When it comes to phenomena and apparitions, the Catholic and Greek Orthodox Churches are as skeptical as anyone. But an increase in activity is tough to ignore. Over the past several years, pilgrim sites have sprung up all over the world, including places in the United States, such as Phoenix, Arizona, and Cold Springs, Kentucky. Since 1981 when six children in the rural town of Medjugorje, Bosnia, told of seeing the Blessed Mother, there has been a remarkable increase in visions. About fifteen million people have visited Medjugorje, despite a war being fought there, reporting tales of miraculous healings, the sun spinning and rosaries turning gold.
Such happenings are also hard to accept in a world grown as cynical as ours. And that’s why perhaps the perfect person to report on many of them is Michael Brown. Michael grew up as a Catholic but fell away from the church once he began a career in journalism. Soon he developed impressive credentials. As an investigative reporter, he exposed the infamous Love Canal toxic waste crisis. He was a contributing editor to Science Digest, and wrote for publications such as Reader’s Digest, The Atlantic Monthly and The New York Times.
As a scientist, Michael wanted “proof” about religion, and he also studied atheism and the occult. “Yet, seeing real evil made me realize that there is also real good,” he explains. “One of the clinchers was a dream in which several luminous entities who had no wings and yet seemed like angels appeared to me. They stood over my body with healing hands, showing me that Satan existed and was at my door. I actually saw the devil’s living and awful face…and it scared me to the bottom of my soul. It made me realize I was in spiritual danger.”
Soon Michael had re-embraced his faith, and he began to investigate the numerous and growing amount of spiritual phenomenon. To date Michael has visited and examined, in depth, about forty of the most significant sites and visionaries, old and new. He uses his own scientific and methodology, and found a significant number of these places to be credible. “I’m not talking about dreams, phantoms or vague ghostly images,” he says, of the woman visionaries claim to see. “I’m speaking of spectacular and often three-dimensional apparitions, apparitions that move and breathe like a human person.”
Get Michael explaining any one of these sites and you’re apt to find yourself convinced within minutes. Typically, he’ll tell you, a visionary (or two or three), someone who lives in the area, begins to see a young woman, usually dressed in clothes appropriate to the culture and speaking the native language. The visionary(ies) and the young lady converse. Nothing of great significance is usually said, but the visionaries are impressed with the lady’s grace, beauty and obvious love for them. She calls them “her children.” Sometimes she tells them where she will meet them again. (This leads to great crowds gathering for the next event.) Only the visionaries can see this woman, but there may be smaller heavenly manifestations that happen alongside the apparition. Typically, the visionaries have no idea why they were chosen for this honor.
Although each site has something unique about it, there is one in particular which does not fit into this pattern. Since this is a book of mystery, we do not know how long this vision will continue on this site. But it has something special about it already. It has been officially approved by the Catholic Church. Even Medjugorje, considered a “major apparition” does not yet have that distinction.
The site is in Betania, Venezuela where Maria Esperanza lives. Born in 1928, she always seemed somewhat of a mystic, her family claims. She knew the date she would meet her future husband, and he has learned through the years to accept the unexplainable. One Good Friday while praying at church Maria experienced the stigmata. Since that time, it happens every year on Good Friday, while scientists and physicians stand by to examine her. And like Padre Pio, who she met several times, she seems to have the gifts of bilocation and a scent of sanctity.
During her conversations with Padre Pio, she once told him of a dream that she was routinely having. She and her husband were to pick out a piece of property which would serve as a pilgrimage center. She had seen it in detail, but had no idea where it was. From 1957 until 1974, she and her husband Geo searched for the land, and finally found a farm about an hour and a half from Caracas that perfectly matched the one in Maria’s dream. The area was poor, covered with aluminum shanties and banana farms, called Finca Betania. As they cleared the land, they were surprised to find a little grotto and spring that they hadn’t noticed at the time of purchase.
Maria and Geo went to Italy to care for Geo’s mother in 1976, and while there, Maria received what she considered to be a message from Mary. “My child, I am giving you a piece of heaven…a place for everyone, not only Catholics. It is for all because there should be no class distinctions of nations and religions.”
Mary also explained to Maria that she was coming now in many parts of the world so that all of us would form within our hearts the fire of love for her Son, so that nations would hold hands with one another. When Maria went back to Betania, the actual visions began. They were usually at the grotto, but sometimes Mary came to Maria in her home or other places.
Herein lies the difference. As in most shrines, there is one (or perhaps a few) visionaries. But in Betania, on that first morning, other people were included. Maria saw the Virgin, but the eighty or so with her saw a light which brightened the entire landscape. One woman cried that the farm appeared to be on fire
Maria continued to have visions, but in 1984, once again, 108 people with her also saw the Blessed Mother. This has continued, so much so that the local bishop came and personally interviewed 550 people who claim to have seen Mary or Jesus. This scenario differs greatly with most of the primary apparition sites in which usually just a chosen few have this privilege. “This may be,” speculated one expert, “because Betania has no specific message to offer. Mary’s love is the message.”
The phenomenon associated with Betania are very interesting. The Blessed Mother does not appear “on schedule” as is usual in other apparitions; she may be anyplace at any time, or a long period of time may pass without a formal apparition. Whenever she is present, however, she is accompanied by at least one huge blue butterfly that everyone can see, like a signal. At other times, great flocks of blue butterflies appear. On occasions, people have seen a Communion wafer appear on Maria’s tongue. The sun changes colors, grows and returns to its normal size. People are bathed in glitter, a delicate sparkling material, as well as rose petals which fall unexpectedly and at unpredictable moments. There are periods when fog seems to come from nowhere, wrapping visitors as in a comfortable blanket.
“Estimates of upwards of a quarter-million people in Betania are reported as visionaries,” writes Janice McConnell in Meetings with Mary. “They say they have seen or are seeing apparitions of the Blessed Mother at the grotto. Extraordinary photos are turning up…depicting (images) of the Blessed Mother in various phenomenal ways….The apparitions are usually preceded by a great flash of light, accompanied by the sweet perfume of roses. Many people have been heard to exclaim that they see multitudes of angels. Others meet “helpful strangers,” people who give them directions or messages, then disappear.” Visitors may see Mary’s silhouette, or a vapor-like forms, or her face etched into a tree, just while walking around. The sound of heavenly choirs seem to waft here and there.
“’Betania’ means ‘Bethany,’ a place to go to be blessed,” says Michael Brown. “But there is also a warning in such places that mankind must become more spiritual and less materialistic if we are to avoid future calamities. It is, above all, proof that God and a spiritual dimension certainly exist.”
“This is a crucial time, a decisive time for humanity,” adds Maria. “But…the light and grace of the Holy Spirit will always illumine the people who desire justice in the world….There is something in the air.”
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