Sister Isabel Bettwy is both founder and director of the Merciful Mother Association, an association devoted to giving honor to Mary through prayer and education. One activity of the association was the arranging of pilgrimages to places of Marian devotion throughout the world, the main one being Medjugorje. Sister Isabel came to Medjugorje the first time in October 1983 and began bringing pilgrims to Medjugorje in 1984 while fulfilling the obligations of Director of Franciscan University Journeys. Even when Sister Bettwy was the Director of the National Shrine of the Divine Mercy and the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy in Stockbridge, MA, she brought pilgrims to Medjugorje. Sister is now retired, but continues to accompany pilgrims to Medjugorje. (See: http://www.mercifulmotherassociation.org)
In April 2006, during her 73rd visit, Sister Isabel spoke in Medjugorje with Lidija Paris.
Being a part of the history of Medjugorje, especially for the Americans, would you be so kind as to give us a short overview of your friendship with Medjugorje and with Our Lady?
I always loved Our Lady. I grew up in a Marian parish. As a child, we went to church frequently for the devotions and the novenas. When I first heard of Medjugorje in January 1983, I believed. Why shouldn’t I believe that Our Lady would be appearing now? But I had no thought of coming to Medjugorje.
My responsibilities at that time did not involve travel. I was working at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. I had been the director of the Conference Office where we were running conferences in the summer time, when the students were not there. I had just moved to the development office, doing financial aid for the students, and I was developing that area.
I heard about Medjugorje and I believed, and I felt that I should go there. I did not know how to get here because nobody was coming! But when the Lord wants something, he makes sure it happens. The Karminsky family was coming, and they were bringing Fr. Joseph Pelletier who since has died, who wrote books in a popular style about Marian apparitions. Therefore, I had the opportunity to be with him when he interviewed everybody. When I first came, I was hesitant because I thought that everything would be “Mary, Mary, Mary.” However, for three days I never heard the word “Gospa.” Everything was “Jesus.” To me, that was right. I knew that I was at the right place. I was at home. Mary leads us to Jesus.
I also made a personal re-conversion, I know something was going to change in my life, but I did not know what. As part of work at the Franciscan university, we began to do a travel program, and because I had been to Medjugorje, we said that we would do one trip a year to Medjugorje, along with one other pilgrimage. Then, people started wanting to come. We began then to do ten trips a year to Medjugorje. We brought hundreds of pilgrims from the USA.
What attracted them?
I believe it was the Blessed Mother who attracted them truthfully. We all grew up with Fatima. We all knew the Fatima story and we believed it. We believed in Lourdes and Our Lady of Guadalupe. After Vatican II, Our Lady was put in the background, but not in people’s hearts. They prayed to Our Lady. When the word about Medjugorje spread, it just struck a resonant cord in people’s hearts, and they wanted to come. To bring them was a great privilege. For five years, I came ten times a year!
How was Medjugorje at that time?
It was a challenge for Americans, because we were not used to live without running water, bathrooms, shower, restaurant… those things were not available. As far as spiritual life, that was all here! And that really hasn’t changed. We had a daily Mass in English. Those days, it was at 9 am. Most of the time, we brought a priest with us. We always went to church for the evening program even though we couldn’t understand the homily.
How was the prayer program at that time?
It was very similar to the church program now. Fr. Tomislav Pervan was the pastor, Fr. Slavko Barbaric was here, and the program began to develop very quickly. The pattern is very similar to the pattern today. What we did not have in the earliest days were the adorations after the Mass on certain days, or at nighttime.
You used to meet the visionaries?
We did not have the conferences with the visionaries that we have now. With my group, we got to know Ivan very well. My guide was always Dragan Zovko, we actually trained him to be our guide. He spoke English, he spent his summers in Medjugorje, and he could make the contacts and arrangements for us. He would pick up Ivan and take him to a forest – in the direction of Mother’s village - and there he would speak to our group. He was very good. He gave Our Lady’s messages very simply. People could relate to that. Dragan was translating. Occasionally, we would meet Marija at her home, or Vicka. People were giving them petitions. Jakov is speaking much better now that he is older! Today they are more clear. They say: this is the message that Our Lady gave to me. This is the most important, and that is what I can tell you. They do not pretend to know everything.
Are there other differences between those days and today?
The priests sometimes would give after the evening Mass a summary of what had happened during the day, or during the apparition. In those days, before the Thursday messages and before the monthly messages, Fr. Slavko would usually come out and give us a summary. The priests used to talk in the church in the afternoon in different languages, they would tell the story of Medjugorje and explain the messages. During my first visit, the apparitions were in the little room next to the sanctuary. Later they were in the rectory, then in the balcony, and then in the visionaries’ homes, when the visionaries were no longer allowed to have them in the church. We always used to see the visionaries come in and out. In a way I am glad that it has changed, because people were pushing and trying to enter to be present for the apparition – some where chosen and some not…
Were you the first person who established the contact between the USA and Medjugorje?
Not the first, but in the first group. I also spoke at different conferences about Medjugorje. I was working at the University of Steubenville, and people could call me directly. I was also given a credit card to call Medjugorje as often as I wanted to receive the latest news. I used to call two or three times a week during the war. When the war started, people stopped coming. I did not come for several years. Medjugorje is just beginning to pick up again in the USA.
Is Medjugorje known in America?
Of course! Just by word of mouth. We also have Medjugorje conferences, Medjugorje Magazine, the Internet… the message is published on the Internet, and I publish it also on my web site, and I write a reflection every month. There are many avenues…
What about the relationship between the Medjugorje circles and the Bishops?
The Church is the United States takes the same position as the Vatican has taken: Medjugorje is a place of pilgrimage, priests can go there but they do not organize the trips – the trips are always organized by somebody else, like me… The priest is invited to be the spiritual director, to take care of the spiritual needs of the people, and that is fine. We have brought many priests here. They are convinced about the authenticity of these apparitions, but like all of us, they take the position “wait and see.”
One time, my bishop wanted to talk to the president of the Franciscan University, Fr. Michael Scanlan who came here even before me, because many other bishops were asking him: “How can you let the University take all these trips?” I went to talk to our bishop. He asked me many, many questions. He asked me: “Isabel, what are you going to do if the Church says “NO” to Medjugorje?” I said: If the Church says “NO” to Medjugorje, we will not take another trip to Medjugorje, we will not publish anything about Medjugorje, we will not sell any books (I was publishing Fr. Slavko’s books at that time). We will obey the Church. But no matter what the Church says, nothing can change what I have experienced in Medjugorje. I have experienced first of all a personal conversion, a deeper love for Our Lady and the Lord. I have taken people there who have been away from the Church. They did not even know why they were coming. They just knew they had to come. And while they were in Medjugorje, they made a good confession; they came back to the Church. And they are still in the Church. I have seen marriages restored. I have seen families that were not speaking – brother to brother, and so on – reconciling with each other and coming back together as a family. I have seen personal conversions here. I have seen a lot of spiritual healing.
According to you, what is the worst illness of our time?
I would say, a false sense of security. Our security is in the material things around us and not in the Lord.
What do you think about the fact that Our Lady has chosen this place, this country, this Franciscan order?
She always seems to pick a place difficult to get to! She seems to like children… She said that she found faith here… Franciscans love Our Lady and so it doesn’t surprise me when I find that they are present in places of the apparitions.
According to you, what are the criteria that confirm the authenticity of these apparitions?
I am not a theologian, but I would say consistency with the teaching of the Church, and with the message of Fatima and Lourdes, approved apparition sites. The visionaries themselves, their own lives. As far as the lives of the people who have come here, God honors the faith of the individual. He will honor that faith, even if the apparitions were not authentic.
Do the visionaries have to be perfect? Without fault?
No, they are like the rest of us, subject to the original sin. They all have failings. If we look at the saints, they were saying: “I am the worst of all sinners!” They had failings, and yet, grace operates in everybody.
Our bishop does not believe in these apparitions. The Franciscans are however doing everything to be obedient to all that he is asking from them in the administration of this parish. How do you see this situation?
Obedience is the key. For me, the most important thing is to obey the Church. I see this situation as a part of the purification. As long as the Franciscans are as obedient as they can be, God is going to bless them. If they are not obedient, there will not be blessings. It is a very big challenge; it has been a challenge from the very beginning, even with the former bishop. But I have to say this: I never have heard the people of Medjugorje criticizing their bishop. When I ask them about him, they say: “He is our bishop, we pray for him.” That is all. They respect the fact that he is their bishop. To me, that is very important.
Your desires and propositions?
When the weather permits it, the Mass more often outside. Also, sometimes it is difficult to find a priest for confession… Each place has a special grace. The special grace of Medjugorje is a good confession. It brings peace.