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Pilgrims flock to Shelby County where Marija Lunetti still reports visions of Mary

By Greg Garrision, The Birmingham News
Saturday, March 26, 2011


The Tabernacle of Our Lady's Messages, located on Shelby County 43 about six miles from U.S. 280 near Chelsea, serves as headquarters for Caritas of Birmingham. Caritas is in its 25th year of promoting the visions in Medjugorje. (The Birmingham News/Joe Songer)

(Birmingham) - The thousands of pilgrims who came to Alabama this week wanted to be in the same place as Marija Lunetti, and by extension, they hoped, in the presence of the Virgin Mary.

Lunetti has reported daily apparitions of the Virgin Mary since she was a youth in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia (now Bosnia-Herzegovina) in 1981. She was one of six visionaries who became known worldwide for the reported apparitions. Medjugorje is now a worldwide pilgrimage site, drawing millions of religious seekers.

By extension, Alabama has become a pilgrimage spot drawing thousands to Caritas of Birmingham. Lunetti has been making annual trips to the Caritas headquarters in Shelby County, reporting about 200 of her daily apparitions during her visits. Lunetti arrived in Birmingham on March 18 and has stayed all this week, having several visions out in a field owned by Caritas of Birmingham.

"I've never been this close to a visionary," said Yolanda Tenorio, who rode 14 hours in a van from New Braunfels, Texas. She said she had last visited Caritas in 2004.

"It's grown," she said. "It's huge."

Caritas of Birmingham, which still leads tours to Medjugorje, has become a large publishing operation, acquiring millions of dollars in printing equipment. A new $2.2 million binding machine churns out 500,000 booklets a week promoting the Medjugorje visions.

Alongside the printing commerce, pilgrims find solace in the fields and hills of the Caritas property in Shelby County.

"With all the mess in the world, I wanted to come and get a sense of peace," said Ande Becker, of Monticello, Fla.



Michael D. Murphy, chairman of the anthropology department and a professor of anthropology at the University of Alabama who has specialized in studying the role of Virgin Mary apparitions in the Catholic Church, said he feels the church will eventually endorse the visions -- just as it did the apparitions in Lourdes, France, in 1858 and Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. But it won't happen as long as the visions are still going on, because of the potential for heresy. The Catholic Church has monitored and investigated the visions for 30 years, neither endorsing nor forbidding them.

"My guess is there won't be any formal acceptance for some time, because the visionaries are still active," Murphy said. "As long as the messages are not inflammatory, as long as it's not specific, that's probably working in its favor."

There has been little specific in the reported messages at Caritas, which are heavily peppered with talk of faith, devotion, peace and prayer. Much of the time, Lunetti reports that the Virgin Mary appeared, looked over the crowd and blessed their religious medallions, without a specific message.

The people seem content with that.

"I hope it makes us feel better," said Tony Campolongo, 86, of Greensburg, Pa., who prayed on the lawn in front of the Tabernacle of Our Lady's Messages with his daughter, Sue.

Campolongo said he has visited other visionaries, including a woman at Our Lady of the Holy Spirit Center in Norwood, Ohio, who reported seeing the Virgin Mary. He believes Lunetti's apparitions are real.

"I have faith," Campolongo said. "I believe that she's sincere."

"If you believe, no explanation is necessary, and if you don't, no explanation will suffice," his daughter, Sue, said.

Since apparitions of Mary became common in the 11th century, there have been thousands of reported sightings of the mother of Jesus coming to earth to deliver messages, Murphy said.

"What's unusual about Medjugorje is that it's lasted so long," he said. It's also the first widely known apparition to become an Internet phenomenon. "I see Medjugorje as the first truly globalized Marian apparition," Murphy said.



The Vatican will be slow to issue a final verdict, he said. "I think they're going to work on it until everybody involved is dead," Murphy said. "The church does not want to come to a favorable judgment and have one of the visionaries go off the rail, and begin having messages that are heretical."

One Wisconsin woman got in trouble in the 1950s when she began to claim visions from the Virgin Mary giving details such as what she said were the latitude and longitude of Russian nuclear submarines, Murphy recalled. She was excommunicated and Catholics were forbidden to make a pilgrimage to the shrine. But if visions stand the test of time, are accepted by millions of Catholics and stay in line with church dogma, they stand a good chance of approval, eventually.

The Catholic Church has approved enough visions to show it believes they can be legitimate and real, Murphy said. The church also benefits from the enthusiasm they generate, he said. "Medjugorje is happening in Europe, a place where the church needs enthusiasm to be generated," Murphy said.

Medjugorje was a remote, isolated village that has become an international tourist destination, attracting Catholic pilgrims from around the world.

"All of a sudden it had this enormous influx of outsiders showing up, bringing money and economic development," Murphy said. "All the business associated with tourism is replicated in tourist sites."

Medjugorje, and by extension Caritas of Birmingham, show no signs of slowing down, he said.

"For every vision like Medjugorje, there are 10 that die out," Murphy said. "It's been there 30 years; that lends a certain credence to it."

alt Greg Garrision, The Birmingham News