SCOTTSDALE, Arizona – August in the Arizona desert is scorching under the best of circumstances, but this year more than 1,100 devotees of the Virgin Mary generated some heat of their own by trying to jam the square peg of devotion to an as-yet unauthorized alleged Marian apparition half a world away into the round hole of total obedience to the Church.
Mary enthusiasts came together in late August for the Arizona Peace Center’s two-day event in Scottsdale featuring the rosary, committed speakers and Eucharistic adoration under the title, “Be Courageous: Defend the Truth,” with the controversial apparition site of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina at the heart of things.
What began more than two decades ago with a group of pilgrims from Arizona being excited about the happenings in Medjugorje, sharing its messages through monthly phone calls and mailing lists, was forced to evolve when it became clear that the Church wasn’t inclined, at least for the time being, to bestow official approval.
Kathy Smitz, a board member and conference organizer said in an email to Crux, “our goal is to spread the messages of Medjugorje and be obedient to the bishop and Church.”
Devotees believe Mary began appearing in Medjugorje in 1981, and ever since it’s been a flash point for tensions in Catholicism between popular religiosity and official sanction.
In 2017, Pope Francis appointed Polish Archbishop Henryk Hoser to be the Holy See’s special envoy to Medjugorje. One year later, Hoser announced that pilgrimages could resume, but that doesn’t mean the Vatican recognizes the apparitions as legitimate.
In part, the tug-of-war has been a story of conflict between the local bishops, who tend to be skeptical, and the Franciscans who’ve advised the alleged seers and promoted pilgrimages to the site.
Back in Arizona, where such things can seem awfully remote, these days the top note is caution.
The program for the August conference acknowledged that while the center “was established to spread the messages of Our Lady in Medjugorje to the people in the State of Arizona,” given that the apparitions are not authorized, it “will humbly submit to the final authority of the Catholic Church.”
Nonetheless, the group also asserts that “the messages which have come from Medjugorje are consistent with the Gospel and the Church’s call for prayer, fasting and peace.”
Whatever the verbiage, it was clear that Medjugorje is a big deal for this group. In the adoration chapel at the event, Our Lady of Medjugorje, the Queen of Peace, Pilgrim Virgin Statue stands as a visible reminder. It’s one of nine statues reported to have wept as part of the Medjugorje phenomenon, and it has traveled extensively.
Smitz said that despite her personal devotion to Medjugorje, she hasn’t been able to get there herself. With the conference, she said, “Medjugorje came to me.”
This is the 19th year of the event, and it was the first time Phoenix’s bishop turned up. Smitz told Crux that she wrote to Bishop Thomas J. Olmstead to remind him that Blessed Pope Pius IX once said, “Give me an army praying the rosary, and I’ll change the world.”
Her invitation to Olmstead, she said, was to “come talk to the troops.”
It obviously worked, as Olmstead celebrated the closing Mass on August 25. He also wrote in a letter to the conference, “May the Lord continue to bless the Marian Conference and the attendees seeking the truth about what the Church teaches and how choosing to walk in the way of Jesus enriches the lives of the faithful.”
“Troops” is an apt metaphor for this crowd, because these Catholics definitely aren’t shrinking violets. For instance, the original theme for this year’s conference was “Surrender,” in the spiritual sense of yielding to the Lord’s will. Yet after passage of an abortion bill in New York and pro-choice comments by Virginia’s governor, organizers worried it might send the wrong signal and opted for something more muscular.
Fathers Michael Barry, Jozo Grbes, Jim Kubicki, and Wissam Akiki, as well as Sister Miriam James Heidland and layman Dr. Edward Sri, all spoke at the event.
Two local women, Cheryl and Julie from Fountain Hills, said that while Cheryl had been coming for several years, her close friend Julie was a first timer. (They asked that their last names be withheld.)
Having suffered from terrible headaches and other health ailments, Julie said, it seemed too difficult to come before, but she told herself that this year “at all costs I was going to come to this.” She said after listening to Kubicki’s talk on courage, it seemed he was speaking to her given all the obstacles conspiring to keep her from attending.
The two women exuded affection as they told their stories of Marian devotion, displaying a photo album from their women’s group of praise and prayer. Both originally from Chicago, through giggles they described meeting in dance school. Now they share a devotion to Medjugorje, claiming, “We’ve read everything!”
Neither has yet made the pilgrimage. Julie, a certified catechist, laughed, “I need more courage…and money!”
Julie said she had a conversion experience in 1999 when she was at her doctor’s office dealing with terrible headaches, and she saw Psalm 91 posted and it inspired her to pray.
“I said ‘Jesus, I believe in you. Please help me!’ and something happened,” she said, leading her onto a spiritual journey she now calls “clean-up time for the Holy Spirit.”
“I plugged in, and my life has changed,” she said. “Because of that I know, that I know, that I know.”
Heidland, a popular speaker, stirred some of the deepest feelings with her treatment of Mary.
A member of the Society of Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, Heidland focused on the love and care of mothers, how everyone needs a ‘mama’ to hold and care for them. Describing the final fall of Jesus in Mel Gibson’s controversial movie, “The Passion of Christ,” she teared up when describing the fierce love and courage of Mary for her son in his last fall while carrying the cross.
Afterwards, Heidland patiently responded to a long line of people waiting to ask a question, snap a selfie, request a prayer or share a personal experience.
While the organizers and clerics involved may have felt some ambivalence about the official status of the centerpiece devotion at the event, that didn’t seem to bother the Julies and Cheryls in the crowd at all, who simply seemed delighted to soak up the enthusiasm and energy that star attractions such as Heidland helped create.
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