MARSHFIELD, Massachusetts — The pain overwhelmed every drug Jack Sullivan's doctors gave him to fight it, coursing through his back in vicious bursts that made sleep impossible.
The aspiring Roman Catholic deacon had hoped for a quick recovery from spinal surgery to keep his ordination on track. But five days later, he was hunched over in agony beside his hospital bed, trying to walk but unable to stand. That's when he prayed to 19th century cardinal John Henry Newman.
"Please, Cardinal Newman, help me to walk so I can go back to classes and be ordained," pleaded the retired county magistrate from south of Boston.
Instantly, Sullivan's body began tingling, joy filled him and he felt heat like "walking into the open door of a huge oven," he said. Minutes later, he yelled to his nurse: "I have no more pain!"
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Since then, the pain has not returned and Pope Benedict XVI has ruled Sullivan's quick recovery a miracle that resulted from Newman's intercession with God. The ruling clears the way for Newman's beatification in his native England by the pope. Sullivan plans to attend the Sept. 19 ceremony.
Beatification is a step toward possible sainthood in which a person is declared blessed and worthy of veneration. The pope's decision has brought Sullivan a measure of fame and invited deep skepticism from those who say Sullivan simply benefited from a successful surgery.
Neurosurgeon Michael Powell, interviewed for a column in the Sunday Times of London, said nothing is remarkable about Sullivan's five-day recovery from an operation the doctor called "essentially quite easy" — except the claim it was a miracle.
"I am afraid I have had a good chuckle with spine surgeons here over that one," said Powell, of the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London.
But the church says skeptics are ignoring evidence, including testimony from Sullivan's own surgeon, Robert Banco, who said Sullivan's instant, pain-free recovery was inexplicable and incomparable to any among his hundreds of patients in 15 years of practice.
Church officials say what happened was undoubtedly a miracle.
"We know that he's free of pain and immobility and he was freed 100 percent, instantaneously and permanently and it's never come back," said Jack Valero, spokesman for Newman's beatification cause.
Sullivan shows little interest in swaying the doubters. "For those without faith, no explanation is possible," he said, paraphrasing an old saying. "For those with faith, no explanation is necessary."