God Is: An Introduction to the Evidence for the Existence of God, Part 15

Here are more accounts of those who have experienced God in their lives.

Alexis Carrel

In 1902, Alexis Carrel, French surgeon and biologist who would later receive the 1912 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for pioneering vascular suturing, witnessed a miracle at Lourdes, the site of St. Bernadette’s visions of Mary and of the spring waters reputed to cause miraculous healings. Carrel was invited to accompany a train of ill persons to Lourdes by a doctor friend and there met Marie Bailly, who was dying of tubercular peritonitis. Carrel, who had been called to her side a number of times because of concerns of her imminent death, accompanied Bailly to the Lourdes springs, where he witnessed water from the springs being poured on her bloated and firm abdomen three times. In front of his own eyes, Carrel then saw Bailly’s abdomen reduce in size, finally becoming flat and soft. She was examined by three doctors afterwards, including Carrel, who could only declare her cured. The next day, she was energetic and making plans to join the Sisters of Charity, where she would dedicate her life to caring for the infirm.

Carrel continued to follow her care for months after, until she was formally declared cured by her own doctors shortly before entering the novitiate. Carrel at first did not accept the cure as miraculous, but continued to visit Lourdes in the effort to study the quick healings being observed and recorded there. In 1910, Carrel was witness to a second healing, that of an 18 month old boy who had been born blind. Still, Carrel refused to embrace the Catholic faith of his childhood, which he had renounced years earlier, and continued to dedicate his life to medicine, even succumbing to the attraction of eugenics as a way of solving human difficulties, as so many intellectuals did prior to World War II.

In 1940, Carrel became acquainted with a priest, Fr. Alexis Presse, who was on a mission to rebuild ruined monasteries across France. Carrel experienced a strange feeling when he met the priest who shared his name. In November, 1944, Carrel lay on his deathbed in Paris. Fr. Presse was beckoned. Arriving just in time, Carrel was reconciled to the Church and received the sacraments from Fr. Presse. Though it took decades to sink in, the miracles that Alexis Carrel witnessed at Lourdes eventually moved him to embrace the divine.

Avery Dulles

            Avery Dulles came from a distinguished political family. His father served as Secretary of State and his uncle as director of the CIA. Avery would distinguish himself as a Catholic theologian and cardinal. Before that, however, he entered Harvard University in 1936 as a convinced atheist. He gave little thought to religion, having surrendered his nominal Presbyterian upbringing, but was distressed even still by the ramifications of a lack of objective values in the public sphere. Moral laws became social convention, and his cohorts at Harvard, and many others of his generation, seemed to put their best efforts in obtaining the perks of materialism. The ancient philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, buoyed by contemporary Catholic philosophers Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, helped him to find some sense in the world and the time-honored truths that really mattered. Finally, after reading a chapter of St. Augustine of Hippo’s City of God at the library at Harvard one spring day, he walked out and came upon a tree budding on the banks of the Charles River. “Never, since the eventful day which I have described,” Dulles later wrote, “have I doubted the existence of an all-good and omnipotent God.”   (“Avery Dulles’s Long Road to Rome,” by Robert Royal, “Crisis Magazine,” July-August, 2001.)

            Dulles’ experience might seem quaint, almost child-like, to some. But, it changed his life. He later converted to Catholicism and joined the Society of Jesus, was ordained a priest and, after a long and distinguished career as a theologian, was named to the College of Cardinals by Pope John Paul II. Dulles was no intellectual slouch, but one of the best and brightest the United States has produced in the twentieth century. An international lecturer, he was the author of over 700 articles and twenty-two books, a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the recipient of thirty-three honorary doctorates. Such a man of intellectual vigor and distinction simply must be taken seriously by any who would dismiss out of hand the religious experience of the human community.

Claude Newman and James Hughs

            In late 1943, Claude Newman (pictured above) was a young African American man awaiting execution in the Warren County jail in Mississippi. He had murdered his step-grandfather, Sid Cook, in revenge for Cook’s having sexually abused his grandmother. During an evening’s conversation with the four prisoners who shared his cellblock, Newman noticed a Miraculous Medal hanging around the neck of one of the men. Not being familiar with the medal, Newman asked about it. The young prisoner who wore it, apparently embarrassed and angry, took it from around his neck and flung it at Newman’s feet, saying, “Take the thing!” Newman did, picking it up and placing it around his own neck.

            That night, as Newman slept on his cot, he felt a touch on his wrist. When he woke, he saw what he later described as, “the most beautiful woman that God ever created.” Newman was frightened at first, but the woman told him, “If you would like me to be your Mother, and you would like to be my child, send for a priest of the Catholic Church.” She then disappeared. Newman got up and started yelling, “A ghost! A ghost!” and demanding to see a Catholic priest.

            Fr. Robert O’Leary, SVD came to see Newman the next morning. Newman told Fr. O’Leary about his vision. He and the other men in his cellblock began receiving instruction on the Catholic faith. After some weeks, Fr. O’Leary announced that the lesson of that day would be on the sacrament of Confession. “Oh, I know about that!” Newman said. “The Lady told me that when we go to confession we are kneeling down not before a priest, but we’re kneeling down by the Cross of her Son. And that when we are truly sorry for our sins, and we confess our sins, the blood He shed flows down over us and washes us free from all sins.” Amazed to hear that Our Lady had visited Newman a second time, Fr. O’Leary asked about the vision. Newman explained that the Lady had told him that he was to remind Fr. O’Leary of a vow the priest had made in Holland in 1940 to build a church in honor of her Immaculate Conception. Fr. O’Leary was astounded. No one else had known of this promise he had made to the Blessed Mother. Fr. O’Leary was convinced that Newman’s visions were authentic.

            Claude Newman was baptized into the Catholic Church on January 16, 1944. On January 20, he was scheduled to be executed in the electric chair. As Newman knelt in prayer with Fr. O’Leary, the sheriff of the prison announced that Newman had received a two-week reprieve from the governor. Shaken, Newman began to cry, but not for joy. He explained to the priest and sheriff, “If you ever saw her face, and looked into her eyes, you wouldn’t want to live another day!” Fr. O’Leary, touched by Newman’s deep faith, recommended that he make a sacrifice of the next two weeks for the sake of another prisoner, James Hughs. Hughs was a white prisoner who had been raised Catholic but had abandoned the faith. What is more, he hated Claude Newman with a great passion. Speaking of James Hughs, Fr. O’Leary said, “This man was the filthiest, most immoral person I had ever come across. His hatred for God and for everything spiritual defied description.”

            Fr. O’Leary told Newman, “Maybe Our Blessed Mother wants you to offer this denial of being with her for his conversion. Why don’t you offer to God every moment that you are separated from your heavenly Mother for this prisoner, so that he will not be separated from God for all eternity.” Newman agreed, and offered his sacrifice for James Hughs. At the end of the two weeks, there were no more reprieves. Claude Newman was executed on February 4, 1944. He was twenty years old. His last words to Fr. O’Leary were, “Father, I will remember you. And whenever you have a request, ask me, and I will ask her [the Blessed Mother].”

            Three months later, it was James Hugh’s turn in the electric chair. He had refused the comfort of a priest or the sacraments. When strapped to the chair, the sheriff asked if he had any last words. He started a stream of blasphemies, but then suddenly stopped. He looked up in horror and screamed, “Sheriff, get me a priest!” Fr. O’Leary came to Hughs, and the condemned man confessed his sins with great remorse. The sheriff asked Hughs what changed his mind. Hughs explained, “Remember that black man Claude – the one whom I hated so much? Well, he’s standing there, over in that corner. And behind him with one hand on each shoulder is the Blessed Virgin Mary. And Claude said to me, ‘I offered my death in union with Christ on the Cross for your salvation. She has obtained for you this gift of seeing your place in Hell if you do not repent.’ I have been shown my place in Hell, and that’s why I screamed.” James Hughs was executed as scheduled, but in the last moment of his life he repented of his sins and was reconciled with God.

            In 1947, Fr. Robert O’Leary fulfilled his promise to Our Lady and built Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The parish is still active today.

Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.


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