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Lubbock Visions : ‘Miracles’ Are Explained but Not Forgotten

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Times Staff Writer

That accursed dizziness would come on suddenly, and Pat Devlin could do nothing but stop everything and collapse into bed.

The room would move in a wild spin, and she’d clutch her silver crucifix and imagine the terrible death of Jesus. Such good had come of that, and maybe there was good to come from her own suffering as well.

Then last Aug. 15, on the Feast of the Assumption, the sickness simply went away, and Pat could not help but believe this was a miracle owed to the most gracious and kindhearted woman who had ever lived, the Virgin Mary.

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Prophecy of a Miracle

Months before, there had been a prophecy. Our Lady would appear to the pure of spirit on that feast day at Pat’s church, St. John Neumann, here in Lubbock. Could that actually happen? Pat wondered. And would she herself be worthy?

Pat Devlin is like so many. She wants religion to come to life, the voice of the Lord as real to her ear as it is in her heart. And why shouldn’t that be possible? God is unfailingly there. It is up to us: Open to him.

Some 15,000 pilgrims made their way to the outdoor Mass, and many--even most--thought they witnessed stupendous things in the cloud-spotted sky.

As a patch of cumulus slid across the sun, shapes seemed to form in the changing light. People saw Mary or the baby Jesus or the hand of God. It was as if a window to eternity had burst open, loosing the wonders of heaven.

Pat Devlin, blind since birth, stood with her guide dog beside the church fountain. The gasps startled her. Children began shouting. Who is that lady in the sky? They saw the Virgin hovering just above, blessing the water.

Pat wept, and people rushed to comfort her. “Ask Mary to let you see,” they urged. But that was too much to hope for. Pat’s eyes had been removed. Still, she prayed hard, and a remarkable tranquility settled upon her.

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Days later, she felt no more symptoms of Meniere’s disease, the inner ear imbalance that had tormented her for eight years.

Changes in Crucifix

That was not all. She was sure her crucifix, so familiar to her touch, had changed, too. Jesus’ head and arms had moved.

And one more thing. Miriam, one of her twin teen-age daughters, asked, “Mom, is your crucifix gold or silver?”

“Silver,” she answered.

“Well, it’s gold now.” Pat fell to her knees. Hail Mary, full of grace....

What skeptic now could doubt all that was happening in Lubbock?

Oh, there were skeptics all right. You people have gone off your rockers, a few parishioners came right out and said. And it was hard to blame them.

Pat Devlin knew plenty about doubt. Who didn’t? Sometimes she would catch herself praying one instant and doubting the next. Thank you, Lord, for listening. And please let me know if my prayers were heard.

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Now, finally, she was filled with certainty: from her healing, from what others had seen in the sky, from all that had happened this past year, especially the astonishing words that had come to be known as the rosary messages.

Two prayerful and respected members of St. John Neumann--Mary Constancio and Mike Slate--believed the Blessed Mother actually spoke to them during Monday night rosary sessions in the chapel.

Notebook Quotations

They hurriedly wrote down all they heard in notebooks, then read the lyrical phrases aloud: “Do not despair, for a legion of angels from heaven has been sent for your protection.”

At the same time, another parishioner, Theresa Werner, heard from the Lord Almighty, looming angrily above his sinners: “I shall send forth the pestilences of my jealous wrath. It shall burn till it shall be appeased.”

Pat immersed herself in the messages--both the sweet and the stern--and found in them an elixir for the hurts of the world. We are not abandoned, she told herself.

Such zeal, actually, was odd for her. She did not consider herself a holy roller, just an everyday Catholic, the 36-year-old mother of two and a Ph.D. candidate in marriage and family therapy at Texas Tech University.

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But imagine! The Virgin was right here in this very city, knit into the fabric of her life. Pity those at St. John’s who could not give themselves over to the marvel of it!

Rift in Parish

Sadly enough, there were plenty of those. A chasm had opened, and the parish of 250 families was rent. Marie Koch, once a regular on Monday nights, now refused to attend. The whole thing was “spooky,” she said.

To many, the messages seemed to spring not from the Holy Virgin but from Msgr. Joe James, the church’s long-time pastor. He was always off on one kick or another, trying to make God more alive and real to people.

Last year, he went away to Medjugorje, that village in Yugoslavia where six children have claimed to hear from Our Lady since 1981. When he got back, he was on fire with it. Mary is among us! Pray the rosary!

Some around here regard the man more as a prophet than a priest. He is such a rousing speaker. Isn’t it possible that the cause of the voices was the effect--however innocently intended--of the monsignor’s preachings?

Admiration of Pastor

Of course, that kind of attitude really peeved Pat Devlin. People ought to thank God for Msgr. James, she said. So many other priests, if the conversation turned to visions or angels, would just as soon leave the room.

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Pat anguished. If only there was a way to make everyone understand. If only the Catholic Church itself would take an honest look at these mind-boggling goings-on. Then, last September, that seemed about to happen.

After consulting with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, Michael J. Sheehan, the bishop of Lubbock, announced he had asked a committee of five church scholars to investigate.

To finally answer: Are there miracles taking place here or not?

As a girl, when Pat was sad, she would pray to the Virgin Mary. Hold me, she would ask. And, often, she could feel the merciful arms fold around her.

Mary was so good. Her eyes were blue as forget-me-nots and sunlight danced along the ground before her. She represented pure faith and submission.

All grace flowed through her, and that sometimes caused people to think she was divine. That is not so, and Pat understood the distinction.

The glory of the Blessed Mother is purely the glory God gave her. Catholic teaching said she is to be venerated, as a saint, not worshiped.

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Nevertheless, the church admitted the possibility that Mary appeared to people in private revelations, though it only rarely approved them.

That gave pause for thought. People at St. John’s asked each other: What if our own miracle was to disappear, dismissed by a few stodgy priests and emptied into the mists?

Church Inquiry Set

The truth was, an investigation--once so coveted--now came to seem a little scary. Four nationally known priests and a nun--experts on Scripture and visions and Mary--were on their way. One of them was also a psychiatrist.

Maybe their mission was just to douse the miracles with disbelief. After all, the church hierarchy considers itself to be the intermediary between God and man, not three laymen hearing voices.

On the other hand, the miracles here were so obvious. By their fruits ye shall know them. And the fruit of the rosary messages was the returning of so many to the eternal love of God.

Most days, dozens--even hundreds--of pilgrims milled around the church fountain. They dipped their rosaries in the water and gaped into the sun. St. John’s already seemed as much a shrine as a church.

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A push was on to assemble evidence for the commission in a lawyerly way. Testimonies from 247 people present at the feast had been recorded. The statements were transcribed by volunteers and stored in a computer.

Visions Documented

Joe James himself indexed the information: 186 had witnessed the spinning of the sun; 75 had seen the Virgin; 64 Jesus; 18 an angel. How could anyone ignore the bulk of such documentation?

But when the panel finally met on Oct. 3, they had little time to review all that. They were only going to be in Lubbock three days. Besides, whatever faces people had seen one afternoon in the clouds did not seem so momentous.

Please understand, they said: In strict theological terms, a miracle means something perceived by the senses that cannot be explained by natural causes.

For example, the regeneration of a limb would be a fairly solid miracle. Has there been anything like that?

The church staff went scurrying. Healings, they want! Darn it, why did we lose touch with that lady who claimed spontaneous remission of her diabetes?

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‘Healings’ Needed

And where was that Ochoa woman with the little boy who had recovered the use of his hand? And what of Josie Todd, cured of her back pains?

All was haste and tension. Witnesses were shuttled in and out, and Joe James did not even know who some of them were. Things were taking place in secret, and it was all very disturbing.

True, Pat Devlin and a few others had been allowed to tell their wonderful stories. Pat is unusually smart and articulate. She showed one of the priests her crucifix. He seemed moved.

But other people reported back that there had been questions asked about brainwashing. Didn’t Joe James orchestrate this thing? Didn’t he love the attention?

All this probing unnerved the rosary messengers. Theresa Werner is a 34-year-old country girl who once took some courses in cosmetology. They asked her things as if she was some kind of Bible scholar.

Mary Constancio, 34, had given up her job as a respiratory therapist to devote herself full time to the Virgin. The psychiatrist kept boring in. How do you feel about your father? And your mother?

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Mike Slate is 39 and a retired Air Force sergeant. In the service he had been pressured many a time, but nothing compared to this. No, this, he said ruefully, was like being on trial for your faith.

The commission’s 16-page report was written on the final day of the visit. Bishop Sheehan asked Joe James and the rosary messengers to come by. They sat tensely around a conference table. The meeting was taped.

First, the bishop said, there was good news. The panel had concluded they were dealing with “sincere, spiritually motivated” people. No deception was going on. Anything but.

The messages themselves were “a beautiful devotion” to Our Lady. Not only did they stress repentance--and certainly we all need more of that--but for the most part they were free of any doctrinal error.

Oh, there was some serious concern about Theresa’s messages from the Lord. The phrasing was always in a “strident, affected, erroneous, archaic style.”

But otherwise, the messages were surely vehicles of grace, “very solid, very powerful.” Doubtlessly, they had helped many people.

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Direct Contact Ruled Out

There was a bottom line, however. The bishop gently made his way toward it. The panel, he explained, does not “feel the rosary messages should be described as private revelations miraculously inspired.”

That was to say, they were not directly communicated from Our Lady and God himself. Rather, they were “the pious meditations of good people.”

The messengers were stunned. Mary Constancio sobbed. These were high-toned explanations, but the impact was clear. The decision was: no miracles.

“With respect,” Theresa interrupted. “How do you explain the sun and all the people wrote and said what they saw in the sun?”

Rev. Frederick Jelly, a noted theologian and the commission’s chairman, replied apologetically: “We were not equipped to submit these phenomena or their after-effects to rigid scientific analysis. . . .”

And remember, he added, a sunset, no matter how beautiful, is not miraculous. Certainly, God is present, but, “ordinarily, God works through the ordinary.”

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They closed with a prayer. Let us ask Mary....

At a news conference, Bishop Sheehan matter-of-factly dismissed all that had been going on. “Lubbock isn’t Fatima. Lubbock isn’t Lourdes. And Lubbock probably isn’t even Medjugorje,” he said.

What of the rosaries that had turned golden? a reporter asked. Oh, that. They were tarnished by handling. Like other things, too much has been made of them. The power of suggestion has been very strong.

The bishop was concerned now that people would harm themselves sun-gazing, straining for images in the sky. In fact, he worried about “the subsequent pastoring of this whole affair.”

Let us return to normal, he urged. And there were those at St. John’s who said amen to that. But what was normal now?

So many believed they had found a pathway through the thickets of the soul and they were not about to turn back. To them, the commission had merely brushed aside the miracles like so much lint off their priestly garments.

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Cover-Up Suspected

Pat Devlin was numb, then angry. “It’s tyrannical,” she said. “It’s a cover-up.” Even weeks later, she found herself crying in the chapel: “God has given us this wonderful gift, and the church won’t let us accept it.”

Pat felt worst for the messengers. Except for an occasional prophecy, Theresa Werner had stopped hearing voices after the Feast of the Assumption. Was Theresa now to conclude she had never heard anything at all?

And what of Mary Constancio and Mike Slate? They still received messages, each noontime beside a cluster of fir trees, beneath the church’s towering cross. Their experiences were more potent than ever.

One day, as they said the rosary, the Virgin led them on a walk through time to witness the final hours of Jesus, from the scourging at the pillar to the torment of the cross.

Our Lady trembled as her son agonized. Mike and Mary cringed in horror nearby. Make them stop! they cried, but Jesus raised his head. “This is for you,” he told them. “I am dying for you.”

Mary Constancio would sometimes share these experiences with pilgrims, who still came to St. John’s by the dozens, some pushing wheelchairs holding their crippled mothers or husbands or children.

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Prayers for Health

“Lord Jesus,” they could be overheard to pray, “I have tried every doctor, every medicine, every treatment. . . .”

Such were now the routines at St. John’s, the searching into the skies and the anointing with oils and the praying for miracle cures.

Bishop Sheehan was displeased. What kept this all going? he wanted to know. He met again with Msgr. James, and this time minced no words. De-escalate this! Tone it down!

In his homily the next Sunday, Joe James tried to comply. We are not to promote a shrine, he said. “That is the bishop’s decision, and the bishop has every right as our shepherd and pastor to direct this.”

But then emotions took command. These were perplexing days for him, the monsignor told the large congregation. Anger and depression had become his companions. He had been ordered by the bishop to see a psychiatrist.

Maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea, he admitted. He was indeed angry. He had spent a lifetime pursuing what he was now told to leave behind. His voice then softened over the microphone, though somehow this only loaded his words with power.

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Reaffirms Belief

“A man’s conscience is that secret abode where he meets and confronts God . . . .” he said. And in that special place he knew what he knew and believed what he believed: “The Mother of God has spoken to us in this parish.”

To some ears, that declaration amounted to willful disobedience. “Father James is really off on his own now, like he wants a schism,” parishioner Jo Wilmoth said with regret.

But most of the others responded with prolonged applause and hallelujahs. And a few even enjoyed a flash of what they took to be insight: The commission had merely called their bluff--put up or shut up.

What they needed now was an airtight miracle, and surely the Blessed Virgin would provide one. In fact, news was already being spread in the hushed tones usually reserved for the most urgent of secrets.

Praise God! Pat Devlin, the blind woman, was sensing light in her darkness. She was growing back her eyes.

For many years, Pat had prayed that somehow she would become a channel for God’s grace, like a stream with the joy of the Lord running through it.

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Then one evening in early November, about a month after the commission’s report, the light she had discovered grew more brilliant than ever.

She felt a presence in the room that made her drop to her knees. A voice lifted out of the glowing. It was the Virgin Mary. They talked.

Our Lady had a message: “Open your hearts so that my son may enter into them and be reborn into your world. . . .” She came to Pat twice more.

The final parting was nearly unbearable. The Virgin said: “The next time I visit this closely with you will be when you are in my arms in heaven.”

Pat could not resist asking about her eyesight. “Be patient and wait,” Our Lady answered. Anyway, life now is fleeting. In eternity, they would both look back on this time as if it was only an instant.

Such matters energized Joe James. He discussed Pat with Theresa Werner. The blind woman would see, Theresa prophesied, and statues would weep as a sign.

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The monsignor spoke of this from the pulpit. These trying days, he was lit with prophecy. Theresa had passed along others, word of untimely pregnancies and earthquakes and droughts. One particularly got people’s attention.

“There are some who have been getting messages that a star is going to hit this planet . . . before two years are up,” Msgr. James told his flock in a sermon: Ponder that. It may not happen. But think about it.

The Virgin Mary has come to Lubbock, “but more important than where she is appearing is what is the message. . . . ‘God has allowed me to come. I’m speaking for my son. Repent! Turn to him, because you do not have much time.’ ”

When the star comes crashing, it will be too late.

Some believe Joe James has grown unstable, a man who looked so hard for the magic in religion that, finally, magic was all there was. A good many have left the parish, pained at what became of their church in so short a time.

New families replace them. They find St. John’s an exciting place. So much happens here. Sometimes it is hard to tell what it all means, but people make out, discerning as they can.

There were three confidential pages in the commission’s report, under the title “psychological aspects.” In time, the bishop showed them to Msgr. James, and some weeks ago he, in turn, shared them with his prayer group.

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That part of the report portrays the messages almost as if they involved some bizarre psychic ventriloquism, the passions of the monsignor giving voice to the Holy Virgin in all-too-eager ears.

Points to Pastor

It says: “All three messengers. . . are completely submissive to (James’) will, but they believe that what they are doing is merely showing obedience to Mary and God. . . .

“They appear to have suspended all use of their ability to criticize with regard to him, just as they seem unable to raise any serious questions . . . about the reality of the messages and visions they believe they are receiving.”

Shock filled the room as Joe James read the hurtful words. The conclusion seemed unfair. That psychiatrist had spoken with the messengers for only a few hours--and then had written them off as if they were puppets.

Of course, awful as this was, it was also foreordained. All along, the Holy Virgin had warned of persecution. Where she went Satan sometimes followed.

The important thing was not to let her guiding light be forgotten. And, surely, that will never happen among the sturdy at St. John Neumann.

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Memory is all now. The messages have stopped. This happened just after Christmas. You have enough messages, the Virgin said. Go and live them.

No More Voices

Mike Slate and Mary Constancio had always known such a time would come. But that did not lessen the loss they felt, no longer hearing her loving voice.

They took what solace they could. Our Lady, as always, remains but a prayer away. She left them a gift better than all others, the gift of her son.

Theresa Werner understands this, too, though she is not as active at church as before. She got hooked on that TV show “MacGyver,” and there is a time conflict with the Monday rosary session.

The Lord still seeks her out every now and then, awakening her at odd hours with visions. These days, she tries to be more cautious about repeating them.

Prophecies are such iffy things. Are they from God? Or just her? Not all come true, and she says maybe she ought to just stay in a corner and shut up.

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As it turned out, Pat Devlin did not gain her sight. A tumor was growing in her head instead of new eyes. Days after the Virgin left her, another voice sang out of the silence. It was an angel, and it told Pat to go for X-rays.

This seemed odd, since Pat felt quite well. Besides, how do you explain to a doctor that an angel has sent you in for tests? But she did as she was told, and a brain scan showed a ghastly blot.

Theory on Dizziness

Pat gave the doctors her medical history, the Meniere’s disease included. One specialist said it was damage from the tumor that had caused her symptomatic dizziness to stop, though other doctors thought this unlikely.

Pat disagreed with them all. She goes on thinking the cure was a blessing from the Holy Virgin. As new things happen to her, she manages to fit them in with the lessons of the rosary messages and the presence of God.

On reflection, she had not really wanted sight, she said. Her handicap is actually a godsend. She is not sure she could relate to him without it. After all, he cares about us in the suffering of our everyday lives.

As they wheeled her into surgery, Pat offered up all her pain to Jesus for the saving of souls. Then she imagined angels hovering above the operating table, guiding the scalpels and probes.

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The ordeal took six hours. There was no malignancy, and Pat is recovering nicely. The miraculous events of the past year skip through her mind. They fortify her life, even if, in occasional moments, she weakens.

Had the Virgin really spoken with her and the others? Were the angels just voices in her head? Faith and doubt seem forever to take turns, like breathing in and breathing out. God is at once so obvious and yet so unknowable.

Pat Devlin finds herself again and again asking for signs. Thankfully, God obliges. Sometimes it is the Lord Jesus moving on the crucifix of Pat’s rosary as she holds it, writhing beneath her fingers.

Other times it is glorious light, always far brighter than before, rising from the deep sea of her blindness to comfort her.

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