By Michael H. Brown
The Incredible Story Of Maria Esperanza
She is widely regarded as the greatest living mystic. The miracles that surround her are vast — among the best documented in Church history. Not since Padre Pio, the famous Italian priest now set for canonization, has there been a thaumaturge, a “wonderworker,” of her scale. She’s a seer. She’s a healer. She’s a stigmatist. She often exudes an inexplicably beautiful fragrance. Some even claim to have seen her in levitation.
I speak here of Maria Esperanza from Venezuela. We have had a number of stories about her, but never her background. It is a life that many predict will lead to her canonization. Rarely has a single personage embodied so many mystical gifts, and rarely has a personage stood as a beacon of hope and love (the very name “Esperanza” means hope) to people of all denominations.
She is not only a mystic with whom the world needs to acquaint itself – and will find it fascinating to become acquainted with — but also one whose apparition site, known as Betania, which means “Bethany,” has rare Church recognition.
Thousands flock to conferences or churches where she appears (I was with her at the University of Arizona before a standing-room-only crowd of 4,000); she has been filmed by the likes of ABC and NBC; and she has been featured by major television outlets in South America. When a religious cruise recently asked her to greet it at a port in Venezuela, 16,000 accompanied her to meet the ship.
Maria Esperanza was born on November 22, 1928. Her mother had desperately wanted a daughter (she already had three boys) and asked the Blessed Virgin Mary to grant her a girl. True of the prophecy of a local woman, who in an omen foresaw the birth of an extraordinary child, Maria was born in Barrancas on the feast day of Saint Cecilia, who is associated with music. The birth occurred while Maria’s mother was taking a trip by boat and in fact arriving at a port in search of better medical facilities. It was a very painful delivery, and during her pregnancy Maria’s mother had often prayed before a picture of the Blessed Mother – offering her child to Mary and promising to name the child Maria (Spanish for Mary) and Esperanza if it was a girl.
So came into the world “Mary Hope,” destined to shine like a star, destined to be an instrument of heaven. She was a sick, suffering youngster who often recovered from disorders in momentous ways. Prodigious too was her yen for the spiritual. As a child she often played with dolls dressed as priests or nuns and at the age of five (while bidding her mother, who was taking a trip, farewell at the port of Bolivar City), the girl saw a smiling woman rise from the Orinoco River with a rose in her hand.
It was an apparition of St. Therese of Lisieux, the “Little Flower,” and henceforth roses or their fragrance would hover about Maria. The rose St. Therese held was extraordinarily beautiful, a brilliant red flower that was “thrown” to young Maria. Her mother immediately proclaimed the rose a sign from God.
Such claimed phenomena – and soon much more – are difficult for even the season believer to comprehend. They invoke legitimate use of words like “incredible.” In later years many around Esperanza were to witness other phenomena related to roses, including the inexplicable falling of rose petals.
Such occurrences are regular happenings around Maria. So are “coincidences.” Feast days of the saints, especially those commemorating Mary, figure prominently into her diary. Esperanza received first Communion on July 16, 1937, the feast of Our Lady of Carmel, and soon after the young Maria encountered tremendous physiological tribulation. By the age of 12 she had developed such an acute case of pneumonia that her doctor didn’t think she would live more than three days, but after prayer she opened her eyes and saw the Blessed Virgin. It was not a vision; it was a corporeal apparition. According to Maria the Virgin appeared as Our Lady of the Valley of Margarita (an apparition site off the coast of Venezuela) and told the girl what medication to take. During an especially severe illness in 1947 Maria was paralyzed for several months but miraculously healed upon a vision of the Lord. “At that moment something happened, which I know for the world is impossible to believe,” comments Maria — who recalls that the instantaneous healing was accompanied by a startling tremor that shook the hospital.
There were other trials in Maria’s sickly early years, and during another episode Christ manifested to her and again she was healed. The Virgin Mary told her that she had a mission to “help me to save this lost world,” and so began Maria’s journey. So began her life of mysticism.
Her marriage was typically providential. At first she wanted to become a nun and entered a convent in 1954. That same year, on October 3, at the end of a Mass, she had another implausible experience. Once again, Saint Therese the Little Flower appeared and once more a rose was “thrown” to her. But this time when Maria went to catch it — as she had done as a girl of five — it wasn’t a rose that landed in her hand. Instead there was blood. It was the onset of Maria’s stigmata. “Work out your salvation as a wife and mother,” the Little Flower instructed Maria, who indeed sensed that her vocation would be that of a family woman but went to Rome to live at the Ravasco Institute, which was operated by the Daughters of the Hearts of Jesus and Mary at the Vatican.
On August 22, 1954, on a visit to Caracas, Maria had a dream about a place where miracles would take place and where there would be an unusual blue butterfly. In 1956 she returned to Rome where she met her future husband, Geo Bianchini Gianni, as had also been foretold to her. The following October 13 – anniversary of the “great miracle” of Fatima – the Blessed Mother told Maria she would be married on December 8, 1956 – yet another feast day, this time the feast of the Immaculate Conception (and Geo’s birthday). They were married that day in the choir chapel of the Immaculate Conception at St. Peter’s Basilica. No one had ever been married there during the holy season of Advent, and it was only after a cleric, Monsignor Julio Rossi, parish priest at St. Peter’s, noticed the incredible aura around Maria, as well as the scent of roses. That caused him to go to Pope Pius XII, who knew of Maria and secured final approval for a ceremony in the historical chapel. Their first child, a daughter, was named Mary Inmaculada.
During these younger years Esperanza made the acquaintance of Padre Pio, the most famous mystic since Francis of Assisi, who had told people he expected to be visited by an extraordinary woman. “There is a young woman who is going to come from South America,” Pio said. “When I leave, she will be your consolation.” When finally they met, Maria would hear his “call” even though she was far away near Rome and she would head for his monastery at San Giovanni Rotundo on the barren east side of Italy – where despite throngs waiting to see him the aged priest called out, “Esperanza!” On September 23, 1968, Maria had a vision of Padre Pio. “Esperanza,” he said in the vision, “I have come to say good-bye. My time has come. It is your turn.” As this was happening Geo watched with amazement as his wife’s face transfigured into that of the Italian priest. The next day they saw in the newspaper that Pio (whose funeral would be attended by more than a million) had died.
One thing she had discussed with Pio when he was alive was her vision of a special plot of land where the Virgin Mary would appear. In the vision Maria had seen an old house, a waterfall, and a grotto. “From 1957 until 1974, we searched for this land in all of Venezuela,” says Geo, who had oil concerns and a construction business in Caracas. Then came a visit from a friend who came to ask for help during a drought. The cattle on his land were stricken with hunger and Maria told Geo they should go see it. When they did, in March of 1974, they immediately fell in love with the picturesque hillside about an hour and a half from Caracas. “It corresponded exactly with the vision my wife had been given,” says Geo of the land known as Betania. There was an old sugar mill on the land, and although it wasn’t apparent at first, a stream and waterfall were also located on the property. Geo and his partners purchased the land and cleared the hillside. They saw it as a place for all faiths – not just Catholics. And Betania quickly became a sanctuary.
In February of 1976, while Maria was in Italy tending to Geo’s ailing mother, the Virgin told Esperanza to head back for Venezuela and prepare herself for something that was to happen at Betania. Maria did as she was told and at this spot on a hillside encountered an apparition of the Virgin, who called herself “Reconciler of Peoples and Nations. It was the onset of apparitions and miracles – in many cases extraordinary, well-witnessed manifestations – that continue to this day. The sun pulsed here as at Fatima, there were strange white forms, there was a blue butterfly that seemed to flit out from the grotto at the moment Maria went into apparition. The most momentous occurrence came on March 25, 1984, when seven successive apparitions were witnessed not only by Maria but a total of 108 people.
In the days and months that followed, hundreds and then thousands saw manifestations at Betania or around Maria. It was this series of events that started a formal inquiry by Bishop Pio Bello Ricardo of Los Teques. Trained as a psychologist and with a tendency toward skepticism, Bishop Ricardo personally interviewed several hundred eyewitnesses, including an army general, a lawyer, an atheist, and a doctor who all claimed to have experienced the supernatural. In all the bishop took 550 formal written statements and concluded that extraordinary paranormal events were indeed taking place around Maria.
That wasn’t all. The bishop himself had witnessed phenomena. He had miraculously recovered from an illness after a visit from Esperanza, and had smelled the rose fragrance. “I have also been able to see the transfiguration which happens to her when some gold spray seems to cover her hands and face and her body,” says Pio Bello. “It is a little film of gold spray. Also the phenomenon of levitation has been taking place. I have testimony from many people about the transfiguration which takes place in her, the phenomenon of stigmata which takes place on Good Friday.” After an extensive evaluation the bishop flew to Rome and confided the happenings to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and to the Pope himself. Heeding protocol, the bishop discerned the matter for three years and then issued an extraordinary pastoral letter that declared Betania “sacred ground” and stated that the incidents “are authentic, they are supernatural, and they are of a divine source.” It was the strongest such ruling since Fatima. Thirty-five of Venezuela’s 37 bishops and auxiliary bishops supported him.
By 1993, Dr. Vinicio Paz, a local specialist, was estimating that there were 1,000 physical healings at Betania and that at least 10,000 had witnessed phenomena around Maria. One cure occurred to a doctor himself. This was the incredible case of Dr. Vinicio Arrieta, a Harvard- educated physician who was healed of cancer and whom we have written of previously [see article]. Others have been cured of paralysis, liver disorders, and leukemia. According to biologist Samir Gebran, a doctor of immunology and Maria’s son-in-law, strange relics are found around Maria. In one case she felt compelled to go to a creek, pulled a rock from the ground, and on it was a white image of the Virgin. Another time, upon her first visit to Massachusetts – where she had mystically advised a Boston-area nun on where to build a retreat center — Maria once more felt compelled to head into a forest and told those with her to dig up a rock. When they did, they encountered an image that bore similarities to the face of Jesus.
There is no living mystic who has been affirmed by such competent witnesses. Are there detractors? Yes, as there are always detractors. But the litany, especially from those who have lived with her, seems endless. I have spoken to another son-in-law who described how he would pad downstairs in the middle of the night when he and his wife were staying with Maria and see Esperanza deep in prayer and surrounded by a large halo. Still others have encountered unearthly luminous fogs or during Mass have seen her feet rise several inches. On December 8, 1991, a Host used at Betania began to bleed as the priest held it, and in another Church-authorized miracle it has been exhibited in a special reliquary in Los Teques — where those who visit have seen images form in it and have even videotaped it turning into what looks like flames (there is a short video of this). “I had a scientific investigation conducted, and this was done by a laboratory that is totally trustworthy,” says the bishop. “They proved definitively that the substance that leaked from the Host was human blood.”
Most incredible are claims, again made by competent observers – doctors, a TV journalist – that on 15 occasions a stemmed rose has pushed out from the skin near Maria’s bosom. The rose witnessed was an actual flower, red and touched with dew. This, of course, is impossible to believe. But many are those who claim to have seen it — first a dot of red, then the bud, which unfolds as the stem with thorns breaks through the skin and causes Maria an agony they have compared to a woman giving birth. Carolina Fuenmayor, a journalist from Venevision, the major station in Caracas, has filmed it but at Maria’s request will not release it until after Maria’s death.
What are we to make of such accounts? Is Maria indeed a modern, female version of Padre Pio? Or is it all too much to believe? I can only say that aside from the tremendous array of phenomena (I am only here scratching the surface), there is the fruit of love. Those around Maria – her husband, her seven children, her in-laws – are filled with joy and zeal I have never seen before. They don’t want to be away from Maria and often the entire family – up to sixty – have traveled with her to the U. S. “I have seen how petals of roses appear, how there is a materialization of roses, and one smells the roses in the environment,” says Dr. Gebran. “I have seen how the Eucharist materializes on her lips. I cannot give any explanation, because in her many supernatural phenomena take place. This is outside of science.”
As for the stigmata, Maria’s doctor, Alfonso Gutierrez Burgos, has no doubt about it. He was an eyewitness. “When I observed the stigmata, the army general was there and other people as well, so I am sure that these things are happening to her and are of a supernatural character,” says Dr. Burgos. “As a doctor I examined her hands and I tried to see what kind of a wound it was. They were very fine wounds in her hands and they were swollen in the middle. They separated her skin and they hurt her very much. That was accompanied by a loss of blood, a tremendous loss of blood.” “Maria Esperanza is a very, very special person,” adds Carolina Fuenmayor, the TV reporter who has witnessed both the stigmata and the rose. “She’s not from this place. She’s like in-between [earth and heaven].” Only the most powerful of historic mystics have had events like Maria’s, and few are those whose phenomena have been verified while they are still alive.
Such claimed phenomena indeed are hard for even the faithful to accept. It is only after reading the full details or spending time with Esperanza and at Betania that one begins to integrate the realism of her experiences. Everyone who has spent time around Esperanza is as amazed at the love and unity in her family as the phenomena. Most impressive is the feeling of unconditional love and joy that pours from her. There is a remarkable cognizance – as well as an unforgettable twinkle – in her scrutinizing brown eyes. But she also carries a message of warning.
The moment has arrived in which mankind must awaken, says Esperanza, in which it must awaken to the love of God. In the coming years a new light from heaven will illuminate hearts, she says, but before it does there will be hardship. She foresaw AIDS and now sees other problems, including another disease and a foreign threat to the U.S. (by two nations, one large, one smaller, who will conspire to provoke America). A “very serious moment” will arrive but humankind will survive and will be better for it and will live in the truth of God. She claims that this is “the hour of decision for humanity.” She sees war, societal problems, and natural disasters. But she also sees a cleansing that will restore humankind. “A great moment is approaching,” she Esperanza. “A great day of light!”
Prayer Request For Great Mystic, Maria Esperanza
By Michael H. Brown
(Dec 20, 2002)
I’d like to take this moment to thank you all for making this year special. We pray that next year we can be of equal or greater service, and ask your prayers. We would like to request prayers for all those who have sent us their needs, and also to request prayers for our good friend, Maria Esperanza. This unselfish and amazing woman, famous as the visionary from Betania, Venezuela, is suffering a mysterious affliction that resembles severe Parkinson’s but as yet has no clear diagnosis.
Recently I visited with her and her remarkable family. Although Maria herself doesn’t like to discuss such matters, we know that she had asked the Lord to take on some of the Pope’s suffering, and it was after doing this that she developed the symptoms of Parkinson’s. (John Paul II is likewise thought to suffer this specific ailment). It has now gotten to the point where this great woman — who many believe is the most powerful mystic since Padre Pio — can’t walk with assistance, can speak in a barely audible whisper, and has trouble even swallowing. We know how many have been touched by her through the years, and now it is time to pay her back with our own prayers, sacrifice, and supplications.
Please do so this Christmas season. And please pray too for her homeland of Venezuela, which is in great political turmoil.
I stopped to see Maria to discuss material we are adding to a book about her called Bridge To Heaven, which we hope will be reissued early next year. The book originally came out in 1992 and contains interviews with Maria as well as a short biography and the testimonies of those who have experienced tremendous phenomena around her. We’ll be sharing some of what she most recently said as we complete the update for this book.
It’s hard to summarize the many extraordinary gifts Maria has. We have recently learned of the time she spent an entire night visiting with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and of an extraordinary event that occurred in 1954, which we’ll be detailing. We’ll also be sharing her insights on the future, including what she believes is a coming manifestation of Jesus. Maria, whose last visit to the States was during September 11, remains greatly concerned about what will happen if the U.S. goes to war, and believes that for the moment the Lord is “holding back the arm of the terrorists.” In 1992 she had prophesied the attacks on the World Trade Center (seeing smoke rising from two buildings in New York before even the first attack in 1993), and says she had seen the entire event, including the buildings’ collapse. For days afterward she spiritually visited that part of New York to pray for its protection. She continues to pray, and says that future events of many kinds would be averted if instead of heading back to materialism, the site of Ground Zero is used for erection of two towering buildings dedicated to the worship — for all faiths — of God.