Marinko Crnjac always chose rebellion over religion, until he was on his deathbed.
Addicted to heroin, methadone, alcohol and sleeping tablets, his body was slowly shutting down and his doctors had completely given up.
His only friends—prostitutes, criminals and drug dealers—had left him for dead.
Lying in Blacktown Hospital in a critical condition, he’s not sure why he agreed to Fr Ray Farrell’s request to hear his confession and anoint him.
Passing in and out of consciousness, each moment bringing him closer to the end, he felt an unexpected presence.
“I saw Jesus and the Blessed Virgin Mary, and I felt like my soul had left my body and passed through purgatory and its suffering souls,” he said.
“I had a vision of Jesus being born and through that, I was being reborn to a life of grace.
“I also had a vision of my sister praying to Our Lady for me.
“During all those years, she and my mother never stopped praying for me to end my wayward life and come back to God.
“The doctors have absolutely no explanation why I am alive today, but I know it is God’s mercy and love.
“When I woke up from the coma, I was on life support and there were tubes down my throat and I was in incredible pain but for the first time in many, many years I felt the peace and the love of God.
“That spirit within me had gone. The doctors offered me methadone, which I declined. I didn’t need it.
“Nobody but me could believe or explain how I survived and beat my addiction.”
Born in a small village in Bosnia in 1965, Marinko and his family relocated to Australia for a better life a few years later.
Settling in Sydney, and attending school in inner-city Erskineville, from age five he was stoushing with kids in his kindergarten class.
“Even at that age I had this spirit inside me that I couldn’t explain,” he said.
A few years later his family moved to Lidcombe and he and his three siblings “were forced” to go to Mass and received the sacraments through the St Anthony’s Croatian Catholic Centre at Summer Hill.
He reached high school and despite being a good student, got involved with a bad crowd.
He and his older brother got a weekend job at the nearby Auburn Hospital which he called “the best paper run in Sydney.”
“It was like an old men’s home with 50 wards, and because they were stuck in there, we’d make a killing. We were like a mobile paper shop selling everything from cigarettes to confectionery,” he said.
“My older brother had it first and was very honest and hardworking and then when I took it over that all changed.
“I started making a killing, if someone gave me $20, I’d give them change from $10, I was making $100 for just a few hours work.
“Once again that spirit was somehow in me, my brother was honest and hardworking, and I wasn’t.”
Having cash and access to cigarettes, he started smoking and by 13 was on a pack a day.
At 17, he started smoking marijuana, then taking amphetamines and eventually injecting heroin.
He got work as an apprentice carpenter but a bad fall on the job left him unable to work, in a lot of pain and with a lot of money through compensation. By age 23 he was a drug addict.
“The heroin could cost up to hundreds of dollars each day depending on how much I could afford, but this was to be my dreadful situation for the next 15 years,” he said.
“I stole from my parents, got involved with the police and took more and more drugs.
“Eventually a judge said I either go on methadone or go to jail, so the choice was simple.”
Unable to get heroin, he began injecting the methadone along with up to 20 crushed up sleeping tablets daily. With no veins left in his arms, he was injecting in his groin.
He developed an abscess, which burst, landing him in hospital where he would be rescued in body and soul.
Marinko has no doubt God was using him to show the world nobody is a hopeless case.
“He made me an example that there is always hope. I was in a coma and fighting for life but looking back, I was fighting against those voices of condemnation.
“I truly believe the lesson for others is not to condemn people, regardless of how they are, but to pray for them as Jesus himself preached.
“Sometimes when I tell people my story, they look at me like I’m mad, but I can only tell my truth and know God put me through all this to spread his message to others.”
Eventually Marinko was discharged from hospital after slowly regaining his strength and daily Mass took the place of his daily needle.
He participates in weekly prayer groups, is a catechist, Eucharistic minister, attends the Men’s Rosary at St Mary’s Cathedral each month and spends his time “helping others grow in faith, so that they do not have to go through what he did.”
“I give thanks to Jesus every day for bringing me back from such a desperate lifestyle in which I could and should have died very far from him,” he said.
“Through all I have been through and all the suffering I would do it all again without question if he asked me to.
“That spirit that was in me from such an early age has now gone and I am living the life I was meant to live.