Review: The Miracle Detective: An Investigation of Holy Visions, by Randall Sullivan

Donal Anthony Foley reviews The Miracle Detective: An Investigation of Holy Visions, by Randall Sullivan, (Little Brown, 2004, ISBN 0 316 64838 8).

The Miracle Detective is a hefty volume, which in the hardback version weighs in at 450 pages. It is presented by the back cover blurb as “a gripping investigation into the extraordinary phenomenon of Virgin Mary sightings around the world,” and a “powerful examination about what constitutes the miraculous in the contemporary world.”

In reality, it is neither of these things, and, on the basis of the “investigations” carried out here, if Sullivan had to earn a living as a real detective then he would probably soon be on the breadline. That is because it is clear that he has completely failed to grasp the real nature of the phenomena he has looked at. Rather, as regards his principal investigation, which takes up most of the book, that of the alleged visions at Medjugorje, he has ignored the majority of the critical evidence to produce a book which is essentially pro-Medjugorje propaganda.

The basic problem is that Sullivan is not a Catholic, and indeed he displays an, at times, astonishing ignorance about the Catholic Faith and basic Catholic terminology. For example, he talks of priests who “take” rather than “hear” confessions (p. 119), and also doesn’t seem to realize that friars and monks are quite different (p. 137). As he himself admits, “most of what I knew of the Catholic Church …had been learned through my liaisons with women who were fallen from the faith” (p. 22). Clearly, this is not likely to be the most reliable source of catechesis.

Thus he completely lacks the theological background to understand the phenomena he seeks to investigate. He is like an untrained layman in an operating theatre who has absolutely no idea of what is going on in terms of surgery, and so has to fall back on purely descriptive language to describe his surroundings, language such as, “the crisply laundered nurses’ uniforms,” or “the gleaming surgical equipment,” and so on.

What we get in this book is page after page, indeed chapter after chapter, of this type of flowery prose, as applied to Sullivan’s travels about the world to investigate, or attempt to investigate, visionary accounts. Everything is on a personal self-absorbed level, which perhaps explains the success of the book—it has a particular appeal to the modern self-absorbed culture which surrounds us.

What is clear from his account is that, once he had arrived in Medjugorje in the mid-nineties—having stopped off at Rome on the way to interview figures such as Fr Peter Gumpel, so as to better understand his subject—he was given VIP treatment. Once it became clear that he was a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine then all doors were swiftly opened for him. He was even able to stay with one of the visionaries, Mirjana.

This is his description of his first encounter with her: “The moment I met Mirjana, I knew she was neither a liar nor a lunatic, at least not of any sort I knew about. The young woman’s eyes were the blue of alpine lakes, luminous with clarity, unnerving in their repose. Her gaze was penetrating but did not probe. She struck me as quite sure of herself yet entirely unassuming” (p. 122).

Apart from the fact that this is a good example of Sullivan’s consistently over-the-top language—an approach which gets very wearisome after a while—it surely demonstrates that he simply wasn’t a suitable person to investigate alleged visions. His approach is based on feelings. He intuitively feels that Mirjana is genuine, therefore she must be genuine. I feel therefore I am. So much for a rigorous process of discernment.

Sullivan also had no difficulty in interviewing, or at least meeting, most of the other visionaries, including Vicka, the one with the highest profile. And just over a week after his arrival, he was introduced to Fr Slavko Barbaric, at the time the “spiritual director” of the visionaries—he has since died. What becomes clear, as the text unfolds, is that Fr Barbaric and the visionaries succeeded in completely fooling Sullivan into believing that Medjugorje was genuine. He was gradually, and expertly, taken in. The Franciscan priest even arranged for him to meet with a famous recipient of an alleged Medjugorje “miraculous healing,” one Rita Klaus, and from then on he was even more completely in the Medjugorje camp.

Sullivan goes into great detail about the visions, but everything is portrayed in an almost exclusively uncritical light. In fact, reading his account, one would hardly imagine that Medjugorje has been at the center of controversy in the Church now for more than twenty years. There is virtually no mention of the position of the successive bishops of Mostar, that is, that the Medjugorje visions are essentially false, nor is there any apparent mention of the Zadar declaration of 1991—which was issued by the Bishops’ Conference of ex-Yugoslavia—and which maintained that: “On the basis of investigation up till now it cannot be established that one is dealing with supernatural apparitions and revelations.”

Thus, after ten years, and thousands of alleged visions, the Bishops of the region could not accept that any of them were supernatural.

Similarly, much apparently impressive medical evidence is put forward in support of the visionaries, but the crucial point, that supernatural visitations cannot be determined by scientific methods, has not been grasped by Sullivan. There is no way that a genuine seer can be scientifically detected with 100% accuracy, any more than a consecrated host can be differentiated from an unconsecrated host scientifically. Discernment is an essentially spiritual process, and while scientific tests may be able to uncover cases involving mental illness or hallucination, they are incapable of determining whether or not a person is a genuine seer—or a fraudster for that matter. Only the Church can give us a degree of moral certainty about these things.

Likewise, as regards the talk of miraculous cures at Medjugorje, even Sullivan is forced to admit that “I could not help but notice how many of them involved either MS [multiple sclerosis] or some other disease that attacked the nervous system. Difficult to diagnose and impossible to cure, such illnesses also are remarkably resistant to scientific study, making it very difficult to prove that a healing has been miraculous” (p. 217).

We are a long way here from the astounding cures of organic diseases which have taken place at Marian shrines such as Lourdes.

Like a good number of Medjugorje chroniclers, he mentions, in passing, the original tapes of the visionaries speaking to Fr Zovko—the Medjugorje parish priest in 1981—and his curate, during the first week or so of the visions. But regrettably, he also, like most other commentators, fails to realize the importance of these interviews.

It wasn’t until 1989, when the text of these interviews appeared in The Hidden Side of Medjugorje by Fr Ivo Sivric, an author who was both a Franciscan and a native of Medjugorje, that their full importance was made plain. This is because they give us the primary source material about Medjugorje, source material which is far superior to the interviews with the Medjugorje visionaries which were done eighteen months or more after June 1981, the date when the visions began.

In particular, these interviews reveal that what the visionaries saw was not the Blessed Virgin, but almost certainly a diabolical counterfeit. Moreover, they also make it plain that the visions were supposed to end on Friday, 3 July 1981. Given all that, it is not surprising that prominent Medjugorje supporters have been at pains to disparage Fr Sivric’s book as much as possible. Thus, Sullivan dismisses it as follows: “I found Father Ivo Sivric’s The Hidden Side of Medjugorje (Psilog, 1989) to be without merit.” (p. 445)

There is no explanation given as to how he reached this conclusion, but perhaps it was something he heard from Fr Slavko Barbaric, and which he then dutifully took down in his reporter’s notebook. The truth is that this is a totally superficial and unjustified judgment, and in fact, Fr Sivric did a very valuable service to the Church by his work on Medjugorje. Indeed, it was providential that the information on the tapes survived, since without this we would be forced to rely on much later accounts.

The book has no index and no footnotes or endnotes. The references, such as they are, are far from adequate.

The real tragedy about Medjugorje is that it has diverted well-meaning Catholics away from support for Fatima. Instead of fulfilling Our Lady’s requests, particularly as regards the promotion of the Five First Saturday’s devotion, many have been led astray by all the publicity about Medjugorje. Unfortunately, the success of this book, and others like it, means that the Medjugorje juggernaut will rumble on for the foreseeable future. It would appear that only decisive condemnatory action at the highest levels of the Church will be capable of rectifying this situation.

This review was first published in The Wanderer Catholic newspaper