miracles if we are both living and preaching the good news of Jesus’ resurrection and if the grace of God is pulsing through our lives.
Today we celebrate the feast of the Ascension when Jesus, forty days after His resurrection, ascended to the right hand of God. From heaven He prays for us. We can turn to Him however great our need or however desperate our circumstances are and expect that He will answer us. More importantly, we can take risks in our life of faith and expect that He will support us. If we want to witness signs and wonders then we will have to live our faith courageously. As Mother Angelica, the founder of EWTN, so often says, “If we are not willing to do the ridiculous, then God cannot do the impossible.”