Servant of God Maria Esperanza de Bianchini (1928-2004), a mystic and visionary from Barrancas, Venezuela, claimed her first mystical experience at the age of five, saying she had a vision of St. Therese of Lisieux giving her a rose. When she was twelve years old she reported having an apparition of the Blessed Mother. Throughout her life, her reported mystical gifts included healings, prophecy, reading of souls, discernment of spirits, the stigmata, transverberation, bilocation, the fragrance of flowers and perfume emanating from her person, miraculous materialization of roses, and visions and locutions of Jesus, Mary and the saints.
As a young woman, she desired to become a nun. But, in a mystical experience with Christ, she was told that it was her mission to be a wife and mother. She met her husband Geo Bianchini Gianni in Rome in 1955. They had seven children.
Maria Esperanza became known worldwide after 1984, when she and 150 other people reported seeing an apparition of the Blessed Mother at Betania, a farm in Venezuela. Her title was “Mary, Virgin and Mother, Reconciler of all Peoples and Nations.” The diocesan bishop, Msgr. Pio Bello Ricardo, approved the apparition in 1987, in consultation with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI), who was Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the time.
She died after a long illness in a home on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, in 2004. In 2010, Bishop Paul Bootkoski of the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey, opened her cause for canonization at the Cathedral of St. Francis of Assisi in Metuchen, with 1,100 faithful present.
Fr. Timothy Byerley, pastor of St. Peter Church in Merchantville of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey, is serving as vice postulator for the Beatification and Canonization Cause of Servant of God Maria Esperanza. He is also author of the 2014 book, Maria Esperanza and the Grace of Betania (Mary Mother Reconciler Foundation, 2014). He was ordained to the priesthood in 1985; his brother, Joseph, is also a priest of the Diocese of Camden.
He spoke recently with CWR.
CWR: You knew Maria Esperanza personally. How did you come to meet her, and what do you remember of her?
Fr. Timothy Byerley: After her Betania apparition of the Blessed Mother was approved by the diocesan bishop in 1987, she was thrust into the limelight. She was invited to be the keynote speaker at Marian conferences in the United States. She came to speak to such a group in New Jersey in the mid-90s, and I was invited to meet her. Her work was to proclaim the message of reconciliation and family healing in a world in which the family has been devastated, assisted by her extraordinary mystical gifts.
Maria Esperanza was from the rural interior of Venezuela and eventually moved to Caracas. She was naturally intelligent but had limited education. She became a woman of culture through her own efforts. Her first catechist was her mother, followed by her parish priest in the countryside. Even as a child she manifested great faith and devotion, and a concern for the things of heaven.
I found her to be a loving mother, a joyful woman and apostolic. She visited my parish and many others; people would line up to 3, 4 or 5 in the morning just to have a moment with the mystic. The priest might ask her at 1 in the morning, “Shall we conclude with a general blessing?” She would respond, “No, I will not do that. I will be here until the last one leaves.” That could mean she’d be there for 12 hours. She had a heart for souls.
Yet despite her mission to save souls, her seven children and husband never felt deprived of her love or attention. They only recall great moments of joy and unity: her splendid meals, family singing and her undivided attention when they needed her counsel.
CWR: Do you have any favorite stories about Maria Esperanza?
Fr. Byerley: Once she was in Phoenix for a series of conferences. She had some free time one day, so she went sightseeing with family and friends. At one lookout point, she saw a young couple sitting in the back of a pick-up truck. The man looked like a rough character, covered in tattoos.
Maria Esperanza’s group took a group photo at the site. She told her son-in-law to invite the couple to join them for the photo. They agreed. Maria Esperanza said to the young man, “Those tattoos must have hurt when you had them put on.” He replied, “They didn’t hurt like anything I’ve gone through in my life.”
She read his soul, and could see he had had challenging moments in his life. She suggested he look out to the beautiful sky, talked to him about the beauty of nature and introduced him to the love and mercy of God. He came to tears, and was healed by the love and prayers and concern of that compassionate woman.
Maria Esperanza also suggested he marry the young woman with him. The man hugged her, and didn’t want to let her go. He asked those with Maria Esperanza, “Who is this woman?” A friend who was with the group told me this story.
These kinds of encounters happened thousands of times. One moment with a mystic, and a life can be transformed.
CWR: What about her mystical gifts, such as the stigmata, prophecy, bilocation and reading of hearts?
Fr. Byerley: They weren’t always active in a given moment. You weren’t likely to see the stigmata, for example, except on Good Friday. Bilocation is also something hard to see; she might be in both Venezuela and Italy at a given time, but people wouldn’t realize it until sometime later.
The gifts people could grasp were things like reading hearts, making prophecies, the scent of roses in her presence, a gold light shimmering around her that was unexplainable or rose petals beginning to fall. People at a prayer meeting might see her receive Communion mystically; a Host would appear suddenly on her tongue. I’ve reviewed many such written and spoken testimonies.
It is unusual for a wife and mother to have extraordinary mystical experiences on a regular basis, but not unprecedented in Church history. Note the lives of Blessed Anna Maria Taigi (1769-1837) and St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510). God dispenses His graces according to His will, not our expectations.
CWR: There have also been Eucharistic miracles at Betania.
Fr. Byerley: Yes. In 1991, the chaplain of Betania was celebrating Mass for a big crowd. The Host began to bleed. It is being preserved in a monstrance in a convent of sisters in Venezuela. I’ve seen it myself. It has been analyzed by medical experts; it is human blood.
CWR: She predicted George W. Bush would win the presidency in 2000.
Fr. Byerley: Yes. A few weeks before the election, she was in a hotel suite with about a dozen people. A friend of mine was there. Someone asked her, “Who is going to win?” They showed her a newspaper with photographs of both candidates. She said, “The short one is going to win, but it will take a long time.”
My friend was thinking that there was no way she got it right. Unlike the elections in Latin America with which she was familiar, in American elections you know the next day. Well, it turned out she was right. The vote count was disputed in Florida, and it wasn’t until December 12th that the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in and stopped the counting, making George W. Bush the president. But, no one saw it coming.
CWR: What was Maria Esperanza’s message for the world?
Fr. Byerley: Her message was that the fundamental problem in society is the terrible division between people. We need reconciliation and the healing of wounded relationships, which can be racial, national, international, economic, class or religious-related. At the heart of it all is broken families. As goes the family, so goes society. Our Lady came to Betania not only to call us to family healing, but to help.
CWR: Why was Maria Esperanza in New Jersey at the time of her death?
Fr. Byerley: About 1995, Pope St. John Paul II began to manifest the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Maria Esperanza was distressed; she thought, “He’s the moral pillar holding the world together.” So, she did something radical: she offered herself on behalf of Pope John Paul II. Shortly after, she began to manifest symptoms of Parkinson’s. She had trouble walking and had to use a wheelchair. Eventually, her organs started breaking down.
In 2003, she forced herself to come to the U.S. for a mission. She spent Christmas 2003 in Connecticut, and then came to New Jersey. She was too sick to return home. She stayed at a house on Long Beach Island, New Jersey, where she died surrounded by family and friends.
CWR: Are her children carrying on her work?
Fr. Byerley: Yes. Her seven children are leaders of the Betania Foundation, which carries on her mission. There are 20 Betania communities around the world, including ones in the United States, South America and Rome. People in prayer groups live her spirituality.
CWR: The people in Venezuela have suffered from poverty, starvation and political repression in recent years. What do you think Maria Esperanza would say about this?
Fr. Byerley: She predicted that it would come to pass. She also predicted that the country would recover, and become a model for other nations on how to overcome civil strife.
CWR: What did she have to say about the Church?
Fr. Byerley: She loved the Church, and gave her life for Her. She was concerned about unity in the Church, and authenticity and faithfulness in doctrine. She had reverence for priests and religious.
CWR: What is the status of her cause for canonization?
Fr. Byerley: We’ve made progress. The theological commission has concluded its work, declaring that there are no errors in her teaching. The historical facts of her life have been confirmed. Right now, what we’re hoping for is greater enthusiasm from the Venezuelan bishops.
CWR: Do you have any final thoughts?
Fr. Byerley: Maria Esperanza is an ideal model of family life for our contemporary world. She was exquisitely balanced and joyful, yet fully committed to her Catholic Faith. To read her story is to believe that living a full and happy life is not in contradiction to Christian virtue, but in fact, unattainable without it.
Maria Esperanza exemplified the beatitudes, and therefore was continually reconciling people with God and with one another. The mission of her life was to proclaim and spread Our Lady’s message of reconciliation and to establish it in society by witnessing to authentic Christian family life. As St. John Paul II always reminded us, “Society passes by way of the family.” When the family is fractured, society is fractured. When the family is healthy, society is healthy. The promotion of Maria Esperanza’s beatification cause is one of the greatest things the Church can do today to heal the family and thus reconstruct society.
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