Seeking validation of visions

Quest: Supporters lobby the Catholic Church on behalf of a woman who shares purported messages from the Virgin Mary.

February 01, 2003|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

For years, Gianna Talone-Sullivan has relayed what she said was the word of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Frederick County woman spoke of seeing a loving mother figure who wanted her children to pray and live in peace. Later, the messages took on a darker tone, with Mary saying she "was about to meet Satan on his own turf and extinguish his ways forever."

"A great test," Talone-Sullivan warned, "is at hand."

Until a little more than two years ago, the woman many simply know as Gianna delivered such messages to overflow crowds at a small church in Emmitsburg. Now she distributes them by e-mail because the Archdiocese of Baltimore, concerned about the increasingly apocalyptic prophesies, barred her from using any church as a platform.

But her followers have launched a movement to establish her credibility, and an international cast of clerics is asking the archdiocese to take another look at her case.

"I have a good impression of her messages. While it is difficult to say if they are authentic, there is nothing objectionable in them," said the Rev. Edward D. O'Connor, a retired theologian at the University of Notre Dame and a member of the Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton in Ohio. "The mere fact that there is an apocalyptic tone should not exclude the messages."

O'Connor has written to Cardinal William H. Keeler to criticize the findings of an archdiocesan commission that found "no evidence of supernatural intervention" in Talone-Sullivan's messages. A petition with hundreds of signatures - including those of a half-dozen Marian scholars - was delivered early last month to archdiocese offices in Baltimore.

And although an archdiocese spokesman said there are no plans to reopen the investigation into the case, Talone-Sullivan's supporters say they will continue to collect signatures and push for more study.

The Rev. Thomas A. Thompson, library director at the Marian Research Institute, said his organization hears daily from people claiming to have ethereal visions, but although they often draw media attention, they lack proof. And each claim seems to spawn a series of others, he said.

World events can also prompt increases in reports of apparitions, said O'Connor of Notre Dame. "Our Lady is warning us of the evil of our times and that if we don't reform, we are going to be punished."

`Simply an instrument'

Against this backdrop, Talone-Sullivan, 45, kneels in prayer every day in a chapel in her home near Emmitsburg, a town revered by Catholics. She claims she receives messages daily and is told which to share.

"I'm simply an instrument, and I live life for others and do not interpret Our Lady's message," she said several years ago in an interview. "I unite with her in prayer."

These days, Talone-Sullivan does not give interviews, keeping a promise she made to Keeler. The only way her followers can receive the messages is through postings on the Internet and through a chain of about 4,000 e-mails.

Not long after this year dawned with threats of war in Iraq and rising nuclear tensions in Southeast Asia, another purported message was posted:

"Even though it seems that there is much embarking upon the world, even if it is war indeed, allow me to tell you that the splendor of God's light brings hope and those who look to a new tomorrow and those who are disciples of God's love will be victorious in his light."

Talone-Sullivan claims Mary has told her that cataclysmic events will occur and that her authenticity as a visionary will be established in the year that her daughter reaches a particular age.

According to a recent message, Mary said: "I have mentioned publicly that my daughter Gianna would have a child the age of 7 before the world would know about my appearances here." Talone-Sullivan said she received that message Jan. 12 - her daughter's 7th birthday.

Talone-Sullivan has said her visions began in 1987, when she was living and working as a pharmacist in Phoenix, Ariz. Church officials there studied the matter and found no signs of the supernatural.

She said that after she and her husband, Michael Sullivan, visited Emmitsburg's Grotto of Lourdes, a replica of the more famous grotto of the same name in France, she received a vision from Mary telling her to move to the town.

Tucked away in the Catoctin Mountains, Emmitsburg was once the home of Elizabeth Ann Seton, the first American-born saint, and is the site of a seminary that is said to have educated more bishops than any other in the country.

The couple moved to Emmitsburg in 1993, and a year later Talone-Sullivan founded Mission of Mercy, a mobile health clinic.

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