Throughout its long history, the Catholic Church is renowned for its delight in the mystical and supernatural. Hagiographical accounts revel in accounts of stigmata, apparitions, prophecies, miraculous healings, and other phenomena.
The present-day world, however, has tended to scoff at such suggestions. The rationalism that has pervaded Western society in the last couple of centuries has had its effects even in the Church, with many people arguing that such stories are often the result of urban myth or emotional excitement.
Despite this, the interest in these sort of events has not waned. This was brought forward quite dramatically in March 2015, for instance, when Pope Francis visited the cathedral in Naples, and the blood of the city’s patron San Gennaro is believed to have miraculously liquefied.
Francis was there at a time when this was not supposed to happen, (such as September 19, the feast day) but it did, with Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe, the archbishop of Naples, announcing that as he held the vial, that it was half filled with flowing blood, which was handed to the pope briefly, who blessed the assembled congregation with the vial.
For a medieval church that was both the patron of the arts and the sciences, this would appear to belie such intellectual endeavours, but even with skepticism at an all-time high, there is no sign that reports of such phenomena in the Church are diminishing.
Accounts of Marian apparitions abound frequently, and in the last couple of years, the Holy See has been involved in an investigation of the alleged apparitions at Medjugorje.
Recently, a book was published by American priest Father Tim Byerley about the biography of a Venezuelan woman, Mrs. Maria Esperanza Medrano de Bianchini. It’s entitled Maria Esperanza and the Grace of Betania, referring to an approved site of Marian apparitions with which she’s connected.
Based on the information documented in the book, it would be no exaggeration to describe her as the female version of Padre Pio, a famed Italian Capuchin stigmatist, who lived last century and was reputed to have many mystical gifts.
Very interestingly, this woman’s cause for sainthood was opened by Bishop Paul Bootooski in the diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey in 2010. Byerley, a pastor, theologian and a long-time resident of New Jersey, who was personally acquainted with de Bianchini, is the vice postulator of her cause for sainthood.
She was deceased in New Jersey in 2004, and a cause for sainthood may be opened in the place of the person’s death.
Regardless, it is highly unusual for an American diocese to be procuring a cause for sainthood for someone with her sort of claims, which is compounded by the fact that she died only quite recently, and there are many witnesses, including a number of doctors and scientists, who have substantiated the reported events.
She was born on November 22, 1928 in Barrancas, Venezuela. A sickly child, she claimed visions from her early childhood and a healing of bronchial pneumonia from the Virgin Mary when she was twelve years old. She longed for many years to be a nun, and in 1954 entered the convent of the Franciscan nuns in Merida.
Maria Esperanza claimed she had a vision of St. Therese of Lisieux shortly after she entered, saying her vocation was instead to be a wife and mother.
On December 8, 1956, she was married to Italian businessman Geo Bianchini in the chapel of the Immaculate Conception in St. Peter’s Basilica. It remains a mystery to this day why a Nuptial Mass took place at this location, but Esperanza and Geo received a personal blessing from Pius XII after the ceremony in the form of a letter.
The couple had seven children, and today have over 20 grandchildren. In the early 1970’s they purchased some land in Venezuela with another couple, supposedly from a direction given to her by the Virgin Mary. This was known as Finca Betania, in the state of Miranda.
Esperanza claimed to have received several visitations from Mary at the site, as she requested it to be a place of prayer. She wished to be known under the title, “Reconciler of People and Nations.”
On March 25, 1984, over one hundred persons claimed they visibly saw the Virgin Mary on the property after some children reported seeing her while they were playing by a waterfall. These represented all classes of society, including some doctors, scientists, and even an atheist.
This was critical information that led the bishop of Los Teques (the diocese where Betania was located), Pio Bello Ricardo SJ, to recognize the supernatural nature of the apparitions in a pastoral letter issued on November 21, 1987. A Jesuit psychologist, who interestingly had a background in parapsychology, he was initially very skeptical of the reported events.
Today, a shrine exists to commemorate the apparitions on the site under the title Mary referred to there, with ten acres of land having been donated to the Church for this purpose by the mystic.
Byerley’s book records an incredible diversity of mystical events reported in the life of Mrs. de Bianchini. One whole section of the book, Chapter 3 is devoted to an analysis of these events. These include stigmata, prophecy, bilocation, hierognosis (the ability to recognize a consecrated person in ordinary attire), apparitions and revelations, and reading of hearts.
For instance, on a visit to the U.S. in late 2000, she not only predicted that George W. Bush would win the presidential election — which, by itself could be a 50/50 guess — but also that final result would not be known for some time. According to page 159 of the book, Esperanza said, “The short one will win, and it will not be an easy matter, and many days will pass before the results are known.”
One skeptical American in her presence when this was said (a few people were gathered in her hotel room) said to himself, “She must be wrong on this one. In the United States, we always know the winner by the next morning at the latest. She must be thinking about the Latin American experience where elections are drawn out over weeks and months.”
But nobody anticipated the Florida “hanging chad” scenario with this U.S. election being the first one decided by the Supreme Court in favor of Bush on December 12, 2000.
A number of years previously, she predicted in 1991, that on December 8 of that year, a great event would take place in Betania. Father Otty Ossa Aristizabal, the chaplain of the Betania sanctuary while celebrating Mass, said a communion host he consecrated started to ooze a red like substance. Many people witnessed the event, and it was filmed by amateur video.
According to page 129 of the book, “at Bishop Bello’s instigation, pathologists Jossuae Zubizaretta and Rosa da Silva of the Bioanalytical Laboratory of Los Teques, conducted scientific tests on a particle of the red-stained host on December 12. Examining the particle with a microscope, according to the cytological evidence the red substance was human blood. Other tests were carried out by the Department of Legal Medicine of the Judicial Technical Police of Caracas, who came to the same conclusion. On February 12, Bishop Bello declared that in his judgment, the bleeding host of Finca Betania was a miraculous event,” which can be venerated now in a convent of Augustinian Sisters in Los Teques.
According to the author, in the latest stages of her life, Maria Esperanza offered herself as a “victim soul” for the ministry of Pope John Paul II, and interestingly developed similar symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, leading to her death, at the age of 76, in Long Beach Island in New Jersey, when on a visit there, her condition rapidly deteriorated.
The book contains so much more information of extraordinary events attributed to this candidate for sainthood that seems so removed from the lives of ordinary believers, particularly those in the more Western, developed world. But the number of well-educated persons and specialists, who support the mysterious nature of these happenings, is astounding.
From a Catholic perspective, to try to understand why Maria Esperanza was placed here at this time, it would appear to be this very thing, to belie the rationalism and skepticism of the time.
Maria Esperanza and the Grace of Betania is available from Betania II Foundation, at www.betania2.org