Visions of the Virgin Mary
Conversation: Michael Willesee, journalist and producer - ... the presence of Jesus
By Marilyn Rodrigues
Michael Willesee (pictured) was struck out of the sky but that was not enough of a Damascus experience to make him completely turn to God.
It took a series of events before he finally re-embraced Catholicism in his 50s after shunning it for more than 30 years.
Michael's saga began in a light aircraft, in Nairobi, Kenya, early in 1998.
It wasn't the sturdiest plane he had been in, but it was OK - a career that had seen him travel in all kinds of dangerous conditions had made him immune to any fear of flying.
But as it taxied along, he was suddenly gripped by the thought that it would crash.
"I said: 'Well, Father, I'm in your hands'. And the plane took off and then just fell out of the air," he says.
"And I remember, when we stalled and the plane started spinning and falling, I thought: 'It's true, it's happening'."
Everyone emerged unharmed, but the plane was written off.
"I didn't think: 'Well, that's a miracle' or anything like that," says Michael.
"But you can't call out to God when you're in trouble and then he helps you and you turn around and say: 'Oh it could've been a coincidence'.
"I asked for help, I got help; so I had to thank God.
"That was a step closer (to faith), but I wasn't converted at that time."
It's a long time since we have seen Michael on a regular basis, but he has a face and voice as familiar for many Australians today as any celebrity's, such has been his influence in public life.
He took his style of current affairs journalism to commercial TV when he left ABC's Four Corners to launch A Current Affair, which he designed, produced and hosted from 1971-73, returning in 1984 when it was renamed The Willesee Show.
The winner of six Logies and Australian Film Industry awards, who this year was inducted into the Gold Logie Hall of Fame, Michael, 60, was also successful when he made the change from journalism to entrepreneurship.
He even made it into the Business Review Weekly's Rich 200 list in 1998.
But by then he was already jaded with his material success.
Everyone expected him to be full of self-satisfaction. The opposite was true.
After asking hard questions of others, he began, finally, to question himself.
His prodigal journey of faith was "slow but dramatic".
"People would often ask me questions about the past: 'Wasn't it great when you did that, won that award, or were able to go and buy your own farm' and things like that," says Michael.
"And after a while I started thinking: 'I'm sick of talking about this; I'm not getting any fun out of these so called achievements'.
"And the old questions started to arise, you know: What is life really about?
"People look for a 'road to Damascus' story, but there wasn't a major turning point."
As a youth he rejected his faith in reaction to bad experiences at the hands of those in trusted positions in the Church.
"I had a bad time at school and I was kicked out; I was bashed around a bit," says Michael.
"That was in the bad old days when there were some bad teachers and priests.
"There were plenty of good ones, but it suited my purpose to concentrate on the bad ones.
"I'd rather have gone surfing on a Sunday morning than go to Mass anyway; it was a really good excuse.
"But then it became ingrained in me that 'if the Catholic Church produces people like that, then (it) can't be any good'."
With his Catholic faith repressed for so many years, he struggled to imagine that God might exist.
"I would say: 'God, I don't know if you're there; I don't even know if you exist. But I hope you do because if youdo that would make a lot more sense in this life. If you are there could you give me a hand?'
"Of course, looking back, it was a prayer asking for faith; faith is a gift and God in his own way started to give that gift to me very slowly."
First, a friend insisted he go to Mass with her. He went, reluctantly, but that was the start of a sporadic patternof attendance.
Next came the premonition of the plane crash and his instinctive reaction to pray. He had been challenged on a personal level.
His friend, documentary maker Ron Tesoriero, challenged Michael as a journalist.
Ron was involved in stories on claims of miracles.
"I was very sceptical and one time I said to him: 'Don't expect me to believe because you believe. A lot of these things can be tested by scientists'," says Michael.
So the next time Ron went to South America he did ask scientists to conduct tests.
He called Michael to say he had some encouraging results. Michael was still not impressed.
"Ron said: 'If there's a war you'll run off to it, but I tell you this and you just sit comfortably in your lounge room at home and do nothing about it - what kind of a journalist are you?' " says Michael.
"So I said: 'All right, I'll go', so I jumped on a plane to Bolivia. I didn't see much, but I saw a few things that were inexplicable."
In September 1998 the ABC's Australian Story did a profile on Michael and used some of the Bolivia film.
The head of the US Fox Network saw it and invited Michael to do a longer investigative special on similar phenomena around the world.
Twenty-eight million North Americans watched the result, Signs From God: Science Tests Faith.
"We had a greater response to that than anything I've ever done," says Michael.
However, back home the Australian Sceptics awarded him their annual 'Bent Spoon' award for his "nasty millennial doom-crying tripe".
But Michael says that he approached the claims with a sceptical mind.
"I look for things like: Are they making money? Are they building a cult?" he says.
Seeing and filming the alleged stigmata of a Spanish woman, Katya Rivas, for Signs from God, affected him greatly. Watching that was an "incredible trauma", he says.
"It was one of the most astonishing things in my life because it was true.
"We filmed her hands looking like mine and then little spots of blood (appeared), then the wounds opened up and I put swabs in the wounds.
"And the next day the wounds were gone. Not a mark.
"There have been critics who say she could have psychologically self-induced them or physically self-harmed.
"But even the sceptical scientists and doctors who say that it can be self-induced have no answer to the fact that the next day the wounds had completely disappeared."
Michael was most impressed by messages she writes that she says are dictated by Christ.
The messages, written in different languages, have the imprimatur of Mons René Fernández Apaza, Archbishop of Cochabamba, Bolivia.
"But, most importantly, they touch your heart," says Michael.
One example, from an early volume, The Great Crusade of Love, reads: "Little flowers of mine, if you could see my work, I tell you, you would go out of your mind with love and would not bring up certain difficulties of yours."
But the incident which confirmed the reality of Christ for Michael was more mundane.
He was travelling to Bolivia to organise a vital meeting for the Fox documentary project when his travel wallet containing his passport and tickets was stolen.
"I saw the woman take it and went to grab her. I thought: 'She's probably passed it to an accomplice by now; she might scream that I molested her', so I let her go," he says.
"And it was a bit like on the plane; it came straight from the heart. I said: 'Jesus. Not this time. Not now'.
"And she then brought it back to me and simply walked away. Professional thieves simply don't do that.
"That made me start really thinking about the presence of Jesus, him always being there, knowing what we're thinking and hearing our prayers."
The most important and the hardest step back to the Church was his first confession after more than 30 years, which included tumultuous times in his personal and professional life.
"I had accepted that I was coming back, but when you haven't been to confession for 30 or more years it's quite frightening, especially when I haven't led a very good life at times," he says.
"So while my conversion was slow there were some dramatic moments and I had a lot of help.
"I think that's helped me become really firmly committed."
Now Michael spends almost all his time on religious documentaries as executive producer of Trans Media Group in Sydney. His latest, The Eucharist, with Ron Tesoriero, was a gift for the Church.
"It is a great privilege to be able to do this sort of work," he says.
"It's made life harder in some ways.
"I don't have as much fun because I'm working on something serious instead of looking for a party.
"But I now believe in the hand of God and I can see that the training he's given me he now uses.
"He has given me certain talents and experiences and he's now saying: 'I want you to use them. But now use them for me'."
Although making those initial religious documentaries heavily influenced his conversion, Michael says his faith is "not built around visionaries or the supernatural".
"It starts with Jesus, God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and our Blessed Mother."
His prayer is Eucharist-based - he tries to get to Mass every day - and he also prays the Rosary.
Blessed Mary MacKillop is a favourite, too.
"Sometimes when I'm in trouble I say: 'Hey, mate. You're an Aussie and so am I; give us a hand, you know'," he says.