Millennium uncertainty offered as one reason
San Francisco — For centuries, Catholics have been getting messages from the Virgin Mary, seeing her statues weep and finding her image in the clouds and on church walls.
But those who study these sightings note a dramatic increase in recent years.
They cite three major reasons — the approach of the millennium, the strong Marian devotion of Pope John Paul II, and the continuing influence of events at Medjugorje, a Bosnian village where the mother of Jesus supposedly appeared in 1981.
“With the approach of the year 2000, people are looking for reassurance, for something tangible,” said Woodeene Koenig-Bricker, author of the book “365 Mary.”
Two months ago, on a farm in Conyers, Ga., 100,000 people gathered to hear Nancy Fowler, a middle-aged housewife, channel purported messages from the Virgin Mary.
“This is happening all over the place,” said Tony Jatcko, a spokesman for Fowler. “The Blessed Mother is on a mission to deliver the message that things are not going as they should in the world.”
Last month, 500 people and a couple of priests ignored the warnings of Archbishop William Levada and turned out to see another pseudo-Catholic channel, Vassula Ryden, at Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.
“Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with Thee,” chanted the Rev. Donald McDonald, leading the congregation in a half-hour rosary preceding Vassula’s arrival.
Earlier this month, on the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, about two dozen Mexican farmworkers and their families gathered around a large shade tree at a Yuba City housing project. They saw an image of Mary in a large knothole and have laid candles and
poinsettias at the base of the tree.
On the eve of the holiday, which marks a celebrated Marian apparition in Mexico in 1531, 12-year-old Aurora Becerra strung white lights on a wooden shrine built to protect the sacred image.
Her grandfather, Ramon Gonzales, discovered the apparition at Richmond Homes last spring.
“Many people came — some from as far away as Los Angeles,” said Gonzales. “This was a ruined place. Kids were drinking and getting into drugs. Since Mary came, there has been a spiritual uplifting in the community.”
This rising devotion to Mary cuts across class lines and denominational boundaries.
At Grace Cathedral, high atop Nob Hill, the Rev. Alan Jones lights a candle every day before a shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Next summer, he will lead a first-class, 14-day pilgrimage to Chartres Cathedral in France titled “Mary and the Birth of the Soul.”
Jones, dean of the Episcopal cathedral, sees Mary as part of a broader “shift from dogma to imagery” in American religion, a revival more emotional than intellectual.
“There’s something primordial about the image of a woman with a baby,” he said. “It tells us how to behave in the world and can be a role model for both men and women. That’s much more powerful than clobbering people with dogma.”
Others trace the latest wave of Marian visions to Medjugorje, the village in Bosnia where six youths reported a vision of Mary on June 24, 1981. Their claim was quickly promoted by a group of Franciscans in the region, even after the local bishop dismissed the alleged apparition as a “collective hallucination.”
By the 1990s, Medjugorje had become a major pilgrimage site and tourist industry, with its own travel agencies, magazines, hotels and package deals. Hundreds of millions of dollars have poured into the region, providing a major source of foreign currency in the war-torn land.
Several of the visionary “youths” — now approaching middle age — continue to commune with Mary, meet with pilgrims and take the message worldwide.
The Vatican has never officially approved the Medjugorje visions, but the spot now rivals such church- sanctioned Marian meccas as Lourdes, a grotto in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, and Fatima, where the visions of three young Portuguese shepherds captivated Catholics during World War I.
Medjugorje, some scholars say, has inspired much of the Marian fervor in the world today.
“Whenever we have a major phenomenon like Medjugorje or Lourdes, there’s a tendency for them to generate a lot of minor ones,” said the Rev. Johann Roten, director of the Marian Library at the University of Dayton.
In the decade after the 1858 visions in Lourdes, Roten said, there were more than 100 reported apparitions in Europe and elsewhere.
Roten said all the commotion in Georgia, which has been slowly building for the past decade, is “a typical replica of Fatima.”
Fatima prophecies, especially the “Secret Message of Fatima,” are increasingly popular at the dawn of the new millennium, when many of the faithful are on the lookout for apocalyptic signs of the second coming of Christ.
This fervor is fed by the fact that the Vatican has never released the final revelation Mary allegedly gave to the three Portuguese shepherds at Fatima in 1917.
“Some say it would create a doomsday mentality,” Roten said. “I’ve probably seen 10 to 12 versions of it over the years, but none of them are very convincing. We know the pope has seen it, and Cardinal (Joseph) Ratzinger (head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) has seen it. They have chosen not to reveal it.”
Vatican authorities have also been slow to pass judgment on the messages from Medjugorje. Pope John Paul II, who comes out of the traditional Polish Catholic Church, has an unusually strong devotion to Mary and has been a major force behind the Marian resurgence.
According to Roten, who visited Medjugorje in the late 1980s, the jury is still out on the Bosnian visionaries.
“My impression was overwhelmingly positive,” he said. “People were strong in their faith and doing things like fasting, conversions, confession, Mass. The overall religious atmosphere was very positive.”
Other conservative Catholics are outraged that the church has allowed the Medjugorje myth to blossom, and they say it is no more valid than Fowler, Vassula or the next renegade visionary cashing in on popular devotion.
“Medjugorje was a conspiracy that has generated huge amounts of money and has spread all over the world,” said Rick Salbato, leader of Catholic Cult Watch in Campbell. “There is a spirit in Medjugorje, but it is not of God. Those who seek the supernatural open the door to demonic forces pretending to be angels of light.”
Salbato said the Vatican’s refusal to make a clear statement on Medjugorje only encourages copycat mystics like Fowler and Vassula.
“People go to Medjugorje, see how fantastic they are doing there, and start having their own apparitions,” he said.
Last month, on the day Vassula appeared at Herbst Theatre, Archbishop Levada reprinted Vatican warnings against her teachings in Sunday church bulletins across the archdiocese. “Catholics should not consider her messages as divine revelations, but as personal meditations,” the archbishop warned. “The meditations contain elements that are negative in the light of church doctrine.”
Nevertheless, about 500 people came to see Vassula, a former fashion model born in Egypt to Greek parents. She claims to receive divine messages from Jesus, Mary and an angel named Daniel, and writes them down in an elegant script.
BOOKS SELLING WELL
Books containing reprints of her handwritten revelations were selling briskly in the theater lobby.
On stage, Vassula stood at a lectern in front of a large painting of Jesus, his long hair parted down the middle and falling into his face — a hair style remarkably similar to Vassula’s own coiffure. Flower arrangements with sparkling gold shrubbery, like two burning bushes, stood on each side of the podium. To her right was an easel with a blue-and- white picture of the Virgin Mary.
Since her last appearance two years ago in San Francisco, Vassula’s message has become more apocalyptic.
“We are living in the end of time — not the end of the world, but the end of one epoch,” she said. “The evil one wants to destroy the church of Christ. He will not, but he is doing a lot of damage. Jesus will say, `Enough.’ And the time is soon.”
Vassula has also added a faith- healing service to her performance. At Herbst Theatre, about 25 people climbed on stage to have the 56- year-old mystic lay her hands upon their heads.
Among them was Nick Cassimus of San Rafael, who came to the theater with his wife and developmentally disabled daughter, hoping the healing service would help her “awaken.”
“I’m not a big believer in evangelists, but there is something about Vassula,” he said. “I don’t believe what the church says about her messages not being true. Anyway, I don’t follow the priests.”
`IT IS FROM GOD’
Outside in the lobby, Rafael Lahoz of San Bruno was buying one of Vassula’s books. Church warnings about her teachings do not concern him.
“I go by what I feel on the inside,” he said. “She seems very sincere. I believe it is from God.”
Roten, the director of the Marian Library, predicts that interest in Vassula Ryden and Nancy Fowler “will probably disappear soon.”
Time, he said, is the greatest test when it comes to passing judgment on messages from Mary.
“The church tries to stay away from these things for as long as possible,” Roten said. “The longer it lasts and flourishes, the better we can see it for what it really is.”