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Prayer Services Halted

Originally Published in the 'Bo & Jean Cadle' Emmitsburg Dispatch, Oct, 2000

On Thursday, September 14th, parishioners and pilgrims were met with locked doors at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Emmitsburg. The prior weekend, at the Saturday evening and Sunday Masses, the news from the Archdiocese of Baltimore had been relayed to the parish: the Thursday night prayer service, at which Gianna Talone-Sullivan allegedly received messages from the Blessed Virgin Mary, would be discontinued at this time. 

According to the Archdiocese, the Thursday prayer services “had primarily become a platform for promoting Mrs. Sullivan’s alleged apparitions in a setting which suggests Church approval of both their authenticity and theological content.” The prayer services had been occurring at St. Joseph’s for approximately seven years and had drawn crowds of 600 to 1000 each week. 

On Monday morning, calls began flooding the parish office of St. Joseph’s, according to Shirley Dillon the parish secretary. “People were calling with different reactions but mostly to verify if what they heard was correct,” she said. The parish received hundreds of calls, which gradually decreased but still continue. 

Until recently the Archdiocese of Baltimore had taken a neutral view on the authenticity of Mrs. Sullivan’s alleged apparitions. On the afternoon of September 8, the Archdiocese met with Drs. Gianna and Michael Sullivan. At the brief meeting, the Sullivans were handed an official statement which listed three directives from the Archdiocese. 

No formal investigation was done or intended, but a review of several months was led by Msgr. Jeremiah Kenney, Judicial Vicar, and involved archdiocesan officials and theologians. The review was based on the alleged apparitions and the theological content of the messages. The archdiocese does not intend to detail a point-by-point theological analysis of the content of any of the messages, which could bring about unending debate. But simply stated that it “finds elements in them that cannot be reconciled with the teaching of the Church, including material that deals with predictions for the future and visions of an apocalyptic nature.” 

The archdiocese further stated that information presented in a video entitled “Unbridled Mercy: the Return of Jesus as a Child” also played a significant role in this review and its results. The statement says that the archdiocese is unable to support the message of the video and asks that the sales be discontinued immediately. 

According to John Clote, Producer of the film and Executive Director of the Mercy Foundation located in Libertyville, Illinois, the foundation has not been contacted by the Archdiocese of Baltimore. He said, “We try to take a constructive viewpoint.” He added that his organization is aware that the film reports a serious message from the Blessed Virgin Mary, and said, “With all due respect to Our Lady, it’s her message and we’re presenting it because we believe it to be authentic.” 

The Mercy Foundation is a non-profit organization that produces Catholic films and has in recent past been soundly endorsed by bishops and cardinals throughout the United States. The office of the Mercy Foundation, located in the National Shrine of Saint Maximilian Kolbe, has received hundreds of calls regarding the directives from the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Approximately 98% of callers ask if they were too late to purchase the film. 

Over 10,000 copies of the film have been distributed internationally and no decision has been made to alter the distribution of the video. Clote said, “If the Archdiocese of Baltimore called us and said the Cardinal has just condemned the events in Emmitsburg we would pull every film immediately from every store.” According to Karen Warden at St. Philomena’s Catholic Book Store in Emmitsburg, the videos were sold in great quantities but in response to the archdiocese directive remaining videos were pulled and sent back. 

In a personal interview, Raymond Kempisty, Director of Communication for the archdiocese, was asked why a more official statement of condemnation had not been issued. He replied that “the review that was done regarding the alleged apparitions to Mrs. Sullivan never questioned her personal integrity or sincerity. I would say that its clear Mrs. Sullivan is a person of faith and undoubtedly most, if not all, the people who attended the prayer services are people of faith. The only thing we’re saying is that we find no basis for the alleged apparitions.” 

In an interview, when asked what he felt the statement of no basis meant, Fr. John Grigus, OFM Conv, and the Spiritual Director for the Mercy Foundation said, "It seems to me it's not a judgment on the actual experiences of the mystic but a determination based upon objective observation of the review committee, and only on the study of the experience." 

He further expanded by saying, "There does on a subjective level exist a very questionable situation with the faithful who have been reading and benefiting from these messages, who have experienced growth and healing, and the fruits, not just at this parish in Emmitsburg, but in the wider United States and perhaps even the world. 

“These people have made a personal choice for their Catholic faith and are concerned about adhering to the correct teachings of the Church. They certainly don't want to be involved in anything heretical. So I think it's a moral qualm of conscience that the individual believers do have as a result of the declaration. It lays a doubt not only regarding the very messages, but the visionary herself and the fruits experienced, that needs to be clarified by a formal commission study such as was done in Fatima and Lourdes." 

When asked why he thought the prayer service was discontinued he said, "The very fact that this is happening within a parish context, because the parish is the basic unit of the church, the archdiocese needs to step back in order to observe the prophetic nature of these apparitions. "

According to the Mayor of Emmitsburg, William Carr, the town took a completely neutral position as far as the apparitions were concerned. “There’s been a lot of soul searching in all of this,” he said. Initially, the alleged apparitions were brought to the attention of the town office through complaints of residences regarding the influx of traffic and parking problems. 

As of July 13, 2000, however, when an alleged message was given that predicted a sign for October the problem became more evident due to increased complaints that occurred more frequently because of a larger influx of pilgrims anticipating this sign. 

A meeting was held in the town office the morning of the same day as that of the archdiocese meeting with the Sullivans and was called by Pat Boyle, the Street Commissioner. Some of those present included Dr. Michael Sullivan, Fr. James Kiernan, pastor of St. Joseph’s, and Tom Fitzsimmons, the Sullivans’ information director. The meeting was positive with primary focus on safety of the residents of Emmitsburg and pilgrims coming to the town. Preliminary measures were taken to address the possibility of larger crowds descending on the town in October. “I’m quite pleased with the way the town has handled this whole situation,” said Mayor Carr. “In my eyes the town always cooperated with the parish and would have continued to do so.”

Mayor Carr, as well as others, expressed some concern in regard to how this decision would affect the Mission of Mercy, a non-profit organization founded by Gianna Talone-Sullivan, which Carr said has had a great impact on the community. Dr. Gianna Talone-Sullivan, who holds a degree in pharmacology, and her husband, Dr. Michael Sullivan, a specialist in internal medicine and medical director of the non-profit organization, work to provide free medical and dental care to the poor, homeless, uninsured and underinsured. The Mission of Mercy, now in its sixth year, operates through a mobile medical clinic that treats patients in central and western Maryland and Pennsylvania. To address this concern, Mrs. Shirley Dillon said that Gianna and Michael Sullivan are still active and participating parishioners of St. Joseph’s and that the parish continues to support and send people to the Mission of Mercy. 

It’s clear the archdiocese is distancing itself from the alleged apparitions of Gianna Talone-Sullivan here in Emmitsburg. Understanding there would be those disappointed by their action, they encourage continued prayer and stated “…the archdiocese calls on the faithful to strengthen their resolve to follow Jesus through reception of the sacraments, personal prayer, study of our Catholic faith, devotion to the Blessed Mother, and participation in the life of their parishes.” 

“We’re meeting the directives that the Thursday prayer group be discontinued at this time,” said Fr. Kiernan, “I want parishioners to be mindful that we have mass everyday, we have Miraculous Medal Novena on Monday evenings, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the afternoons in the church on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, Mass on First Friday with Holy Hour and all-night Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and Marion devotions after Mass on Saturday mornings. ”

The Sullivans remain silent and obedient to the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Through an extensive e-mail network, the Sullivans sent out a general thank you letter and wrote, “I encourage you to continue to move forward in God’s Love, to persevere, and to pray. A genuine child of God is forgiving, loving and merciful….Focus all of your attention on Our Lord, remain faithful to the Church and the Sacraments and stay in the state of grace which only God can give. ”

In Lourdes, France, in 1858, a miraculous spring which still produces healings was given as a sign to authenticate the Blessed Virgin Mary’s message to a 14-year-old girl, Bernadette Souberous. On October 13, 1917, in Fatima, Portugal, over 70,000 people--believers and agnostics--witnessed the “miracle of the sun,” a sign given to authenticate the Blessed Virgin Mary’s message to three local children. Has the Blessed Virgin Mary been appearing here in Emmitsburg for the past seven years with a message and will there be a sign in October to authenticate the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Sullivan?" 

On September 10th, the only formal statement from the Sullivans was released. It was given in response to the directive issued by the Archdiocese of Baltimore. It stated “This is a gift. Be at peace. Continue to pray. God’s hand is in all of this. Watch and see!”