“The Triumph” Triumphs – A Film Filled with Substance and Style

— To find screenings of The Triumph throughout the U.S. click here.

I recently got the chance to see Sean Bloomfield’s newest film, The Triumph. The film was playing at an AMC theater, in a suburb outside of Chicago, an hour-and-a-half drive from my house in the city. Making great time, I arrived two hours early for the screening, and found a used bookstore across the street where I went to kill time.

As irony – or Providence – would have it, I found a Medjugorje book in the store, bought it, and saw that two chapters were dedicated to Sean Bloomfield’s conversion story and experiences with Medjugorje. The book was Wayne Weible’s A Child Shall Lead Them: Stories of Transformed Young Lives in Medjugorje.

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Medjugorje visionary Mirjana Soldo is featured prominently in The Triumph

Reading it before the screening proved providential indeed, not only in seeing how far Sean has come in his life because of the transforming encounter with Our Lady of Medjugorje, which made the cinematic experience with this filmmaker’s work that much more fascinating, but also in realizing that this movie — likewise — has the potential to transform young lives.   

Towards the end of the film, I found myself sitting in the theater, enraptured, and thoughtfully reflecting: “I love this movie.”

The Triumph is a bold film. It makes a lot of courageous choices, creating an original, edgy, and unapologetic experience at the cinema. Using fast-paced camera-work, unconventional angles, a thrilling sound-track, and vivid re-enactments of the first days of the apparitions (which have a touch of the whimsical to them, honoring the otherworldliness that is a mystical encounter), the documentary is a cool, stylish movie filled with raw energy, creativity, and an intensity that is often absent when it comes to films on spiritual matters.

I recall that when Randall Sullivan, as a secular journalist years ago working for RollingStone Magazine, began researching Medjugorje, he was critical of all the books that seemed like “devotionalist drivel” to him on the subject. Essentially, he ended up writing one of the best journalistic accounts of the apparitions ever written with The Miracle Detective: An Investigation of Holy Visions, a book that can appeal to both secular and religious audiences.

If we were to transfer the same perspective to films, you could say that the Triumph is anything but “devotionalist drivel,” having an appeal that could easily open the hearts and minds of a bigger – meaning both a secular and a younger – audience.  

Worlds collide in this movie as if East meets West. The Triumph follows an American named Ben, a 28-year-old man –- fun-loving, youthful, adventurous, filled with energy and life yet also a bit immature, vulnerable and tragicomic in so many ways, with a deep-seated emptiness and angst within his soul that the world cannot satisfy, searching for something—something deeper.

Ben, who is struggling with addiction, ends up in Medjugorje in search of peace and inner freedom. At first, he’s not sure whether he believes in the supernatural experiences of the visionaries or not. Receiving an invitation to be present at the apparition of visionary Mirjana Soldo, who is a reoccurring and powerful presence throughout the film, Ben’s ambiguous faith is tested—with monumental results.

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A climactic moment comes in the film when Ben gets a chance to sit down and speak with Mirjana; a beautiful and priceless encounter. The reality of polar opposites coming face-to-face is evident here, as Ben, who in many ways resembles a Johnny-Knoxville- MTV-generation type faces the Slavic visionary who experiences monthly visits from the Mother of God. Of course, what is most endearing is Mirjana’s obvious normalcy.

The authenticity of her joy, her sense of humor, the sincerity of her faith, her wisdom and spiritual motherhood, are all conveyed in this exchange in the most human and natural ways, beyond the grasp that any interview (no matter how thoughtful or sincere) could capture. Few things are as revealing as the sublime intimacy of two human beings spontaneously conversing with each other.

This is a scene that speaks wonders to Medjugorje’s authenticity through Mirjana’s witness; watch it, watch the way she treats, and interacts with, Ben—notice the depth of goodness, empathy, genuine interest, appreciation and joy that emanates from this visionary—you see an encounter which behind the mask of simplicity uncovers the depths of holiness in various ways. It is a pleasure and an honor to watch.

One of the most fascinating portrayals in the Triumph is how well the film depicts the struggle with addiction, a reality addressed by a psychiatrist, by priests, by a visionary, and by an addict, as well as numerous recovering (or recovered) addicts, in the film.

One of my favorite interviews came from Dr. James Paul Pandarakalam, a U.K. psychiatrist who has published scientific papers on the events in Medjugorje, personally examining the ecstasies of the visionaries. Dr. Pandarakalam also spoke eloquently of addiction, making a fascinating comparison between chemical and spiritual solutions, examining how human beings yearn for a higher state of consciousness – for a purer and deeper state – and often succumb to chemical methods (drugs or alcohol) in attempts to reach such a state when they should, in fact, be seeking the true solution: spiritual methods (an encounter with God, with the interior life, with true peace and freedom).

These are deep, fascinating and important issues which are seldom addressed so purely and eloquently. It made me think of a few things. Consider that one of the 12 Steps to Recovery in the Alcoholics Anonymous program is a spiritual experience – monumental for the conversion to transpire. Consider that Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the papal preacher and such a holy man, writes of the deeper encounter with the Holy Spirit – an encounter of pure experientialism with the divine – using the language of “sober intoxication” (again, a state of “intoxication” -– but spiritual, not chemical; thus truer).

It made me reflect about how when I first wrote an article sharing my testimony of my past struggles with addiction, and the liberating consolation and freedom that I found in faith, I originally titled the article “In Search of Ecstasy.” For me, as for so many countless others, the deeper ecstasy came when the experience of God came into my life. That is when a higher state of consciousness, an intimate mystical reality allowing one to find freedom and empowerment, penetrates our lives: when we give ourselves to the Lord and develop a meaningful, growing relationship with Him, one of constant conversion and interior depth.

Sean Bloomfield is no stranger to such a reality, as I read before the screening how he went through a period of alcohol abuse in college before discovering a life of faith and meaning in God through Our Lady’s apparitions. The filmmaker thus is no stranger to the seriousness of the situation that his art depicts through this powerful documentary.

I was also glad to see that the Triumph does not shy away from the anthropological situation surrounding the history of Medjugorje and the other regions of the former Yugoslavia, as being areas of historic (and horrific) conflict between Croatian Catholics, Serbian Orthodox Christians and Muslims. Here Ben (as the film’s protagonist) plays a double-role.

Beyond being the subject of the movie Ben becomes a facilitator (almost an MC, of sorts) who conducts interviews with Serbian Orthodox priests at a monastery and with Muslims at a mosque, entering these sacred places of worship and becoming an actor in the play, so to speak, as the camera follows him and records his exposure to these sites and the inter-religious encounters that come with them—encounters which ultimately are able to balance moments of the solemn with the comic, presenting a perfect paradox that is so often experienced with experimental efforts at ecumenism and with an encounter with sacred joy, which frequently arrives as a result of such efforts.

The Triumph is a different film, unique from any other Medjugorje film. There’s an emphasis on the youth. There’s great emphasis on the annual Youth Festival in Medjugorje and on the joy and spiritual freedom that so many young people meet there. There’s emphasis on the struggle with substance abuse that so many young people encounter throughout the world, and also a great depiction of the Cenacolo Community in Medjugorje which helps young addicts overcome that which enslaves them. There’s emphasis on the inter-religious importance of all that Medjugorje represents, as the Queen of Peace introduced herself as a Mother of all people, not just Catholics. There’s striking emphasis on the severity of the Medjugorje secrets and world events which vividly speak of how far humanity has gone from God, conveying the urgency of the situation in an electrifying wake-up call.

The most original thing about this film is its style. As mentioned, it has a very edgy, fast-paced style that is intense, energy-driven, and free of any restrictive boundaries underwritten by conventional filmmaking. I like to think that when dealing with such edgy and intense issues like addiction, mysticism, and a world in need of spiritual transformation, then it’s not a bad idea to take such an innovative and electric path in conveying the realities depicted. So many young people, and so many in the secular world especially, will relate well to how this is done. Judging by his testimony, I think Sean Bloomfield has a gift for connecting with (and evangelizing) such audiences. This movie – and its spreading – makes an important contribution to efforts in the new evangelization.

32nd Anniversary Message of Our Lady of Medjugorje

Here is the Anniversary Message of Our Lady of Medjugorje, delivered earlier today, marking 32 years of her apparitions to the world!

Dear children, with joy in the heart I love you all and call you to draw closer to my MedjOurLady.jpgImmaculate Heart so I can draw you still closer to my son Jesus, and that He can give you His peace and love, which are nourishment for each one of you. Open yourselves, little children, to prayer – open yourselves to my love. I am your Mother and cannot leave you alone in wandering and sin. You are called, little children, to be my children, my beloved children, so I can present you all to my Son. Thank you for having responded to my call.

The Power of a Mysterious Image

My friend Brian K. Kravec wrote this great column at CatholicMom.com, sharing insights that are treasures of evangelization. Brian writes:

“There are times that a picture really can inspire a thousand words of great discussion and dialogue about our Faith. A sacred image or statuary that represents our Catholicism is an open invitation to friendly conversation, effective evangelization and conversion of hearts beginning in the comfort of your own home.”

Brian continues:

“The art, images and statuary in my home can inspire great talk of contemporary artists Zamy Steynovitz and Thomas Kinkade as well as good wine, fine bourbon and classic movies. But look around some more and we’ll talk about the ultimate act of love, obedience and sacrifice of Christ on the Cross, the Pope, the martyrdom of St. Maximillian Kolbe, the mysticism of St. Pio, the charity of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta, Divine Mercy, the Holy Rosary and consecration to the Hearts of Jesus and Mary.”

I love how true these words are, on the priclessness and efficacy that a sacred image can bring in inspiring conversation, in promoting thought, in gradually even inspiring conversion of souls. I’m glad that among the various examples in his home Brian cites “the mysticism of St. Pio.”

I used to carry a prayer card of Padre Pio in my wallet, with a photograph of the holy manStigmataPadrePio wherein his stigmata was prominently displayed. At times, I was glad by how easily the image could spark conversation. I’ve had encounters where I show the Padre Pio image to friends, particularly secular friends, and the very mention and notice of the stigmata invokes such fascination.

So many in our culture have no idea that such phenomena even exist, the possibility of a modern person being supernaturally marked with the crucifixion wounds of Jesus Christ. This often leads to discussions about the significane of the stigmata, especially the interior dimensions of a life of holiness — when the stigmata are authentic — wherein the mystic becomes the living image of the crucified Christ through their sacred life.

When I’d show people that Padre Pio prayer card it inspired thought, because this simple object was able to convey that the supernatural is not a construction of the past but a burning reality of the present. Souls need to see that: the fact that God is, not was; the fact that the miraculous is a reality of modern life; the fact that there is still some beauty and mystery left in the world which dry rationalism cannot fully explain, but which points to the transcendent dimension of existence, to the sublime: to God.

Try it. Every moment should and, in many ways, can be an opportunity for evangelization, for speaking about the beautiful mysteries of our faith. If you have many visitors in your home, put up a sacred image or statue which may inspire conversation or simple curiosity about the mystery that is being depicted. What power there is in an image. Some have had experiences of God by simply encountering a magnificent work of art. Divine beauty operates through art, the spiritual through the physical.

A Book that Brings the Beauty of Medjugorje to Life

I’m re-posting this review of Fr. James Mulligan’s phenomenal book, Medjugojre: What’s Happening? This review originally appeared on my first blog at CatholicDaily.

The old saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words. It is this proverbial wisdomMulliganMedjugorje that speaks to the power of Fr. James Mulligan’s book Medjugorje: What’s Happening? Mulligan’s book constitutes a pictorial tour de force. It is one of those rare works that captures the poignant beauty of the Madonna’s apparitions in Medjugorje, its spiritual and transformative prowess, by taking the reader on a (stunningly) visual journey to the heart of Medjugorje.

I know a man who, after reading Fr. Mulligan’s book, was converted to a deep Catholic faith and started a Medjugorje prayer group just outside of Chicago. That is high praise for any spiritual author – that one’s work can have such an effect on a person’s life, leading not only to interior transformation and a deeper relationship with God but also to an active life in spreading the Gospel.

Dostoevsky once famously remarked that it is beauty that will save the world. In many ways, his timeless words were speaking to a reality that surrounds Fr. Mulligan’s book: how the beauty of a work can bring salvation to another’s life. Beauty, in its most sublime form, is – after all – nothing more than a reflection of the Divine; it is (therefore) sacred. Dostoevsky’s fellow countryman and literary heir, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, advanced the same notion, dedicating his Nobel Prize lecture to the topic of beauty and aesthetics as a salvific and spiritual force. It is an idea that the great Catholic Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar tackled, dedicating his life-works to the study of beauty and its relationship to God, who is the personification of the Beautiful.

I muse on these details because it is beauty that is at the center of Fr. Mulligan’s book. The importance of beauty in conveying a deeper element to life – especially its spiritual dimension and depth – should never be overlooked. It is one thing to hear that Medjugorje is the greatest confessional in the world. It is another thing to hear this fact alongside moving photographs of penitents from all over the world, and all walks of life – young and old alike – confessing their sins to earnest priests in front of St. James Church in the parish of Medjugorje. A visual image can help bring the reality to life. It is moving and inspires deeper introspection.

Medjugorje: What’s Happening? is a book that would appeal to many. It works well, both as an introduction to Medjugorje for those who know little about the popular apparition site and – at the same time – as an invaluable asset for longtime devotees of Medjugorje, capturing better than most books can the essence of the Slavic village, its visionaries, its priests, and the spiritual yearnings of the pilgrims who come each year by the millions.

Fr. Mulligan’s book makes an original contribution on Medjugorje literature by studying the apparitions in context of other major approved apparitions of Church history, revealing little known details – for example, such as the connection between one Medjugorje message and the Miraculous Medal devotion of St. Catherine Laboure’s apparitions in the Rue du Bac in France.

Fr. Mulligan also provides some rare and original interviews for the book. He has the advantage of being an insider, someone who has visited Medjugorje often, is acquainted with the major figures surrounding the events there, and has even had Medjugorje visionary Marija Pavlovic-Lunetti (with whom he provides an original and insightful interview) over to his church in London to address his parishioners. Fr. Mulligan also provides a good update on the international Vatican Commission that was started by Pope Benedict XVI in March 2010 to examine Medjugorje objectively. Additionally his book benefits by including some very interesting conversion stories sparked by encounters with Medjugorje–such as the conversion of Italian journalist and broadcaster Paolo Gambi after making a pilgrimage. Gambi was such a famous opponent of Medjugorje that his conversion in the village invoked a storm of publicity in Italy in 2010.

For all its merits (and there are so many), Fr. Mulligan’s book is not a perfect work. Where it falls short of perfection is in those isolated places – which do (however) become reoccurring – where Fr. Mulligan – sometimes with unnecessary sarcasm and even derision – mentions other alleged mystics that some have associated, whether forcefully or not, with Medjugorje. Names which Fr. Mulligan keeps invoking, in this context, include Vassula Ryden, Fr. Stefano Gobbi (founder of the Marian Movement of Priests), and Maria Valtorta, to name a few. I admit that I have my own doubts and concerns about Vassula’s alleged revelations, and clearly it is erroneous to associate her claims (being separate phenomena) to Medjugorje, as some have tried to do in order to give Vassula’s messages more credibility. However, I found Fr. Mulligan to be too condemnatory toward Fr. Gobbi’s locutions and portraying only a very partial relationship that Fr. Gobbi had with the Holy See (ignoring, for example, that Pope John Paul II held the late Fr. Gobbi and his Marian Movement in very high regard and often concelebrated Mass with the Italian priest). Mutually, I thought that Fr. Mulligan gave the Italian mystic Maria Valtorta and her multivolume work The Poem of the Man God unfair and overly critical treatment.

Fr. Mulligan points out that Our Lady told Marija the visionary that The Poem could be read and, then, in what reads like a somewhat desperate spin-effort, Fr. Mulligan emphasizes that the message said nothing about The Poem being true (simply that it could be read), therefore, Fr. Mulligan assumes that it may – in fact – be a false work. In the process of presenting this creative logic, Fr. Mulligan forgets that the visionary Vicka also asked the Madonna about The Poem and (subsequently) reported that Our Lady told her: “if a person wants to know Jesus he should read Poem of the Man God by Maria Valtorta. That book is the truth.” I understand that this is a touchy subject, even with many Medjugorje supporters, since Valtorta’s work (like St. Faustina’s Divine Mercy diary) was placed on the Church’s index of forbidden reading before the Index was abolished by Pope Paul VI. Thus a reason why many proponents of Medjugorje would like to downplay this connection. However, what is also true and, in my opinion, is the more worthy approach to take, is to acknowledge that since the unfortunate incident with the Index Valtorta’s work has received much praise from many high Church officials, even receiving the Imprimatur of two bishops, attesting to The Poem as being free of moral or doctrinal errors and, thus, being completely in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Such facts should be presented – for they are the facts behind the situation – and they do alleviate concern that many have about Marija’s and Vicka’s positive comments about The Poem.

Ultimately, despite this one shortcoming in the work, Fr. Mulligan’s book is an exceptional and beautiful work filled with rare and original photos, interviews, and facts about Medjugorje. The pictorial presentation that the book gives is nothing short of extraordinary, presenting some of the rarest photos of the early years of the apparitions, to some of the most interesting personal photos of the visionaries with their families. I want to mention in this light how the author has a fine taste for detail. He presents to us even the major artistic works – sculptures and paintings – that have, throughout the years, been erected in Medjugorje, a great majority of them done by the great Italian artist Carmelo Puzzolo. This attests again to Fr. Mulligan’s sharp appreciation for beauty. It is that appreciation that permeates his book and gives a sublime reflection of the poignancy that many experience in Medjugorje: having a personal encounter with Beauty itself.

At the 25th Medjugorje Conference in Notre Dame

Friends,

Here are a few pictures from last week’s annual Medjugorje Conference at Notre Dame. It was a sacred occassion, filled with prayer, testimony, edifying talks, Adoration, song, and friendship. I was very blessed to share my testimony and to speak about the scientific studies performed on the Medjugorje visionaries. Reportedly over 1,300 people attended the Conference — the largest number in years — praised be Jesus & Mary!!!

with Medjugorje filmmaker Christina Georgotas & Medjugorje activist Jana Prudka

With Queen of Peace filmmaker Christina Georgotas & Medjugorje activist Jana Prudka, both were fellow speakers at the Conference.

Irish singer Dana made a surprise appearance at the Conference. Dana has also been active in Irish politics, promoting pro-life & pro-family legislation. It was an honor to speak to her.

Irish singer Dana made a surprise appearance at the Conference. Dana has also been active in Irish politics, promoting pro-life & pro-Catholic legislation, as well as having a show on EWTN promoting sacred music. It was an honor to speak to her.

Between Christina and I, Lou and Martha Murnighan, who have been running pilgrimages to Medjugorje for years; a blessing to finally meet them in person.

Between Christina and I, Lou and Martha Murnighan, who have been running pilgrimages to Medjugorje for years; a blessing to finally meet them in person.

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With Denis & Cathy Nolan at the MaryTV studio, and my brother Konrad. Getting to know Denis & Cathy, such beloved souls, has been one of the great joys for me in attending the Medjugorje Conferences these past 3 years.

With singer Michael O'Brien and my brother Konrad. Michael's has sung as countless of Marian conferences, glorifying God with his voice after he received a message from Our Lady, through the visionary Vicka, to give his talents to the Lord; an inspirational example.

With singer Michael O’Brien. Michael has performed at countless of Marian conferences, glorifying God with his voice after he received a message from Our Lady, through the visionary Vicka, asking to give his talents to the Lord; an inspirational example.

With Gloria, a dear follower of my articles & a beloved soul who made a beautiful rosary for me; it was a joy to meet her and her husband.

With Gloria, a dear follower of my articles & a beloved soul who made a beautiful rosary for me; it was a joy to meet her and her husband.

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With beloved, young supporters after my talk.

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Our Lady’s June 2, 2013 Message

Dear children, In this restless time, anew I am calling you to set out after my SonMedjOurLady.jpg – to follow Him. I know of the pain, suffering and difficulties, but in my Son you will find rest; in Him you will find peace and salvation. My children, do not forget that my Son redeemed you by His Cross and enabled you, anew, to be children of God; to be able to, anew, call the Heavenly Father: “Father.” To be worthy of the Father, love and forgive, because your Father is love and forgiveness. Pray and fast, because that is the way to your purification, it is the way of coming to know and becoming cognizant of the Heavenly Father. When you become cognizant of the Father, you will comprehend that He is all you need. I, as a mother, desire my children to be in a community of one single people where the Word of God is listened to and carried out.* Therefore, my children, set out after my Son. Be one with Him. Be God’s children. Love your shepherds as my Son loved them when He called them to serve you. Thank you.

*Our Lady said this resolutely and with emphasis