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If there is a saint for our time it may be the mystic Maria Esperanza de Bianchini of Caracas, Venezuela, who died nine years ago this month, and whose cause is proceeding in the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey.

Not only was she one of the most extraordinary mystics in the past hundred years, but also an extraordinary example of motherhood and formation of a family.

So tightly knit was her family that at times dozens of them would travel with her to faraway places as Maria made appearances in various parts of the world, especially North America.

Her dedicated husband, Geo, remains relatively well at 86 (according to son-in-law Carlos Marrero Bornn, with whom I spoke the other day) and the apparition site associated with Maria, Betania (the Spanish word for "Bethany"), continues to grow -- attracting an estimated 100,000 last Holy Week, according to Bornn, with construction of new facilities, including an exact, life-sized replica of the House of Loreto. Healings and conversions are regularly attributed to the site, where Mary appeared in March of 1984 in apparitions that were seen by hundreds and eventually approved by the local bishop, setting it as one of the few apparition sites formally sanctioned by the Church during the Twentieth Century.

The site was officially declared as "sacred ground." (A complete history of Maria's life and the Betania happenings is included in The Bridge to Heaven.)

Now, offshoots of Betania -- communities and retreat centers based on her spirituality -- are proliferating, with a total now of seventeen (a full list is here) in places such as Massachusetts (where the first offshoot was born), New Jersey (several of them here), Illinois, Los Angeles, Miami, Buenos Aires, Rome, Lima, Madrid, the Cayman Islands, Canada, Germany, Louisiana (this just initiated), and Glenwood Landing, Long Island, New York, where also what some believe a dramatic, documented miracle associated with the mystic has been reported.

According to the newsletter for this site, known as Betania XIII, it involved an 18-month-old girl named Juliet Medrano who had cancer of the eyes. "Her right eye had been removed and the doctors advised the mother to remove the other eye," notes the newsletter. The girl and her family were anointed with holy oil and given a rosary and a picture of Esperanza. "Little Julie took the picture, put away the Barney doll [she had], and held the picture of Maria to her chest! It was interesting that little Julie wanted the picture of Maria instead of the toy that had lights and sounds.

"That night the mother woke and she saw a woman all dressed in white holding Juliet, and telling her, 'Disregard what the doctors are telling you, Juliet will be okay.' On November 14, 2012, the baby had her appointment in a Manhattan hospital. The doctors, knowing the case, were ready to operate and take out the other eye. After many tests and examinations by several doctors, they could not find any cancer and Juliet's eye was perfect. The doctors were bewildered and they said it was a miracle."

The documentation for the alleged miracle has been sent for consideration to those studying Maria's cause for sainthood, which continues to move ahead, according to Father Timothy Byerley, a vice-postulator for her cause, who warns that a very cautious approach must be taken with every miraculous claim as documentation is meticulously scrutinized. "Things are proceeding nicely," says Father Byerley. "The historical and theological commissions have issued reports, and their information is in the hands of the Congregation for the Cause of Saints. I can say there are more years to go." A member of the Diocesan Tribunal reviewing her cause died recently. A replacement is up to the bishop overseeing the process, Paul Bootkoski, of Metuchen, notes the priest. It was in New Jersey that the mystic died on August 7, 2004, and a cause for sainthood can be initiated in a person's place of birth or death, according to the priest, who hails from New Jersey.

-- Michael H. Brown, 8/26/13

[resources: The Bridge to Heaven]

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