Suffering and profound recovery led John Sullivan to help others through prayer ministry

  • Written by Jean Parietti
  • Published in NW Stories
John Sullivan. Photo: CNS/Mike Penney John Sullivan. Photo: CNS/Mike Penney

The fear had an unrelenting grip on John Sullivan.

It was like waking up and seeing a grizzly bear at the foot of the bed, but “you couldn’t run and you couldn’t fight and you were locked in that horrible feeling until … you could finally fall asleep,” Sullivan said, describing the effects of the mental illness that first afflicted him at 19.

Officially, Sullivan was suffering from obsessive compulsive neurosis with scrupulosity — an excessive worry about sin — and a free-floating anxiety. But the medical words couldn’t adequately describe his suffering.

“You’re going through this terrible depression and stark raging fear and there’s no peace,” Sullivan said. “I know there’s a hell. I’ve lived on the outskirts.”

Over the next 16 years, Sullivan’s illness disrupted his life, landing him in the hospital four times. Follow-up treatment involved heavy doses of medications with unpleasant side effects.

Through the turmoil of those years, Sullivan found help from Catholic priests and a caring doctor. Then, in 1981 or 1982, while a guest at a meeting of a Christian women’s group, an Episcopal priest laid hands on Sullivan and prayed over him. The experience was transformative.

“I’ve just been healed of manic depression,” Sullivan told the priest (who advised him to see his doctor).

Within a month, under his doctor’s supervision, Sullivan stopped taking all medications for mental illness.

“I know God heals,” Sullivan said. “I’ve seen it. I’ve experienced it myself.”

Before his illness, “if someone came to me and said, ‘I’m going through this terrible depression,’ I’d say, ‘Hey, I’ll light a candle for you,’ say a prayer and move on,” Sullivan said.

“I was going to be a great choral director and composer. [But] God says, ‘No, I want you to go to another school. I want you to learn something,’” he said with a chuckle.

Bringing healing to others

Sullivan’s illness gave him a firsthand understanding of extreme suffering; his healing gave him the impetus to bring the gift of healing prayer to others in need.

Through the Institute for Christian Ministries, founded locally by Dominican Father Leo Thomas and several laypeople, Sullivan completed two years of prayer minister formation. In 1987, he helped start the Prayer for Healing Ministry at St. Luke Parish in Shoreline, where he was choir director. When he became music director at Our Lady of Perpetual Help/Immaculate Conception parishes in Everett in 1994, Sullivan worked with others to establish the ministry there.

More than 20 years later, the ministry continues at the two Everett parishes, where about three dozen people have been trained as ministers. After Sunday Masses, two-member teams pray confidentially with anyone in need, and can meet weekly with those whose needs are greater.

“Probably one of the most Christian things you can do is listen to someone without judging them,” Sullivan said. Praying with people helps them realize “God is listening to them and not judging them,” he said. “A lot of healing takes place.”

Over the years, the parish prayer ministers have heard stories of physical, spiritual, emotional and relationship healings. God may not provide the healing requested, but “he will give you the healing that you most need at that point in your life,” Sullivan explained.

Healing prayer goes hand-in-hand with the medical profession, Sullivan said. “It’s not: Either get prayer or go to the doctor. It’s both,” he said, citing the “honor the doctor” message in Sirach 38:1–14.

Those working as healing prayer ministers are a dedicated group of people who take their call seriously, said Father Bryan Hersey, pastor of the two Everett parishes. “Even though they’re not counselors, they really bring a sense of professionalism to it,” he said, and know “when to send the people to the priest.”

Dolores Righi, commissioned as a prayer minister last May, said the ministry has brought her closer to Christ. “You know how he commissioned the apostles — ‘Go out two by two,’ and do his work? That’s what we’re doing,” she said.

In the early church, healing was a principal way of evangelizing, Sullivan said. Today’s healing prayer ministry continues that mission. “People have come back to the church through this ministry, [and] come into the church,” he said.

hands held in prayer
Photo: Stephen Brashear

‘Like a resurrection’

Sullivan came into the church at birth, the youngest of five children in an Irish Catholic family in Minneapolis. Musical talent was part of his extended family’s DNA. His mother was the organist and choir director at the family’s parish, Holy Rosary, where Sullivan began serving at Mass in fourth grade. Sullivan’s father worked for a large bank but also was a tenor soloist.

After being taught by Dominicans in grade school and French Christian Brothers in high school, Sullivan chose to attend the College of St. Thomas in neighboring St. Paul. He decided to study chemistry, but after one semester, realized “it wasn’t my cup of tea.”

Continuing with the required college courses, Sullivan didn’t know what he wanted to do. Then, in the fall of 1961, he began experiencing obsessive-compulsive symptoms. “It’s a terrible affliction because you have no peace,” he said. “It’s constant worry about this or that.”

Although Sullivan found help from a Dominican priest at his parish who had training in psychology, eventually he was hospitalized for two weeks. After things settled down, Sullivan’s brother, Dan, invited him to come to Seattle and live with him. So Sullivan boarded a train, leaving behind the dirty piles of late-winter snow.

When the train reached the Puyallup valley on April 1, 1962, the daffodils were in their full glory.

“I had just gone through this horrible depression, terrible fear,” Sullivan said. “It was like a resurrection.”

Gains and setbacks

In Seattle, Sullivan began life anew. He earned a music degree from Seattle University in 1965, with dreams of becoming a college choral director and composer. “The last thing that I thought that I would do was music in the church,” Sullivan said.

But that’s exactly what happened after graduation: He was hired as choir director at Blessed Sacrament Parish in Seattle, the Dominican church he and Dan had been attending. He also began post-graduate music studies at the University of Washington.

Two years later, though, “everything kind of went sideways,” Sullivan said. He quit school and was hospitalized for about two weeks for a major depression. He had to quit his job.

Out of the hospital but taking many medications, “I went through a lot of funky jobs,” Sullivan said. “It’s hard to hold a job because you’re dealing with all this stuff.”

At Dan’s insistence, Sullivan joined his brother as a member of the Blessed Sacrament choir. The new director was Sullivan’s former UW choral professor; the next three years were like a nonstop class for Sullivan.

While singing at Blessed Sacrament, Sullivan was hired as choir director at St. Luke’s, where he met his future wife (they married in 1972 and had two children). Sullivan also began directing the choir at St. Louise Parish in Bellevue and was teaching at Catholic grade schools. Studying to get a teaching certificate, Sullivan was “knocking out the A’s,” but living on little sleep while helping at a Christmas tree lot to make some extra money.

“Without knowing it, I was getting higher and that’s when I had my first manic episode,” he said. “A full-blown manic episode gets psychotic and you start losing touch with reality. That threw me in the hospital.”

After being treated in a closed ward for several days, Sullivan looked up to see Father Joseph Fulton, his pastor from Blessed Sacrament, approaching in full Dominican habit. “He comes into my room … he quietly prays, he leaves, and [in] less than a week, I’m out. It was very special.”

But just a year or two later came another major depression, with a lengthier hospital stay. Sullivan’s marriage ended, but he took care of his young children every Saturday he could, with the support of both families. He taught at Catholic schools and continued as St. Luke’s choir director until a new pastor arrived in 1981.

It was around that time that Sullivan was a guest at a Women’s Aglow meeting, where he was “slain in the Spirit” — falling to the floor while being prayed over — and felt miraculously healed.

John Sullivan directs his church choir.
John Sullivan directs his church choir. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Drawing good from suffering

For 25 years after that, Sullivan was off psychotropic medications. His life got back on track.

In Everett, where Sullivan started the prayer ministry in 1994, he eventually became responsible for all outreach ministries. He listened and prayed with people in need who came to his office. “I loved my work,” he said.

At Our Lady of Perpetual Help, Sullivan also fell in love — with Carmen, who he first spotted in the congregation from his perch in the choir loft. The couple, married 20 years ago on the feast of the Epiphany, became partners in prayer ministry, taking two more years of training so they could help train others.

Sullivan continued composing music, a pursuit that began in college (his works include Masses written in honor of St. Luke and Mary, the Immaculate Conception).

Then he and Carmen were thrown a curve. Sullivan’s bipolar illness recurred in 2007, and he was hospitalized twice over the next six years. Besides getting medical help, Sullivan sought the counsel of priests and healing prayer from the ministers at his parish.

He could no longer do his job, but his pastor, Father Hersey, suggested Sullivan keep directing the choir and supervising the prayer ministry. Since 2014, Sullivan’s bipolar illness has been in remission, and he now takes only a small dose of a single medication.

Sullivan knows the recurrence of his illness could raise questions about his healing. He points out that even Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead, eventually died again — but that didn’t take away from the miracle of his resurrection.

By sharing his story, Sullivan hopes others in need will seek out healing prayer, realizing “God actually still heals today.”

And he hopes to help remove the stigma and labels attached to mental illness. Saying someone “is bipolar” is like saying someone “is cancer,” Sullivan said. “You’re not your disease. You’re God’s child and you just happen to be suffering from this thing.”

If not for his faith and God’s grace, Sullivan said, “I could have very much ended up like Robin Williams or Vincent Van Gogh. I would have traded two broken legs, two broken arms, for one of those depressions, especially with the fear.”

Working in the healing prayer ministry makes sense of it all.

“God permits suffering in our lives, but draws much good out of it if we allow it,” Sullivan said.

“It’s like God says, ‘I want you to go to this particular school. It’s going to be painful, it’s going to hurt. Out of that, I’m going to heal you, but then I want you to take this to your brothers and sisters and give them hope and bring my healing to them.’”

Healing prayer Resources

Contact the Prayer for Healing ministry at Immaculate Conception and Our Lady of Perpetual Help parishes in Everett at 425-349-7014.

Read Dominican Father Leo Thomas’ books, Healing as a Parish Ministry: Mending Body, Mind, and Spirit and Healing Ministry: A Practical Guide (both co-authored by Jan Alkire).

Attend a charismatic healing Mass sponsored by the Western Washington Catholic Charismatic Renewal. Learn more at wwccr.org.

 

John Sullivan is a choir director and composer. Listen to some of his works.

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This article originally appeared in the January/February 2016 print edition of Northwest Catholic magazine as "God's Healing Touch."