Thursday, February 25, 2010

Because of Maria Esperanza Medrano Bianchini, Servant of God

Guest post by Allison 
A woman with roses that grow out of her chest. Who carries the aroma of roses, without wearing perfume. Whose hands bleed during Holy Week and who sees visions of the Virgin Mary in Venezuela. No, these are not reports from the Weekly World News. This is the story of Maria Esperanza, who died in Long Beach Island, New Jersey in 2004 and who the Church now is investigating for sainthood.

Some might dismiss such a woman, along with her followers, as kooks. Others might embrace her as a prophetess, even build their own religion around her. I am Catholic because my church treads the middle way: it keeps open the possibility of miraculous happenings while systematically investigating such claims. This is known as the canonical process. It won't make Maria Esperanza a saint: it will confirm—or not—that she already is.

“The church takes these cases on with a lot of prudence and reason,” says my good friend and fellow parishioner Dan Finaldi, who met Maria Esperanza at healing Masses in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. “That process makes it much less likely that it can devolve into superstition or occultism.”

Dan's own first-hand experiences with Maria Esperanza left him convinced. “She was clearly a gifted mystic,” he says, “there is no doubt about it.”

Last month, the opening of her Cause of Beatification and Canonization took place in the Cathedral of Saint Francis of Assisi in Metuchen, New Jersey. More than a thousand people attended the Mass, including Dan.

Maria Esperanza, born in a town in Monagas State, Venezuela, in 1926, became known around the world after the Blessed Mother appeared to her and 150 others at a farm named Finca Betania on March 25, 1984. Our Lady is said to have appeared to the mother of seven children under the title, “Mary, Virgin and Mother, Reconciler of all People and Nations.” After an investigation, the local bishop approved the apparition in 1987. This was the fourth such Church-approved apparition of the Blessed Mother in the 20th century.

Visions of the Blessed Mother are not the only reason the Church is investigating Maria Esperanza for sainthood. Her charisma are said to have included: stigmata, visions of the future, the gift of healing, the gift of counsel, locutions, ecstasies, levitations, the materialization of the Holy Host in her mouth, the outpouring of flower and fruit perfume, the apparition of rose petals, levitation, bilocation, transfiguration, and a unique mystical phenomenon, the spontaneous birth or outburst of a rose—at 16 different times during her life—from her chest.

Dan is a painter and a bit of a mystical thinker. In the late 1990s, drawn to attending healing masses, he went to one in Perth Amboy where Maria Esperanza was appearing. He watched after the Mass, which was crowded with more than 1,500 people, as she spoke from the ambo. During her talk, he says, she fell into an ecstasy, which interrupted her talk. After the Mass, he said, he waited in a line for three and half hours for spiritual advice. Finally, he could wait no more and went home, giving a lift to two women he had stood in line with.

As they were driving away from the church, the three of them saw a very bright light flicker on and off in the darkened rose window by the choir loft. “There was suddenly bright illumination, as if someone turned on a very bright light inside a window . . . three bright lights illuminated the choir loft. It was an unusual thing to see.” Later, driving north on the New Jersey Turnpike, Dan said he and his passengers saw a shooting star, a coincidence, he says, but an interesting end to the evening.

The second time Dan met Maria Esperanza, he was agonizing over whether to pursue a teaching career. He stood in line for three hours and finally had the chance to talk to her. “You know what it smells like when you put your face in a rose? “ Dan said. “That is what it smelled like.” The aroma would “waft and subside and waft and subside” as he spoke with her, pouring out his difficulties. He told Maria Esperanza about a strange dream—or a vision, he wasn't sure—he had had.

“I woke up,” he said, “and saw a woman dressed in a white suit, holding a box. It was an illuminated box that was levitating. The woman said, ‘This is a gift. Our Lord Jesus wants you to have this.’ He told the woman ‘I'm afraid,’ and the vision disappeared. When he recounted this dream or vision to Maria Esperanza, she said, “You will be a teacher and you MUST trust the Lord.”

“As I processed my encounter with Maria and my strange dream,” Dan said, “I thought, The Lord is telling me in ways I can understand, that teaching is right for me, it is a gift.” Two months later, Dan landed a teaching job. And he has found great joy in teaching—and painting±ever since.

I never have been deeply drawn to the mystical side of the Catholic Church. But my thinking is, if I believe that God created the world (which I do) and sent his only Son to Earth to preach the truth and heal people (which I do) and that this Son rose from the dead and then returned to earth (which I do), it is not such a leap to believe that God could gift a human being with such charisma.

So I am grateful my Church takes seriously the possibility we might have mystics among us.