Good News for Medjugorje

The topic of Medjugorje has been making news recently because of the Vatican’s decision to assign a special envoy, a Polish archbishop, to examine the pastoral situation in Medjugorje and, on the other hand, because the local bishop of Mostar — whose authority over Medjugorje has been taken away by the Holy See a long time ago — has decided to issue more negative comments about the apparitions.

Here is a great explanation by the Mariologist and Professor at Franciscan University Mark Miravalle, clarifying why the recent news about Medjugorje, especially regarding the special envoy, is good news for Medjugorje.

The Awe-Inspiring Beauty of “Apparition Hill”

By Daniel Maria Klimek, T.O.R.

“Poignant, beautiful, and heart-breaking, Apparition Hill ends where it began, with the mystery of faith and hope shining through the darkest struggles of life, giving them meaning. It is a remarkable movie that takes you on a remarkable journey—a film underscored by a poetic beauty and transformative prowess that can lead to a metamorphosis of the soul, changing the lives of those who see it.”

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Seven strangers chosen to take a pilgrimage to a mysterious, Slavic village located between the mountains of Bosnia-Herzegovina where miraculous and supernatural things are said to occur. This is the premise of Apparition Hill, a film by Sean Bloomfield, Cimela Kidonakis, and Jessi Hannapel.

It is not easy for me to write this review. It is not easy because, without an iota of exaggeration, Apparition Hill is one of the most powerful films I have ever watched in my life, and I know that no words – no matter how eloquent or beautiful – would be sufficient to truly capture the awe-inspiring and breathtaking prowess of this movie. I am a film buff, someone who loves the cinema and who studied film in college with a minor in digital cinema. In other words, I have seen hundreds of movies, and Apparition Hill remains on top as one of the most spiritually and emotionally inspiring I have had the privilege of viewing.

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I had the pleasure of giving a short talk at the 2016 Marian Conference at the University of Notre Dame this past summer. Before I got the chance to address the audience, Apparition Hill producers Cimela Kidonakis and Jessi Hannapel came up to speak about the film and show the trailer. It was perfect timing, as I recently saw the movie at a screening in St. Charles, Illinois, and coming up to the podium right after the producers afforded me a brief opportunity to comment on how moving the film was. I emphasized to the crowd that it is such a powerful movie that, when I saw it, there was not one dry eye in the theater.

Again, these were not exaggerations. These were facts, facts that speak to a remarkable documentary about the pilgrimage of life, about suffering, joy, spiritual renewal, and some of the biggest questions surrounding the human condition.

Apparition Hill begins with a contest, a contest seeking video entries from individuals interested in going on a pilgrimage to Medjugorje, a famous site in Bosnia-Herzegovina wherein in 1981 six Croatian children reported experiencing Marian apparitions, supernatural visitations from the Virgin Mary. Three of the six visionaries continue to report daily apparitions of Mary to the present day, 35 years later. Medjugorje has become a popular pilgrimage site visited by an estimated 20 million people.

“It’s either the most important miracle since Jesus walked the earth, or it’s the biggest hoax in the history of mankind,” director Sean Bloomfield remarks during a radio interview in the film. It is a diversity of travelers – nay, pilgrims – on this journey, each bringing with them something they are carrying, some with heavier burdens than others. Each searching for something.

hollyapparitionhillAmongst them there is Holly, a beautiful young mother and wife with four children who has terminal (stage-four) cancer. Holly quips that her son tells people that his mommy is very good at having cancer—that she’s definitely going to beat it, “because she’s already at level four and that’s the hardest level to beat.”

There is Peter, an atheist from Leeds, England, who admits that if God would spell out for him in the heavens that He exists then he (Peter) would be more inclined to think there is something wrong with his perception than believe what he is seeing.

There is Ryan, a young man from Chicago who is struggling with addiction, trying to get his health and life back on track. In his entry video, Ryan solemnly tells the producers, “I hope to hear from you. I hope you can help me save my life.”

James Roose-Evans once poignantly wrote: “Although a pilgrim is an ordinary person, he is proceeding through extraordinary space, en route to his roots.” That is the difference between the pilgrim and the tourist. The latter seeks to have the cultural experience of visiting a place, taking pictures and site-seeing; the former seeks to discover the meaning of his life on the journey.

“To be objective the group had to be as diverse as possible,” Bloomfield tells us in a voice-over. “But they shared one thing in common: they were all searching for something.”

Mirjana Soldo, Medjugorje visionary

A prominent presence in the film is Mirjana Soldo, one of the Medjugorje visionaries who still reports to receive apparitions of Mary. Her mystical experiences are filmed in Apparition Hill. When the group encounters the visionary, the greatest testament to her experiences is her normalcy. The authenticity of Mirjana’s joy, her sense of humor, her wisdom and maternal nature, 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 human beings spontaneously conversing with each other.

Mirjana’s presence in the movie is a delight to watch, the balance between her solemn integrity and her light-heartedness is captured beautifully. At one point Mirjana tells the group, “For example, when I go to confession, they tell me for penance to pray three Our Fathers, three Hail Marys and three Glory Bes. What kind of penance is that,” she laughs. “That is a joy.” You see a spiritual maturity in her witness which, through grace and happiness, exudes the depths of her spiritual life.

Scenes in the movie find a healthy balance between the solemn and the light-hearted. One of the earliest activities that the group partakes in at Medjugorje is visiting the Risen Christ statue, a statue that for years has exuded the mysterious and unexplainable phenomena of dripping a liquid substance. The substance comes from the knee of the Christ statue.

During the day, the group venerates Christ in front of the statue; during the night the tworisenchriststatue skeptics from the group, Peter and Mark, the latter a police officer and family man from a suburb outside of Chicago, come to perform “scientific experiments” on the statue. They bring with them Rich, a devout Catholic, father of nine, and widower who lost his wife to cancer. Rich assists Peter and Mark with their investigations by using his smart phone as a flash-light as they examine the statue. They eventually conclude that their experiments were “somewhat inconclusive.”

Both Peter and Mark, as the skeptics on the pilgrimage, make the decision to change their approach from trying to disprove the phenomenon to allowing themselves to partake in the pilgrimage experience as much as possible: praying rosaries, climbing Cross Mountain, being at Adoration, going to Mass, camping out overnight on Apparition Hill to be present for Mirjana’s apparition in the morning. The result will surprise many.

There is a sublime beauty to this movie which captures some of the deepest and most difficult depths of the human journey. It is a film about dichotomies—faith and doubt, the miraculous and skepticism, healing and suffering—but also about the things that unite believers and skeptics, things that the human condition cannot avoid: finding meaning in life, in suffering, in spirituality, in addiction, in disease, in death, in the afterlife. All of which Apparition Hill touches with grace and impressive affection.

Yet it is an affection that is not sentimental, nor overly pious, but real. Apparition Hill observes the lives of several pilgrims who deal with their crosses with a conviction and strength that speaks wonders to the power of their journey.

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Apparition Hill director Sean Bloomfield

Sean Bloomfield has made many documentary films about religious experiences and Marian apparitions, most recently The Triumph (2013) and If Only We Had Listened (2011), the latter starring the Rwanda Genocide survivor and bestselling author Immaculée Ilibagiza. Cimela Kidonakis and Jessi Hannapel are newcomers, yet both showing to be gifted young talents, as the pace, cinematography, and style of Apparition Hill shows.

Bloomfield and Kidonakis found each other because Kidonakis made a video entry to go to Medjugorje as a pilgrim. Bloomfield saw that the video had something very special to it: it was made by a talented filmmaker. He emailed Kidonakis remarking how well done her video was. Next thing she knew, Kidonakis was joining the crew not as a prospective pilgrim in the film but as producer, director of photography, and editor.

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Cimela Kidonakis, producer & director of photography

Hannapel was a recent graduate of Loyola University Chicago, where she studied filmmaking. Only a few weeks after graduation she became part of the film crew on Apparition Hill, playing a pivotal role as a producer with Kidonakis. In a note that she wrote to one of her film professors, Hannapel explained:

“Working on this film continues to be the greatest experience of my life. If anyone had asked me two years ago what I wanted to do with my film degree, I would have said that I wanted to make a movie that would let people see the world in a different way. Apparition Hill is a story of hope. It shares a message of peace from Medjugorje. It encourages people in their faith. But this film also allows you to connect with the people we followed and see the world from their perspective.”

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Jessi Hannapel, producer

Together these filmmakers and their crew have delivered a powerful work. The power of the film is underscored by a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack, with original music from Michael Nolan.

There is a heart-breaking scene toward the end of Apparition Hill, an event whose emotional gravity pierces straight to the heart. When I saw the film at a screening there was, as previously mentioned, not a dry eye in the theater. In the note that Jessi Hannapel wrote her film professor, she explained: “The most important thing I learned was to always keep the camera rolling and film as much as possible. There was even a time I had to film while I was crying and try to focus the shot through my tears.”

After the film ended the first time I saw it in a theater at St. Charles, Illinois, we – the audience – knew that evening that we had witnessed something special in this movie which spoke to an unavoidable dimension of the human journey—of the deepest struggles, hopes, and joys of being alive. Poignant, beautiful, and heart-breaking, Apparition Hill ends where it began, with the mystery of faith and hope shining through the darkest struggles of life, giving them meaning. It is a remarkable movie that takes you on a remarkable journey–a film underscored by a poetic beauty and transformative prowess that can lead to a metamorphosis of the soul, changing the lives of those who see it.

CLICK HERE FOR INFORMATION ON “APPARITION HILL” – OFFICIAL WEB SITE

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Fr. Gabriele Amorth on Medjugorje

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With the recent news of the passing of Fr. Gabriele Amorth (1925-2016), the most prominent exorcist in the Church, here is a video of Fr. Amorth on national TV speaking about Our Lady of Medjugorje, a topic he was not shy about. Fr. Amorth emphasizes that Satan’s biggest success has been constructing “a world culture without God, and the Madonna of Medjugorje has come specifically to bring back the world to God.” He stressed that Medjugorje is a place of great conversions and where people return to confession.

Help Bring “Apparition Hill” to the Academy Awards

Friends, please help bring Apparition Hill, a life-transforming movie about a group of pilgrims experiencing Medjugorje, to the Academy Awards. When I saw the film, months ago, there was not a dry eye in the theater it was so powerful. Please watch this video of one of the producers, explaining the situation of getting the film to the Academy Awards and allowing it to reach millions of people. If you are able to contribute to this important project here is the Web site to go to.

The Silence of the Birds: the Powerful Experiences of an Atheist Doctor and Notre Dame’s Basketball Team in Medjugorje

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One of the most fascinating phenomena that people have experienced in Medjugorje is the silence of the birds, an occurrence that has been reported as transpiring at times when the visionaries have their apparitions. This occurrence has been reported by people as diverse as members of Notre Dame’s basketball team, including players who were not Catholic, and an atheist Italian neurophysiologist who scientifically examined the apparitions of the visionaries.

Dr. Marco Margnelli was an ardent atheist who used to travel to various locations trying to disprove claims of mystical phenomena—he traveled, for example, to San Giovanni Rotondo in 1987, trying to disprove the stigmata of Padre Pio. He came to Medjugorje in 1988, hoping to prove the experiences of the visionaries to be false, he admitted.

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Dr. Marco Margnelli, Italian neurophysiologist

Author and journalist Randall Sullivan recorded the event in his book The Miracle Detective: An Investigation of Holy Visions. Dr. Margnelli experienced various occurrences in Medjugorje which rocked his beliefs. He met a woman who was miraculously healed of leukemia. He studied the apparitions of the visionaries and came to the conclusion that they do enter into a genuine state of ecstasy, even admitting: “we were certainly in the presence of an extraordinary phenomenon.”

What moved him most powerfully, however, was the behavior of the birds. Before the apparitions of the visionaries would begin in the rectory, there were thousands of birds outside chirping and cooing, being incredibly—at times, deafeningly—loud.

Until the moment when the apparitions would begin: the second that the visionaries would drop to their knees and go into ecstasy every bird outside would go completely silent.

That absolute silence of the birds haunted him, Dr. Margnelli admitted. A few weeks after returning to Italy from Medjugorje, Dr. Margnelli became a practicing Catholic.

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Medjugorje visionaries in ecstasy during an apparition in the rectory of St. James Church

This fascinating phenomena has been witnessed by a number of pilgrims, including Notre Dame’s basketball team.

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Digger Phelps, Notre Dame coach (1971-1991)

Deacon Brian Miller explained, at the 2016 Marian Conference at the University of Notre Dame last month, that one year in the ‘80s the Notre Dame basketball team was in Yugoslavia for a summer tour playing basketball. They made a side trip to Medjugorje. They made the trip under Coach Digger Phelps, who spent 20 years as head coach (1971-1991) of Notre Dame’s men’s basketball team and then many years as an ESPN broadcaster and analyst.

David Rivers, who was the star point guard on the team, and the 25th overall pick of the 1988 NBA draft, playing professionally for the Lakers and the Clippers, shared a testimony about the Medjugorje trip at Notre Dame’s library. Rivers, it is noteworthy, was not even Catholic.

David Rivers

David Rivers

“He said it was stunning,” Deacon Miller recalled. “There were all these birds

outside [in Medjugorje, as the apparitions were to begin].” At that time, the visionaries had their apparitions in the rectory of St. James Church, and during the day the basketball team was there, there were thousands of birds outside, making noise, “and then as soon as Our Lady came, boom, it was quiet, until she left,” Deacon Miller said, recollecting Rivers’ testimony.

Here is a video of both Deacon Brian Miller and I sharing these stories at the 2016 Marian Conference at the University of Notre Dame:

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The Polish Model & the Franciscan Mystic: Encountering a Mysterious Stranger

Before her conversion to a devout Catholic faith, the Polish model Ania Golędzinowska lived a life of celebrity, substance abuse, and hostility toward the Catholic Church. One night a mysterious stranger came to admonish her. Only in Medjugorje did she recognize him as St. Padre Pio, the 20th Century Capuchin friar who bore the stigmata, the wounds of Christ, on his body.anna_goledzinowska_

Years ago Polish model Ania Golędzinowska woke up in the middle of the night in her Italian home to find a mysterious man standing by the side of her bed, shaking his head at her in disappointment. It was only years later when she moved to Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 2011, and saw a book about Saint Padre Pio, who passed away decades ago in 1968, that Golędzinowska recognized the man’s face.

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Rare Photograph of St. Padre Pio

When she experienced the mysterious encounter, Ania was leading a far from virtuous life.Though a successful model, an actress in Italian sitcoms, and a TV presenter, she admits to struggling with substance abuse, lacking faith in God, and even developing a strong resentment toward the Catholic Church. Saint Pio, she believes, came to warn her to change her ways. The former model recalls the day when she finally identified him: “For years, I did not know who he was. Even in my book I reported this incident but did not include the man’s name,” Ania told Brother Marcin Radomski, a Capuchin Franciscan, in an interview she gave in Łomża, Poland, in 2012.

“It was only five months ago in Medjugorje that somebody gave me a book about the life of Padre Pio, and for the first time, after eight years, I could give the name of the person who eight years ago came to admonish me, to warn me that if I would continue leading my life this way then I would not go far.” Ania was very open about how far away she strayed from the Church in those years, to the point of developing a hatred for all things Catholic.

“I was far from the Church. If I would get a chance, I would shoot all priests and nuns. Whenever I saw a church, I would cross to the other side of the street. I abused drugs. I drank.” Then one night a warning came. Even her dog, Ania recalls, sensed the presence of a stranger in the room, suggesting to her that this was no hallucination.

“A certain day, a certain night I woke up because my dog was barking. And by the side

PHOTO: PIOTR GRZYBOWSKI /SE/EAST NEWS. WARSZAWA. ANNA GOLEDZINOWSKA PORWANA DO DOMU PUBLICZNEGO, POTEM ZOSTALA MODELKA I OSTATECZNIE NAWROCILA SIE NA WIARE KATOLICKA. N/Z ANIA PO NAWROCENIU. MODELKA, DOM PUBLICZNY , PORWANIE, KATOLICZKA, KOCHANKA. 10/04/2015. WIECEJ ZDJEC NA HTTP;//AGENCJA.SE.COM.PL

PHOTO: PIOTR GRZYBOWSKI /SE/EAST NEWS. WARSAW

of my bed stood this man, older, with a beard, and he was looking at me, shaking his head. I thought that it was some kind of hallucination because of the alcohol or drugs – no, this is not possible, I thought. Then I turned on the light, and this man was still standing by my bedside, shaking his head and my dog was still barking at him.”

Though Ania believes Saint Pio came to her with an important message, he did not need words to convey it. “He did not say anything, but he was looking at me as if he wanted to say: ‘Ania, what are you doing?’”

The exhumed body of St. Padre Pio

The exhumed body of St. Padre Pio

Ania Golędzinowska made much news when the Catholic Herald published a popular interview with her. The interview centered around her life-changing conversion in Medjugorje and its consequences. She made the decision to leave the life of glamour and fame in high Italian society behind for a simple, peasant life of prayer and service in Medjugorje, where she has been living since 2011 with Pure Hearts, a Marian community of priests and nuns.

For the Polish model, this required ending a prominent relationship with her boyfriend Paolo Enrico Beretta, the nephew of then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Ania has spent much time touring Poland, as a Polish edition of her autobiography was recently released, translated by a priest.

Her book, Ocalona z Piekła: Wyznania byłej Modelki translates to Rescued from Hell: Confessions of a former Model. A section in the book describes Ania’s encounter with the visitor who appeared to her in the middle of the night years ago to give her a helpful warning. Now readers may know that Ania Golędzinowska has identified the mysterious stranger as Saint Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, the famous stigmatic priest and mystic.

Medjugorje on the Cover of LIFE Magazine

Much attention—and rightly so—has been given to Pope Francis appearing on the cover of Time Magazine as its “Person of the Year.” An equally fascinating fact—yet one that has gotten no attention—is that Life Magazine, in its most recent issue, has placed Medjugorje, the eminent Marian apparition site, on its cover. The issue is currently out until February 14, 2014.

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The cover highlights a prominent statue of the Virgin Mary being venerated in Medjugorje on Podbrdo (aka, “Apparition Hill”), the site where six children reported experiencing daily visitations from the Virgin in 1981. The edition of Life Magazine is called “Miracles: The Presence of God” and features a story of the visionaries and apparitions of Medjugorje, as well as other apparitions (from Lourdes and Fatima) and mystics (such as Padre Pio and Maximilian Kolbe).

The Life article astutely explains the uniqueness of the phenomenon in Medjugorje compared to other apparitions, enunciating: “A central difference betweenthe events in what was then Yugoslavia [Medjugore] and those that had occurred earlier in [Fatima] Portugal and [Lourdes] France is that Medjugorje, for better or worse, was and is a phenomenon of the postmodern age.” In other words, the apparitions in Medjugorje continue and it is an ongoing phenomena.

The Life article features a rare black-and-white photograph of three of the six visionaries (Vicka, Marija, and Jakov) standing in front of St. James Church, the parish around which the events started. It also features a stunning (and modern) two-page photograph of the village of Medjugorje, with a statue of the Mother of God, being venerated by prayerful pilgrims. A picture of Apparition Hill with a summary of the beginning of the apparitions is also present in the introduction of the issue, using Medjugorje as a modern model to speak about the phenomenon of visions and apparitions.

It’s a fascinating edition of Lifefeaturing the miracles of Catholic saints as well as scientific investigations that are applied to study miracles. Discretion is wise, however, as certain articles are written with greater objectivity than others. For example, while an article on the life of Maximilian Kolbe is beautifully written, even describing the vision that he had of the Virgin Mary as a child, prophesying his martyrdom in Ais terribly written, quoting nothing but Padre’s critics and citing (now discredited) criticisms.

Great honor is given to some saints in the edition while others do not receive the reverence they deserve. However, it is impressive and noteworthy that Life decided to publish an edition on supernatural and miraculous phenomena, as so prominently present in the Catholic Church and Faith.

Our Lady’s Message, August 25, 2013

“Dear children! Also today, the Most High is giving me the grace to be with you and to leadMedjOurLady you towards conversion. Every day I am sowing and am calling you to conversion, that you may be prayer, peace, love – the grain that by dying will give birth a hundredfold. I do not desire for you, dear children, to have to repent for everything that you could have done but did not want to. Therefore, little children, again, with enthusiasm say: ‘I want to be a sign to others.’ Thank you for having responded to my call.”

“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.

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.