Trudging along two miles of country road in Kettle River, Minnesota, I shifted the back carrier which held my three-year-old son. I was joined by 3,500 other pilgrims who had congregated to see if the Virgin Mary would appear as purported locutionist Stephen Marino had reported she would.
A Meeting with Mary?
It was Easter, 1993, and the temperature was cold enough to keep the thick layer of snow that fell the previous night from melting. With me were my husband, four young boys, and three other families who were part of our family prayer group.
It was the published messages from Marino that inspired our prayer group to form. I had heard his inspirational conversion story in which he went so far as to divorce his second wife and reconcile with his first in order to become fully obedient to God and the Church. Everything I knew about him seemed to be the real deal. And who would invent a message that the Blessed Mother would appear on a particular date and time? You would either have to be authentic and your announcement would be fulfilled or a fool. I figured that the tens of thousands of pilgrims in Fatima who witnessed the spinning of the sun and had their soaked clothing dried in an instant when the Blessed Mother appeared as predicted had less to go on than we did. I had come because if the appearance did occur I wanted to be there. If it did not, I would return home and continue to practice my faith.
At 2:00, the appointed hour, the pilgrims waited eagerly, gazing upward. The overcast sky cleared just a bit as the sun showed itself through a thin film of clouds. We all waited and watched, thinking that surely this was the prelude. Then the clouds closed over the sun. Nothing more happened. It was a “no show” for the Blessed Mother. Interesting enough, it was also a “no show” for Marino. His friend and business partner, whose farm property held a large cross and the gathering, reported that Steve and visionaries throughout the world had been called by the Blessed Mother to go to Medjugorje. Weird.
It takes awhile to digest such a fraud. Initially, not all were ready to condemn Marino. If the messages drew people closer to Christ and His Blessed Mother, how could they be false? Would the devil be behind the formation of prayer groups? It did not make sense. How could all these good fruits not be from God? Were such seers themselves duped, and heard or saw messages that were really not from God? Did they suffer from mental illness and imagine it all? Or were they frauds who gave only an outward appearance of religious devotion?
In Marino’s case, I later learned that he got involved in a worldwide movement built around Medjugorje and tried to use that connection to make Kettle River a major Marian shrine. Marino eventually published more than 300 of the messages, dated from March 1991 to January 1992. He and a partner formed a corporation and bought hundreds of acres of land through donations. In March 1992, the Duluth Diocese investigated, and ultimately advised Catholics to stay away.
After the fateful Easter, the cross was removed from the field and Marino withdrew a request to build a 10,000-seat chapel and a seven-story, cross-shaped hotel. He pledged to obey a church directive to dissolve the corporation.
The Wedge of Division
Recently some friends went on a pilgrimage from North Dakota to Ohio to visit the Holy Love Ministries site where messages and apparitions to a housewife have been reported to be occurring for twenty years. They claim numerous miracles are occurring and special blessings are bestowed on all who come. And the pilgrims are indeed coming even from other countries. The shrine is on one hundred-plus acres of land, adorned with beautiful statues of Mary, Jesus and many of the saints.
Since it’s relatively close to where one of my sisters lives, I mentioned the place to her. She investigated and learned that there were enough red flags concerning these messages that it would not be prudent to visit. Even though the messages, purportedly from Jesus and Mary, encourage Catholic devotions, they have declared that this ministry is ecumenical and therefore, does not have to answer to Catholic authority.
The bishop’s office of the diocese of Cleveland cautions anyone considering donations to the center. The organization has no approval or support from the Catholic diocese. A meeting with Holy Love representatives made it clear that the ministry will not subject themselves to the Catholic Church.
When I spoke with people from the diocese, I learned that some things reported on the Holy Love website are misrepresented and subtly drive a wedge between followers and the bishop. Alongside all the Catholic devotions and talk of love, messages brim with dire warnings that computer chips will control people’s minds in the future and certain constellations are now taking unforeseen paths.
In the end, how is a person to discern what is true and what is not? How could false messages result in so many good fruits, such as to increase prayers and devotion to God, Mary and the saints?
Mary Never Undermines the Church
I think it is important to note that in all Marian apparitions ultimately approved, Mary never undermined Church authority and always told visionaries to obey. If there was initial skepticism and resistance, God ultimately overcame it. He has a way with His Church. Never was a true visionary told he or she did not have to obey Catholic authority. After all, if Jesus died for His Church, would He now send His Mother work around it?
I know from experience that it’s easy to look only at the surface and miss obvious problems. An excellent website in which a Catholic theologian evaluates Marian apparitions is catholicplanet.com/apparitions. After reading through the explanations of why certain messages must be regarded as false, it helps readers to be more discerning.
In the end, the type of people who go to apparition sites are not necessarily naïve or foolish. (Of course I guess I’m defending myself here, too.) Oh, there are always some of those, but for the most part, people are motivated by their love of God and their desire to experience Him in their lives to a greater degree. The idea of being privy to messages from heaven can be intoxicating and raise one’s spirits even closer to heaven. Those in love with God naturally crave closeness to Him. To think that messages are being sent by Him or the Blessed Mother, inspires them with the notion that they can get even closer by taking the messages to heart, visiting the shrines and getting near the visionaries. It is really the same motivation of those who visit approved shrines.
Being part of a sea of people, all praying the rosary and loving God and His mother, is uplifting to say the least. These are people willing to travel great distances and do whatever else it takes to bask in love and graces from heaven. But there is a dark side to acting on messages that Church authority warns against. It can get the faithful off track. Once they are off course, the messages can take over and Catholic priests and bishops may even be seen as the enemy for rejecting or ignoring the messages. If the time comes when people realize the messages are false, there is a risk that they will feel duped by religion and turn away entirely.
In the end, we have all we need right at home. At Holy Love Ministries, it is reported that Jesus sometimes comes with Mary during her apparitions. Every Catholic already can be in the presence of God before the tabernacle at their church and even receive Him in Holy Communion.
Marian apparitions and devotions have played a large part in my own faith development. I would have loved to have witnessed something like the pilgrims at Fatima did, but really, I do not need it. Instead of spending money and time on sites of questionable authenticity, I realize now that the best way to act radically for Christ is to receive Him every day at Mass and then to live His gospel message. In the end, we really will get to see both Him and His mother. But until then, we just have to be patient.
Patti Maguire Armstrong is the mother of ten children including two Kenyan AIDS orphans. She is a speaker and the author of Catholic Truths for Our Children: A Parent's Guide (Scepter). She is also the managing editor of Ascension Press's Amazing Grace book series. Her website is RaisingCatholicKids.com.
(This article originally appeared in the Dakota Catholic Action newspaper and is used by permission of the author.)