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John Paul II continues to be a source of wonderment. There is something new about him all the time.

There certainly was that proclivity for the mystical. It was under John Paul II that apparition sites in Africa, Nicaragua, and Venezuela were formally approved (overseen, one might add, by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), and there is little doubt that John Paul took special interest in seers. 

One of those who came to his attention was the great holy woman of Caracas, Maria Esperanza de Bianchini, who died six years ago this Saturday -- on August 7, 2004, at Southern Ocean County Hospital near the shore in New Jersey of a Parkinson-like affliction [see story].

Esperanza is now under study for possible sainthood, and the focus, says Father Tim Byerley, who is co-postulator for her cause (which is spearheaded by the Diocese of Metuchen, New Jersey), is her proposed "fame of sanctity" and "fame of intercession." Father Timothy E. Byerley, who hails from the Camden diocese, recently had his book The Great Commission, published by Paulist Press. The work, based on his doctoral dissertation from Fordham University’s School of Religion and Religious Education, serves to elucidate the history and role of Catholic evangelization efforts.

As an encyclopedia notes, "When sufficient information has been gathered, the investigation of the candidate, who is called 'Servant of God,' is presented by the local bishop to the Roman Curia—the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints—where it is assigned a postulator, whose task is to gather further information about the life of the Servant of God. When enough information has been gathered, the Congregation will recommend to the Pope that he make a proclamation of the Servant of God's heroic virtue (that is, that the servant exhibited the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity, and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, to an heroic degree). From this point the one said to be 'heroic in virtue' is referred to by the title 'Venerable.'"

When that is reached, the next phases, of course, would include beatification and -- God-willing -- canonization.

Father Byerley is tight-lipped about the process and says very little can be said about the inquiry as it adheres closely to canonical norms. The focus is not the mystical component. One thing the postulators will study is whether "there is a grass roots devotion among balanced faithful." They will seek to intensely interview a hundred to 120 people who knew her well, said the priest, who is currently in Venezuela. He said one miraculous cure will be needed for beatification, and a second for canonization, if it gets to that point. "I think we have one we're looking at very seriously," he said, declining any further details and emphasizing the need "to be circumspect." Those who believe they have experienced a miracle at her intercession may contact him.

Esperanza always emphasized strict obedience to Rome and local bishops, enjoying the strong support of her own prelates. She once presented John Paul II a statue of "Our Lady, Reconciler of All Peoples and Nations," the title under which the Blessed Mother appeared in that Church-approved Venezuelan apparition, of which she was the main visionary.

Another seer who had her brush with the Pope was Mirjana Dragicevic Soldo of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Hercegovina, which is also currently under study by Rome, with no firm sense of how Benedict XVI feels about the famous apparitions.

Mirjana [left] met John Paul II when, during a general audience, a priest pointed her out to him;  shortly after Vatican staff sent a note for her to meet privately with the Pope at Castel Gondolfo.

Last October, in a talk to pilgrims at Oasis of Peace just outside of Medjugorje, Mirjana revealed that "among other things, [the Pope] said to me, 'I know everything, I have been following everything. Ask pilgrims to pray for my intentions. And take good care of Medjugorje because Medjugorje is the hope for the entire world…' ”

Others have made similar assertions on the Pope's stance (including his admonition to protect it) and there have been reports that he read the monthly messages, as well as private letters that indicate his devotion to the Medjugorje Virgin, although he issued no public statements, leaving it in the realm of hearsay. Added Mirjana more intriguingly:

"A priest told me from the very beginning that the Pope was very fond of Medjugorje because two months before the apparitions in Medjugorje started, he was praying to Our Lady to come again on earth. He said, 'I cannot do it all alone because Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Poland and so forth are all Communist. I cannot do it alone. I need you.' And later he heard that in Yugoslavia, a Communist country, in a little village, Our Lady appeared and he said, 'that is a response to my prayer.'" Mirjana's translator has verified that the seer made these statements.

Like so many things coming out of foreign lands, there are often difficulties with translation and confirmations. No one knows how Benedict XVI feels about Medjugorje.

But there is little question that John Paul II had an affinity for the transcendental, and with it he seemed not only to rise to the occasion but above it.

[resources: The Bridge to Heaven and Medjugorje Fasting Book]

[See also: Story on Maria Esperanza's death, The Incredible Story of Maria Esperanza and Video: seers during apparitions]

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