At the start of my college career, my little secret was hidden safely away from prying eyes. I had imprisoned myself in my own loneliness, allowing no visitors to my tortured soul. Gradually, this loneliness gave way more directly to anger at God, whom I perceived to be the Cause of my malady. Why would God give me these painful and sometimes consuming passions only to forbid me to act on them? Why did He persist in His torture of me? What did He want? I had already resolved not to seek a sinful path. Why then couldn’t God leave me alone, then? I struggled so hard. I knew in my heart what was right. Why this awful conflict, I cried to Heaven? I hated myself. Why was I like this?
Some days it wasn’t so bad. I could almost endure. Sometimes I forgot my trouble entirely. Other days, particularly when I was put into situation where I saw men living the “gay lifestyle” who seemed happy enough and genuinely seemed to enjoy the life they were leading and each other. They seemed happy and I was so very miserable and lonely. I was so desperate for that love from a man that it caused me an almost physical pain. Thus, the wedge driven between my soul and its Master grew deeper. Although I never stopped going to Mass, or receiving the Sacraments, especially confession, I began to lose my faith and felt that God had left me and was far from my sorry situation.
I can remember some mornings when I would wake up completely depressed. I, of course, hid this from my parents and my family. I was so down on myself and was despairing of life. On one occasion I woke up feeling just awful only to look up and see a statue of Christ on my book shelf bathed in the orange rays of sunrise. The window let in only just enough light to illuminate the statue, leaving the rest of the room in semi-darkness. Truly, He was and is the Light of the world. I could see that through my pain even then.
Providential Father that He is, the Lord knew that I was just not getting the message He was trying to send so instead, he began sending me consolations, words from Heaven. For example, I had always had a reasonably strong devotion to Saint Therese of Lisieux and and when I asked for her intercession, the Lord sent me symbolic and literal roses at the times in my life when I needed them.
Other times, I would go to confession and feel as if the burden had been lifted, at least temporarily. Similarly, at Mass, receiving the Lord’s Body and Blood at communion would at times, lift my spirits and give me a certain joy. I also tried to help myself by frequenting “healing” Masses and prayer services hoping the Lord would "fix"me.
At one point, I even arranged for a speaker named Richard Bingold, who was connected with the alleged apparitions of Our Lady of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, to come and speak to our Newman group at college. He brought with him a rosary made of stones from the Hill of the Apparitions. It was said that the Lord worked miracles through the rosary so we were all encouraged to have Mr. Bingold pray over us. It was quite a profound experience and I can remember heat in my chest and breaking into a sweat while the chapel temperature hovered around 50 degrees or so, due to a broken heater, but again, no lasting healing.
I had similar experiences at other charismatic gatherings but one of the most profound consolations I can remember is meeting with the visionary of Betania, Venezuela, Maria Esperanza de Bianchini.
Betania, Spanish for Bethany, named after the Biblical town from which Saints Lazarus, Mary and Martha hailed, is a 20th century site of apparitions of the Virgin Mary, approved by the local bishop, though not yet by the Vatican. After visiting the shrine, thousands of people claimed to have been healed of maladies such as cancer and AIDS and countless others. Many people besides Maria Esperanza also report having seen the Virgin Mary walking the grounds there.
Maria herself was not what I expected in a visionary with such profound spiritual gifts. She was a stylish, attractive matriarch who wore makeup, had her hair done and dressed well. She appeared to be quite cosmopolitan and traveled with her husband and an entourage of her children and their spouses and even some of her grandchildren. She had a warm, infectious smile and a serene manner which put all those around her at ease.
Although from an American perspective it was somewhat surprising to see how many of her family members traveled with her, it really fit right in with her message about the importance of family, a message which is even more sorely needed today. I even had a chance to speak with her daughter Maria Grazia (all of Maria's daughters are named after the blessed Virgin, with different middle names) who described Our Lady to me as she had witnessed her one day on the grounds of Betania. Described as beautiful beyond description, Maria Grazia said she looked like a nun as the breeze blew her veil. So obviously, there was a lot going on in Betania!
Maria Esperanza had been invited to by my pastor to give a talk on the messages given to her. The church was packed that evening and so many people were waiting in line to have Maria pray over them after her talk. Our pastor reported that over 2,000 hosts were distributed at communion! While I would have liked to have been prayed over, there was no urgent need on my part since I didn't really think she could help me yet somehow we ended up staying in church.
One of the reasons is that I am almost completely deaf in my left ear and moderately deaf in my right. I have had this disability since I was a toddler and despite having numerous surgeries performed by the best doctors in the world over the years, I never got my hearing back. I have worn hearing aids since I was in second grade. At the point that I had attended Maria's talk, I had more or less reconciled myself to wearing hearing aids for the rest of my life. It really didn’t even bother me that much, but in my small parish, the priests and people were well aware of the problem and we had attended many a healing service in the past in hopes of restoration. I think everyone else wanted it more than I did at that point. I had other more burdensome things in my heart from which I was seeking healing. My parents wanted her to pray over me. So, we waited.
After six hours had passed, it was time for Maria to retire and somehow (I'm still not quite sure how), my family ended up escorting her to the rectory where she was staying. As I walked behind her, I noticed that she wore a beautiful scent which smelled like roses. I ended up in the living room of the rectory along with Maria, her husband, her translator, my family and my pastor. The next thing I knew, Father was explaining to Maria’s translator that I had suffered hearing loss and asked if she would pray over me.
Despite the fact that she was ready to retire for the night, once the translator explained what Father was asking for, Maria Esperanza turned and looked at me with an intense and penetrating gaze that I will never forget and smiled the most beautiful smile. She looked right through me. She took my folded hands in hers and began talking to me through her translator. Just being in her presence enveloped me in a sense of peace which was enhanced by the smell of the wonderful perfume she was wearing. She closed her eyes and prayed silently, waiting for the Lord to speak to her. Finally, her eyes opened. She tightened her grip on my hands and again looked deeply into my eyes as she said,
“Paciencia, paciencia y más paciencia”
Patience, patience and more patience.
“Sometimes,” she said through her translator, “God permits things that we don’t understand but we always have to trust in Him.”
Among her many spiritual gifts which included: levitation, bilocation, the stigmata and miraculous communions, Maria also had the gift of “reading hearts.” This simply means that the Lord granted to her the ability to understand people’s motivations, thoughts and feelings so that she could effectively minister to them. It is not mind-reading, as the conscience is the area of a person reserved to God and that person alone but it certainly gives the gifted person deeper insight that most other people don't have.
She closed her eyes and prayed again. When she opened them, I knew that she had seen my struggle. She smiled and began describing my life in way that only she and I would understand. Although I don’t remember everything she said, one thing was certain. Healing would not happen tonight, either of my hearing or my homosexuality.
What was so interesting is that she laid her hands on and prayed over everyone I saw in church that night. She did not lay her hands on me. It was as if she knew God’s will at this time. My pastor and family thought that all she said and did referred only to my hearing. Maria and I knew differently.
On the way home I thought God’s answer to my prayer for healing of homosexuality appeared to be “No.” Yet, I was not disconsolate or depressed about this. Rather, I felt strangely comforted, especially since the smell that I had so loved on Maria Esperanza was now on my own hands. It was so strong that I smelled my hands during the whole ride home and again as I went to sleep. When I woke the next morning, the scent was still there, although not as strong. Even after showering, the scent still largely remained. It took three days as I recall for the scent to completely disappear.
Imagine my surprise and joy when I found out several months later that one of Maria Esperanza’s other spiritual gifts is that she exuded the "odor of sanctity"' in the form of the smell of roses. I was even more awed when I further discovered that objects she touched also take on the smell!
While this may seem kind of strange, it was even more surprising that my parents, who had been in just as close proximity to Maria, said they smelled nothing. Our Lady had again left her mark upon me through a woman who had been blessed to look upon her in person and converse with her. I came to look upon the smell of roses on my hands as a "kiss" of consolation from Our Lady through the person of Maria Esperanza who resembled the Mother of Jesus to me in so many ways. What a grace!
Mary Hope is the English translation of Maria Esperanza. The great stigmatic saint, Padre Pio, a Franciscan mystic from Pietrelcina, Italy, also met Maria Esperanza before his death. Upon seeing her approach him and never having met her before, he looked at her and simply exclaimed, “Esperanza!”
In both Spanish and Italian, this means, “Hope!” It is also reported that Padre Pio prophesied to others about her saying that she would inherit his spiritual gifts when he died and in some way, continue his ministry.
According to some reports, he appeared to her on the day of his death on September 23, 1968 and said, "Esperanza! I have come to say good-bye. My time has come. It is your turn."
Padre Pio had made an inspired pun about her name and her person. Maria indeed conveyed the message of her name. Many of the gifts that Maria Esperanza had were very similar to those of Saint Pio, including the ability to read hearts.
The Father provided me with the gift of hope through her, even though I was not yet ready for healing.
Yes, it was actually the two gifts that were given to me through this little Venezuelan grandmother.
Jesus said to his Beloved John in His dying gasps, “Behold your mother.”
Jesus gave His own mother to be our Mother in Him. It is Mary who was giving me (and countless others) Hope.
I never met Maria Esperanza again as she died of stomach cancer years later. Ironically, although she was Venezuelan, she had apparently returned to New Jersey for medical care where she died on August 7, 2004. From priests I know who had the grace of ministering to her on her deathbed, all sorts of manifestations of God’s glory abounded in the room to the point that attending doctors and nurses would leave the room in shock after witnessing the phenomena asking, “Who is that woman?”
This week marks the twelfth anniversary of her death. On January 31, 2010, Bishop Paul Bootkowski of the diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey, formally proclaimed Maria to have lived a life of heroic virtue and granted her the title, “Servant of God.” Her cause for beatification and canonization has been opened and awaits action from the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome. Based on my experience, I have no doubt that one day the congregation will award her the title, Saint Maria Esperanza de Bianchini de Betania.
Servant of God Maria Esperanza, pray for us and bring us hope!