MELISSA Villalobos pulled into her driveway after returning from an ultra-sound scan that confirmed she had been suddenly and inexplicably healed from a condition which hours earlier threatened to kill both herself and her unborn child. Though it was a sunny day, in front of her house were two rainbows – a primary rainbow and beneath it a smaller secondary rainbow in reverse colors.
It focused Melissa’s mind on the biblical story of Noah, of how God had put a rainbow in the sky as a sign of his covenant between Creator and created, and as a guarantee that there will be no more flooding. Melissa saw this as a personal sign that the danger of her dying in a flood of her own blood was over for good.
Wednesday May 15, 2013, had been an extraordinary day for her, after all. It was when she became the beneficiary of the second miracle required for canonization of Cardinal John Henry Newman as the first English saint in half a century.
Melissa had started to bleed during her fifth pregnancy, and scans revealed that the placenta had become partially detached from the wall of her uterus, and that the blood meant to nourish her eight-week unborn child was escaping through the tear. Scans also found a sub-chorionic haematoma, a blood clot on the foetal membrane, that was by that time almost three times the size of the child. Doctors could treat neither mother nor daughter. They fully expected Melissa to miscarry, and warned her also that her own life might be in danger from a haemorrhage. She had to be ready to call 911 at any time.
On May 15 she awoke in a pool of blood. She was worried that she had no-one to care for her children if she had to go into hospital because her husband, David, was flying to Atlanta on a business trip. So she arranged a simple breakfast for her four children – aged 1 to 6 – as she considered her options. Afraid the children might see the bleeding, she gave them instructions to stay in their seats at the kitchen table “no matter what” while she took time in private to try to ease the flow.
The last scream?
“I decided to go upstairs to my bathroom in our master bedroom,” she said. “I closed the bedroom door and I went in the bathroom and closed that door as well. I didn’t want the kids to sneak up on me and see the trauma. I knew that if I closed the doors I would hear them opening the doors before they saw me. By now, I had made things worse by going up the stairs,” she continued. “I was on the floor, I was weak and exhausted. The bleeding was worse than it had ever been and I thought ‘I need to call 911.’”
But then she realized that she had left her phone downstairs. “I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I probably wasn’t carrying it around because of the stress of all that was going on and also because my husband was flying to Atlanta and he would have been the one I wanted to call.
“I thought, ‘Oh no, I can’t get up at this point and go downstairs and get the phone’. So my next thought was I could scream for one of the children to come up and ask them to go get the phone but I knew that I couldn’t scream. I knew that the amount of force I would have had to exert to scream through two closed doors all the way down to the kitchen would have been tremendous and the situation was so delicate.
“Because the bleeding was so heavy I didn’t know if the placenta was hanging by a thread, and that I had done more damage by going upstairs… I didn’t know if that scream would have ripped the last thread off the placenta and killed me instantly. I didn’t want to scream because I didn’t know if it would be my last scream.”
Scent of roses
Instead, Melissa paused in the hope her children might look for her, but the silence left her nervous. In the midst of her desperation, Melissa said, “Please, Cardinal Newman, make the bleeding stop. Just then, the bleeding stopped completely. It was just flowing very rapidly and then came to a sudden, complete stop.”
Astonished, she climbed to her feet and said, “Thank you, Cardinal Newman, you made the bleeding stop. Just then, the scent of roses just filled the air,” she said. “It was a powerful scent, it was so intense. It was more intense than if you went to a garden, or a store and smelled roses. I inhaled the smell of the roses and thought, ‘Wow!’ It lasted for several seconds, it felt like a while, then it stopped and I said, ‘Cardinal Newman did you just make those roses for me?’ I knew he did and thought, ‘what a great gift’. Then he made a second blast of roses up there. I thought, ‘Thank you Cardinal Newman’. I realised I was okay and the baby was okay. I knew the baby was fine. I just couldn’t imagine that Cardinal Newman would stop the bleeding and then the baby wouldn’t make it. I knew in my heart that she was fine.”
Melissa said her recovery was so thorough that she “jogged” downstairs to find her children obediently in their seats, as she had instructed them.
She said, “At this moment I was filled such gratitude and joy… We were all okay. I sat down at the kitchen table with them, and as soon as I sat in the chair I said, ‘Thank you Cardinal Newman’, and just then the scent of roses filled the air in the kitchen. This was the third time and the final time of the roses. As it filled the air I inhaled their beautiful scent.”
The scan she underwent later in the day revealed the placenta to be healed perfectly. Nor, to the astonishment of medics, some of whom later gave evidence to the Church investigation into the healing, was there any trace of the haematoma.
Melissa had been debilitated for more than a month by a dangerous condition, but returned to life as an “active mom” straight away, carrying and playing with her children, pushing them on swings, and running with kites. On December 27 of that year Melissa gave birth to Gemma, who arrived at the very healthy weight of 8lb 8oz.
Gemma is now a 5-year-old girl and Melissa has since given birth to two more children, the first of whom was baptized John Henry.
Although she grew up a Catholic in St Louis, Missouri, and always enjoyed going to Mass and praying the rosary, she discovered Cardinal Newman only as an adult while watching a program on EWTN as she did her ironing. She was struck by the palpable “admiration and affection” the guests on the show held for him.
A guiding light
Melissa’s interest developed, and in 2011 her husband David came home with two Newman prayer cards, one of which Melissa placed in the master bedroom and the other in the living room.
“I thought his expression was so modern in the sense that he looked as if he might live today and that he was listening to me,” she said. “As I passed the picture in the house I would talk to him. I seemed to have this constant dialogue with him and would pray to him for all kinds of needs.
“I was aware that I was possibly becoming annoying to him. I knew he was a genius and here I was just talking to him as a regular person.”
Melissa soon began to read his works, and said she “fell in love with his brilliance and with him as a person,” and particularly enjoyed reading his letters because they revealed Newman’s cares for ordinary people.
“He is like a spiritual father to me,” she says. “He is a guiding light to help me to live a holier life and to learn about the faith. He explains Jesus in a way that is simple yet profound… he helps me to know Jesus more accurately.”
“I am in awe that such a holy and brilliant man as Cardinal Newman would help me, and I am extremely grateful,” she adds. “I feel that my prayer to him was like his motto, my heart speaking unto his heart. We are very close… I love him with my whole heart.”
Witness of conscience
Melissa, David and their seven children will be attending the canonization ceremony in St Peter’s Square in Rome on October 13.
Also likely to be present will be Jack Sullivan, a Boston deacon whose healing from a spinal condition led to Newman’s beatification by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010.
That ceremony represented a moment of personal significance for the emeritus Pontiff who had been an admirer of Newman since he entered seminary in 1947, once describing the Cardinal, who died in 1890, as Britain’s “great witness of conscience” alongside St Thomas More, the 16th century martyr.
Newman’s teachings on conscience have often been disputed, but recent discoveries of how his sermons influenced some members of the White Rose, the German resistance movement, to oppose ‘Nazi terror’ are instructive of how the role of conscience, according to Newman, is to be properly understood. Benedict also saw Blessed John Henry as a “gentle scholar” who identified the Christian life “as a call to holiness.”
While beatifying him, Benedict said Newman’s “insights into the relationship between faith and reason, into the vital place of revealed religion in civilized society, and into the need for a broadly-based and wide-ranging approach to education, were not only of profound importance for Victorian England, but continue today to inspire and enlighten.”
Fr. Ian Ker, author of the definitive biography of Newman, is among those who believe the teachings of the Cardinal are so rich that he deserves to be declared a “Doctor of the Church” as soon as he is made a saint.
Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury says it is “hard to underestimate the significance of Newman’s canonization.”
“In foreseeing the unprecedented challenge of relativism, and what he called ‘the infidelity to come’ he stands as a witness to the intellectual faithfulness and striving for personal holiness which is the precondition for the new evangelization of western societies,” he said.
“The canonization surely comes at a providential moment for the universal Church in helping us to recognize what constitutes true development of doctrine and a right understanding of conscience,” he added.
“Amid all the confusion of the early 21st Century, Cardinal Newman will be for us a calm witness and gifted teacher of the truth and continuity of Catholic teaching.”