Squint your eyes and Michael O’Neill’s emergence as the “Miracle Hunter” could resemble a typical Silicon Valley tale of pluck and ingenuity. He is, after all, just another Stanford engineering student who went deep with his research, parlayed the results into an innovative website and ran off to a future no one could have imagined a few years prior.
But the details . . . well, O’Neill would be the first to admit his professional life hardly fits a mold. “It’s such a weird topic I’ve devoted my life to,” he says. “If anybody talks to me funny, I hardly blame them.”
O’Neill, ’98, is an expert in miracles—the supernatural Christian kind, not the metaphors for last-gasp touchdowns or billion-dollar start-ups. It’s a multimedia pursuit that includes hosting his own radio show and television series on Catholic networks, conducting research, writing books and providing punditry on secular stages like the Dr. Oz Show and Megyn Kelly Today. And notwithstanding the occasional self-deprecating remark, he takes miracles very seriously.
“I call him the Virgin Mary’s number cruncher,” says Maureen Orth, a longtime writer for Vanity Fair who contacted O’Neill while working on a story for National Geographic about the worldwide devotion to Mary, the Biblical mother of Jesus and the most frequent subject of apparitions. O’Neill provided her with centuries of data to create a global map of thousands of supposed Marian apparitions sorted by their official status, from a small number of sanctioned miracles to the largest group of unconfirmed sightings. “I really respected him because he was very fact-based.”
Miracles—healings, apparitions, bleeding Eucharistic hosts, etc.—may seem a strange business for a mechanical engineer whose education was steeped in the properties of the physical world. For his senior product design project, O’Neill created a photovoltaic umbrella capable of soaking up enough solar rays to run a stereo on the beach, nothing to sniff at in the dawn before iPods and Bluetooth speakers.
Contrary to a lot of people’s expectations, the church is dubious of supernatural claims. It typically investigates them with an eye toward ending the distraction.
But an even higher power had always fascinated O’Neill, who grew up near Chicago in a devout family that placed divine intervention at the center of its lore. O’Neill’s grandmother had lost her faith decades earlier, going so far as to throw away rosary beads and statues. In response, his mother, then a child, prayed for the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe, the widely venerated appearance of Mary to a Mexican peasant nearly five centuries prior. When his grandmother returned to the church, his mother pledged herself to retelling the story every year at the feast celebrating the appearances.
It was only at Stanford, though, that O’Neill’s more formal interest in miracles began. His junior year, he took an archaeology class that required him to research an artifact that had impacted the world. He chose the tilma, or cloak, belonging to the man who saw Our Lady of Guadalupe. The cloak, according to believers, was miraculously emblazoned with an iconic image of Mary, starting a devotion that is credited with the conversion of Mexico’s Native population.
In the many hours he spent in Green Library for that project, O’Neill says he began delving into how the Catholic Church reacts to claims of miracles, which were far more common and scrutinized than he had known. Contrary to a lot of people’s expectations, the church is dubious of supernatural claims. It typically investigates them with an eye toward ending the distraction, embracing a scant few only after long inquiry.
Indeed, it’s semi-miraculous that anything ever gets sanctioned as a miracle, O’Neill says. But some do, and this mix of faith, skepticism and, ultimately, certainty intrigued him. “I just couldn’t believe that the institution would stick out its neck and say there were actual miracles happening in the world.”
A year later, when then-provost Condoleezza Rice gave his graduating class some parting advice—“Become an expert in something. Find your sliver of the universe and own it”—O’Neill felt a jolt of inspiration. After graduation, he started MiracleHunter.com as a centralized spot for his research into all things miraculous, adopting a more matter-of-fact approach than the pious tone he’d found elsewhere and creating a depository of information on the topic he says is unrivaled online.
Still, it was primarily a personal hobby aimed at expanding his own knowledge and one he kept secret from friends, girlfriends and even his mother. When people emailed him, he replied as Miracle Hunter, or “M.H.,” mindful of being lumped with UFO and Bigfoot believers.
By day, O’Neill worked for—and later led—the visual communication department of a consulting firm; his graphics and simulations were used in courtroom trials to explain engineering failures. By night, he turned to another realm altogether. “I didn’t want my name out there,” he says. “I was a reputable engineer. I didn’t want to confuse these two worlds too much.”
But in time, he let the word out to his inner circle and started to get speaking invitations, finding that even skeptics were curious to hear him out. Over the years, O’Neill has adopted an increasingly public presence focused entirely on miracles, much to the occasional bemusement of old acquaintances. “I get some pretty funny emails from old Stanford classmates and friends who say, ‘This is an interesting turn.’”
Of course, nobody hands you a turnkey career as a miracle hunter. O’Neill’s profile has grown thanks to a variety of roles he’s stitched together with a dose of earthly grit. “He beat me down over a three-year period to get a show on the air,” says the Rev. Francis Hoffman, executive director of Relevant Radio, a nationwide Catholic radio network where O’Neill hosts a weekly show, The Miracle Hunter. “What he’s done is 99 percent hard work.”
Hoffman calls O’Neill “an engineer at heart.”
“[T]hat’s the discipline he brings to it,” Hoffman says. “He seems to dominate all the facts when he’s talking about these things. He’s not sensationalist at all. I think that gives him a certain credible following.”
O’Neill’s career involves both explaining and exploring miracles. He’s been as far as the Philippines to interview believers, but he found one of his most engaging cases in his own Chicago backyard—a 20-something man whose recurrent wounds on his feet, hands and head defied his doctors’ explanations, and appear in O’Neill’s eyes to be stigmata, the miraculous appearance of the wounds of Christ.
In other cases, O’Neill allows that more secular explanations may be at play. A few years ago, he tested soil from El Santuario de Chimayo, a New Mexican sanctuary where abandoned crutches and wheelchairs testify to those who say they have been healed by the holy dirt. O’Neill says it’s possible the cures are more about the belief of the healed than anything intrinsic to the location. But he sees overlap between the placebo effect and the power of faith. “Where the line is between those two, we don’t know.”
He readily agrees that the vast majority of miracle claims have material explanation. Part of his job is tamping down the enthusiasm of those too eager to believe in the supernatural, he says. But the many false positives only make it all the more powerful when something passes the church’s scrutiny, he says. He knows how much effort went into trying to avoid that conclusion. Miracles aren’t the center of his faith, but they’re a way to show a hidden God reaching out.
“If I can somehow prove to myself that miracles are in fact happening around the world,” he says, “then that connects me to God somehow.”
Sam Scott is a senior writer at STANFORD.