As one of Australia’s most well known journalists Mike Willesee has a reputation for toughness.
During a stellar career spanning decades, he’s interviewed prime ministers, movie stars, criminals and sporting legends.
He’s been punched by Mohammed Ali and played mind games with Gough Whitlam.
But as the 75-year-old faces his toughest battle yet in the form of throat cancer, he says it’s his current work seeking to show “the truth of God alive in our world,” of which he is most proud.
Willesee says his faith in God has sustained him following the shock diagnosis of cancer in late 2016.
While recent scans have brought some hope, showing that the tumors have disappeared, the initial prognosis gave him only six to twelve months to live.
“It was one of those moments where it doesn’t seem real,” Willesee said.
His first thought was how he was going to break the news to his kids. “I thought I’ve got to tell my kids and that worried me.”
“I think having God in my life made it easy to accept. This is what’s happening. If that’s what God wants, that’s ok.”
“It really doesn’t matter because so often Jesus told us to be ready … You don’t know what time the Master will come home in the night.”
Twenty years ago Willesee’s attitude to faith was very different. He was a cynical hard-nosed journo with no time for God. He’d stopped practicing his Catholic faith as a young man after his father — ALP senator Don Willesee — had been attacked by two priests from the pulpit for refusing to join the DLP, a party founded predominantly by Catholics to counteract communism in the Labor Party.
Mike himself had also been bullied and even physically assaulted, on account of his father’s political stance, by Christian Brothers at his high school. His view of the Church was understandably negative.
Things began to change, however, in 1998 after he had a premonition that a plane he was about to board in Nairobi was going to crash. He got on the plane anyway and it did crash. As the plane plummeted towards the ground, Willesee offered up a prayer to a God he didn’t believe in.
“I said my first prayer on the plane. I said a prayer, very simple, to a God who’s existence I was quite unsure of.”
He walked away from the crash unscathed.
Not long after his lawyer friend Ron Tesoriero convinced him to travel to Bolivia to investigate claims that a woman there was regularly receiving messages from Jesus. Willesee was highly skeptical but he went anyway.
“I went to actually prove it wasn’t true. Because everything else in that area I’d investigated had always been false — fraud or cult.”
The woman’s name was Katya Rivas, and Willesee and Tesoriero famously filmed her suffering the stigmata — the physical wounds of Christ’s passion in her body.
“I believed that what I was seeing was true,” Mr Willesee says. The day after filming he returned to Katya’s house to discover that the wounds on her body had completely healed.
“Magicians can’t do that,” he said.
“It’s a difficult story to tell as a journalist because most Catholics don’t want to hear it, let alone non-Catholics. They think you’re a bit crazy.”
The footage of Katya featured in Willesee’s documentary Signs from God, which was viewed by a staggering 28 million people in the USA, when first aired in 1999. While the experience had an enormous impact on him, Willesee still did not return to the Catholic faith. It took something even more confronting to truly convert his heart — receiving the Sacrament of Confession for the first time in 35 years.
It was in a tea room above a restaurant he owned in Sydney that the pivotal moment took place.
Katya Rivas and her spiritual advisor, Fr Renzo, were visiting Willesee and asked to see his offices above the restaurant.
Mike obligingly took them upstairs and when Fr Renzo followed him into the tea room, without warning, he made the Sign of the Cross over Willesee.
“I knew he was starting Confession,” Mr Willesee said. “All my instincts said, no, no, no. I’m not ready for this. When you haven’t been to Confession for 35 years and you haven’t been living by the rules of your Church, it’s difficult. But I think the Holy Spirit must have helped me because I stayed.”
He says the experience made him feel that he had “no weight.”
“It was like being excessively overweight and then coming out slim and fit. I thought, wow, this is good.”
Another case of alleged supernatural phenomena that Willesee and Tesereiro investigated was a Communion host from a church in Buenos Aires that appeared to be bleeding.
Expert analysis of fragments of the host by several different scientists had revealed that it consisted of human tissue.
Willesee and Tesereiro then took a sample to renowned cardiologist Professor Zugabe in New York.
“He didn’t want to work with us. He was retired and cranky. But we found him on the internet. He was a heart specialist. He’d written two books on the heart.”
Without revealing the source of the sample, they asked the Professor to tell them what it was.
Professor Zugabe determined the sample provided by Mike and Ron was human heart tissue and that, furthermore, the person the tissue came from had suffered great stress prior to death.
These findings were then presented to the then Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.
“He said ‘I accept these results and I give you permission to publish them’. But to his priests he said, ‘you must not promote this but if anyone asks you a question you must answer honestly’.”
Archbishop Bergoglio also approved the building of a chapel to house the miraculous host.
Willesee says the book he is currently working on is about the process of investigating such seemingly inexplicable phenomena.
He says he has investigated several other cases of bleeding hosts from around the world, where scientific analysis has led to the same finding — that the substance is human heart tissue from someone who suffered stress prior to death.
“I’ve used science. It’s got nothing to do with my opinion,” he says.
“We now have scientific proof of bleeding Communion hosts, where the scientists all agree — it’s impossible it was done by man. The blood was human. There was human tissue in it, which was heart tissue and stressed. Which is completely consistent with everything that Jesus told us in his passion and what he was giving to us. That’s not opinion. That’s now science.”
His new book will take readers on the investigative journey as he pieces together the parts of the puzzle, seeking the truth about these claimed miracles. He believes it’s a story that needs to be told.
“Jesus doesn’t do these things for fun. He knows the world is in bad shape, the Church is in bad shape and once again he’s doing something.”
Looking back over his highly successful career as a journalist, Willesee says it is his current work exploring these mysterious occurrences that means the most to him, even though he knows it is not likely to prove popular.
“I think God and religion are just so politically incorrect at the moment. Nobody wants to know. You can be laughed at just for saying you believe in God.”
“The work I’m doing now has been difficult. I’m constantly reminded that most journalists would say this is ridiculous. But I’ve stuck with this story and I’m making progress.
“It shows the truth of God in the Eucharist. The truth that God is alive in our world and that his hand moves.”