Interview with Author Randall Sullivan
Michael K. Jones

 "In what often reads like a spiritual whodunit, author and Rolling Stone magazine contributing editor Sullivan takes readers on a journey into the labyrinthine world of religious apparitions and miracle investigations... Well-told and expertly researched, Sullivan's book should appeal to skeptics and believers alike."


Randall Sullivan was profoundly changed by his investigation and visit to Medjugorje. Once a skeptic, Randall now believed. His circle of friends had no religious aspirations, so Sullivan found his friends no longer understood him. Sullivan has remain faithful to his spiritual beliefs since writing "The Miracle Detective." Upon launching the new OWN (Oprah Winfrey Network) it was announced Randall Sullivan would co-host a new show called, "The Miracle Detectives." The show pits  spiritually against scientific skepticism as Sullivan and co-host travel the globe investigating miraculous claims. Check your local listing for show times.


Just prior to the release of "The Miracle Detective," I was contacted by the publisher, "Atlantic Monthly." I was asked to receive a free copy and review the book. During this time is when the brief interview below was conducted.

An Investigation of Holy Visions
By Randall Sullivan

The story begins in 1994, when a young woman in Oregon experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary. The sighting caused a clamor in the media, and pilgrims from across the U.S. flocked to her home. After being met with skepticism from the local parish, the Catholic diocese officially placed the matter "under investigation."

In an effort to understand the elements of an official inquiry, Oregon-based Sullivan set off to interview "the miracle detectives": 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.

That simple inquiry became an eight-year investigation into predictions of apocalyptic events, false claims of revelation and the search for a genuine theophony (a supernatural event of the highest order: literally, a divine manifestation). And for Sullivan, it turned into a life-changing personal exploration into the meanings and mysteries of faith. He says, "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."

His travels took him from Vatican City in Rome, to the tiny village of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina (where the raptures of six young visionaries have been the subject of more medical and scientific examination than any other purported supernatural event ever recorded), and to Scottsdale, AZ (site of one of the largest and most controversial instances of Virgin Mary sightings).

During the journey, readers are introduced to a tapestry of believers, skeptics, religious visionaries and apostates, including Father Slavko Barbaric, an intellectual priest who is known as the Medjugorje seers' "spiritual director," and the legendary Father Benedict Groeschel, who is continually called upon to investigate supernatural - or at least strange -phenomena across America.

Set against a backdrop of current events, including ethnic cleansing during the Bosnian War, Sullivan captures the fear, the uncertainty, the hope and the faith of many cultures in this gripping investigation 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.

Q & A with author and journalist Randall Sullivan

Q. You are an investigative reporter with a primary emphasis on true crime incidents. What drew a true crime writer to investigate miracles?

A: Well, I don't think of myself as either an investigative reporter or a true crime writer, and never have. The Price of Experience was essentially a cultural history, and LAbyrinth was a political broadside couched in a crime story. Be that as it may, 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. 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?

Q. What began as a simple inquiry into a Virgin Mary sighting in Oregon turned into an eight-year investigation into predictions of apocalyptic events, false claims of revelation and the search for a genuine theophany. The resulting book is not a religious screed but rather a work of narrative inquiry and history, much like Krakauer's Under The Banner of Heaven. Why did THE MIRACLE DETECTIVE take so long to research and write?

A: My first visit to the Vatican in the summer of 1995 was an overwhelming education in the theological underpinnings of Catholicism, of how the Church operates as an institution while at the same time acknowledging that it's origins are in the designs of supernatural agency. 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. And the more I learned about the controversy surrounding Medjugorje within the Church, 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.

Q. What is a miracle and who gets to decide? What are the criteria?

A: A miracle is defined by the Church as "an extraordinary intervention of God" in human affairs. Nearly all decisions about what is a miracle are made at the Vatican by separate bodies of scientists and theologians, who must agree, then submit their findings first to the College of Cardinals, then to the pope himself.

Q. What is the Vatican's position on miracles?

A: The Vatican takes the position that the affirmation of a miracle is done only in the context of beatification and canonization-the making of saints-and as a practical matter nearly all of those approved are medical in nature, and must be passed by the esteemed physicians recruited from major universities and prestigious clinics who make up what is known as the Consulta Medica. Apparitions and other "private revelations" are never formally approved by the Church, although some (Lourdes and Fatima being most notable) are implicitly endorsed. Medjugorje has become the principle contemporary vehicle for discussing how this should or should not be done .

Q. In the book, you offer many harrowing instances of how you sought an explanation of the miraculous, specifically in Bosnia-Herzegovina, while experiencing the worst of humanity: war, ethnic cleansing and mass graves. How did that backdrop of a war-torn country impact upon your investigation?

A: The war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and all its attendant horrors was an essential aspect of my experience and of this book. 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 realize this may sound terrible, but for me the war was tremendously clarifying. One finds oneself in a world where there is no room for the petty, the trivial, the banal. Everyone around you is living on the ragged edge of their mortality, not knowing what will come next, forced to proceed on faith. 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.

Q.How has the investigation shaped your spiritual beliefs?

A: Profoundly. I was raised by a pair of athiests who took the Jesse Ventura view of religion-that it is a crutch for the weak-minded. Both my siblings are avowed athiests. I was never really comfortable with this; even as a child I sensed that there was a divine source. As a young adult I was more drawn to Eastern than to Western religion; the Hindu cosmology made more sense to me than the Christian one, and Buddhist beliefs accorded better with the scientific skepticism I had absorbed as a youth. What happened to me in Medjugorje was a kind of conversion experience. 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 U.S. At this point, I consider myself a Christian-although I'm not always certain what I mean by that. I haven't formally become a Catholic, but that remains something I feel inclined to, and nearly all the religious services I have attended during the past eight years were in a Catholic context. The fact that I had my children baptized Catholics tells you, I think, where my heart really lies on this matter.

Q.Do you believe in miracles?

A: Absolutely. I don't pretend to understand their operation, or even their specific purpose, 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.

What is a miracle?
What are the criteria for determining "miracle" status?
Who decides?

These questions lie at the heart of THE MIRACLE DETECTIVE An Investigation of Holy Visions (Atlantic Monthly Press; $25.00, Cloth; April 22, 2004; 0-87113-916-2), a compelling work written by veteran journalist Randall Sullivan. Completed over a period of eight years, this richly layered narrative synthesizes more than 100 years of raptures and holy apparitions dating from Lourdes and Fatima, with Sullivan's fascinating, and sometimes harrowing, personal journey.

If you would like to order this book you can purchase it directly from Grove/Atlantic Inc. Visit their website and enter in the author's name (Randall Sullivan) in the search box. Grove/Atlantic Inc.

Randall Sullivan is a contributing editor to both Rolling Stone and Men's Journal. He is the author of THE PRICE OF EXPERIENCE: Power, Money, Image, and Murder in Los Angeles and LAbyrinth A Detective Investigates the Murders of Tupak Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.


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