Money, Trials and Misogyny: The Strange Community Favored by Our Lady of Medjugorje
by Marco Corvaglia
Who is the Medjugorje Madonna Promoting?
Almost every year since 1988, usually in the first week of July, the Medjugorje "visionary" Marija Pavlović Lunetti goes to a U.S. community called Caritas, that is entirely devoted to the worship of the Madonna of Medjugorje. Caritas is owned by Mr. Terry Colafrancesco, and it is headquartered in Birmingham, in the state of Alabama.
It is worth noting that before the outbreak of the Covid pandemic Marija had stopped going there only between 2015 and 2018 when it seemed that the Vatican position on Medjugorje was hardening.
In this article we will consider the strange doctrines that, since its foundation, are taught in the Caritas community, the legal proceedings that involved it between 2001 and 2005, and the predilection that the Madonna of Medjugorje always showed for it.
As we shall see, this religious group has gained much publicity and visibility by hosting a total of 194 of Marija Pavlović's daily apparitions and by drawing thousands of pilgrims from all over the US.
In 2017 this (theoretically) "non-profit" organization reported income of 2.6 million (official data), mostly from devotees' donations ("contributions and grants").
Marija Pavlović's last stay in Alabama dates back to 19-28 October 2019. So, on that occasion, also the monthly message of the Madonna that Marija communicates on the 25th of each month was given from there.
However, when she is there, Marija gives every day short extraordinary messages intended specifically for the community, on whose website they are then published.
When she is there, Marija claims to see Our Lady appearing while standing over the bed of the Colafrancescos.
However, on “important occasions”, in particular in connection with Independence Day (July 4), national holiday in the United States, the Gospa (Our Lady of Medjugorje) makes an appointment with Marija near a pine tree in a huge field of 134 acres, owned by Mr. Colafrancesco.
In the official website of the community, one can read this 2 July 2013 communiqué (July 2 Update: Our Lady's Apparition For July 3, 'Same Time, Same Place...'):
In 2008 for the July 1-5 apparitions, Our Lady shocked everyone by choosing to appear in the Field for the July 3 vigil apparition for the feast of Independence Day. In 2009 and 2012, Our Lady again repeated Her apparition in the Field for the July 3rd vigil apparition. Our Lady's choice tonight broke from the pattern of the last years, and is a wonderful sign that She is indeed guiding and directing the events here.
For these "important occasions", Our Lady of Medjugorje honores the Colafrancesco’s community even with additional and unusual apparitions. Again in the official website, on 3 July 2013, one can read (July 3 Update: Our Lady to Appear Second Time Tonight 10:30 PM!):
During tonight's apparition which took place in the Bedroom of Apparitions, Our Lady told Marija that She would again appear in the Field at 10:30 P.M. for a second apparition today. Everyone was moved hearing about this incredible grace. This is a special grace and opportunity not only for those gathered at Caritas, but for those following from your homes, gather your family, friends, prayer group members, neighbors, everyone, to pray in unison with those in the Field at Caritas, Alabama for the vigil feast of the Birth of the United States.
On the occasion of the Marija's stay of March 2011, in the official website of the community we can read, inter alia:
Marija Arrives - Our Lady of Medjugorje Waits to Have Apparition
Medjugorje visionary, Marija Lunetti, arrived today at Caritas in the evening of March 18th. Normally, when Marija is traveling, Our Lady appears at the same time of Her apparitions in Medjugorje, around 6:40 p.m. However, today, the Caritas Community was given a beautiful grace in that Our Lady waited to appear to Marija until after she arrived, about 7 hours past the normal apparition time. [....]
The two sites of the Bedroom and Field of Apparitions, located at Caritas, have been graced by 156 apparitions of the Virgin Mary over the past 21 years.
In this report you can see a photo of Marija kneeling at the foot of the Colafrancesco's bed, during the apparition of 23 March 2011.
On this page you can see a summary of the stay of Marija in July 2009, with pictures depicting the bed of the apparitions.
On 26 March 2001, the Birmingham Post-Herald published an article ("Faith or Folly?") written by Sara Foss, where one can read:
Accusations of brainwashing and money laundering plague an area religious group as some unhappy members leave. Terry Colafrancesco started Caritas in Shelby County in 1987 to promote the experience of Medjugorje, the Eastern European village where six youngsters reported seeing the Virgin Mary.
Today, Caritas has grown into a multimillion-dollar enterprise, complete with families who live there year-round, a travel agency that offers trips to Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, a publishing arm and even a farm. [....] Terry has always had the philosophy that he doesn't respond to people who say bad things about him, said Birmingham attorney Joseph Ritchey, who does legal work for Caritas. In his mind, if he were to respond to criticism [...] he's giving credibility to anything they have to complain about. [....] I don't think there's anything terrible going on out there. If I did, I wouldn't represent them. [....]
Former residents aren't the only people expressing concern about Caritas. The Franciscan priests who live in Medjugorje and minister to religious pilgrims also have voiced concerns about Caritas. In an August letter, Rev. Kraljevic Svetozar wrote: Here in Medjugorje, in the name of the priests who are working in the parish with pilgrims who are coming from all over the world, I express my deep concern for the organization called Caritas from Birmingham, Alabama. It appears that the organization does not follow good practice of Church discipline as well as the discipline of its members in regard to their ways in which they are organized within. We are afraid that there might be elements of a lack of respect for family relationships, mutual respect, respect for the church authority, respect for the families where the members came from, respect for property of family members who are there now and those who were there and left the community.
On March 28, 2001 an Associated Press release was spread, in which, among other things, is written:
Ex-residents including one-time Colafrancesco lieutenant Pat Flynn accuse Colafrancesco of personally profiting from their donations and overworking both adults and children who live at the site.
On 13 December 2001, move also the newspaper Montgomery Advertiser in an article ("Religious group faces lawsuit labeling it a cult") written by Jay Reeeves, also talks about the lawsuit filed against Mr. Colafrancesco by former guests of his community:
The suit claims Caritas has assets of about $5.9 million gained both through legitimate donations, pressure tactics and shady business deals. [....] It's just bitterness, Colafrancesco said Tuesday, declining to respond to specific allegations. [....]
The suit was filed Friday, just days before the arrival at Caritas of Marija Pavlovic Lunetti, who has reported having visions of Christ's mother for about two decades.
On 28 December 2004, the Birmingham News reports in an article ("Mediation ordered in Caritas lawsuit") by Nancy Wilstach:
The lawsuit, brought by former residents and parents of residents, accuses Caritas of fraud, misrepresentation, undue influence, intentional infliction of emotional distress and false imprisonment. It claims Colafrancesco entices devout Catholics to Caritas and then drains their assets.
The community began after a woman from Bosnia-Herzegovina, Marija Pavlovic Lunetti, traveled to Sterrett in 1988 and reported visitations from the Virgin Mary in Colafrancesco's pasture similar to those she reported experiencing for two decades in her Eastern European home. She has returned periodically over the last 17 years and reported more visions. Her last visit, in May, drew thousands of people from across the country.
Colafrancesco became spiritual leader of the Caritas Community, and donations started to flow to the community from around the world.
On 8 March 2005, the Birmingham Post-Herald publishes an article ("Mediation may end dispute at Caritas") by Daniel Jackson, in which updates on the progress of the process are provided:
Parties in the case will begin court-ordered mediation on March 30. [....] The mediation proceedings are closed to the public. [....]
About 30 longtime residents, including Flynn, left Caritas in 1999 and 2000, complaining of grueling work, inadequate schooling for children, money laundering, and misuse of donations and brainwashing by Colafrancesco.
Suzette Malveaux, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law, said many cases are settled confidentially without a public airing of the complaints. [...] If Colafranceso settles with the plaintiffs in mediation, the public may never learn all of the details in the complaints against him.
On 7 April 2005, an Associated Press release states:
A confidential settlement has been reached in a lawsuit against the Caritas religious group by former members who claimed they were brainwashed and drained of assets.
The settlement, mediated by Birmingham lawyer Arthur Hanes Jr., also settled similar suits involving Caritas in federal and state courts in California and Florida.
Terry Colafrancesco of Shelby County, near Birmingham, founded Caritas as a resident organization after a 1988 visit from an Eastern European woman who reported visitations from the Virgin Mary in Colafrancesco's cow pasture. [....]
Marija Pavlovic Lunetti has returned periodically over the last 17 years and reported more visions. Her last visit, in May, drew thousands of people from across the country, and donations flow to Caritas from around the world. Lunetti is scheduled to return to Caritas in August. [....]
Caritas' lawyer, Daniel Burnick, told The Birmingham News for a story Thursday that "all litigation between the parties has been resolved to the satisfaction of all parties involved. The terms and conditions of the resolution are to be kept confidential, as agreed on by all parties".
Misogyny as a Religious Teaching
The founder and owner of the community, Terry Colafrancesco, published in the mid-nineties, under his usual pseudonym of A Friend of Medjugorje, the book How to Change Your Husband [Caritas, Sterrett (AL), 1996], printed by the community itself and now also downloadable from its official website.
Reading the book one is astonished by the male chauvinism, sometimes grotesque, that characterizes it: for example, he writes that the devil, in order to hide to people the potentially destructive nature of women, got persons to quit the right habit of giving female names to hurricanes that each year lash the shores of the Atlantic.
Actually, this isn’t simply absurd male chauvinism, but rather adhesion to well-known religious ideologies.
Among the morals most often cited in the book are those of Elizabeth Rice Handford, wife of Baptist pastor Walt Handford, and authoress of the book Me? Obey Him? The Obedient Wife and God's Way Of Happiness and Blessing In the Home.
Therefore, not surprisingly, the doctrines set out in the book printed by the Caritas community (based on an extremist interpretation of the Bible) are typical of Protestant fundamentalism. And i t is worth noting that these are central doctrines of the community at issue.
In the following quote from the book at issue, the reason is explained why most of the Marija’s apparitions, when the seer is a guest of the community, take place in the bedroom of the owners (more precisely, Our Lady allegedly appears standing on the Colafrancescos’ bed, on which, for the occasion, several votive objects are placed):
Roots of the family are to spring forth from it. The most sacred place in the home is the bed of the husband and the wife [....]
In 1988, when Marija first came to America [...] in Medjugorje the visionaries knelt before a crucifix hundreds of times to receive Our Lady. [....] When the apparition room was moved, Fr. Slavko gave this crucifix to the friend whom Marija later would be staying with in America [Colafrancesco here is talking about himself in third person]. [....]
When Marija first arrived [...] [she] went into the bedroom, saw the bed and the crucifix over it, and with a strong clear discernment decisively said this is where the apparitions would take place [....] The first apparition took place over the bed. It was clear that it was what Our Lady wanted. From over this bed, this rooted stump, a whole mission sprang forth, a whole community.
[A Friend of Medjugorje (Terry Colafrancesco), How To Change Your Husband, Caritas, Starrett (AL), 1996, pp. 115 and 117-119]
Let's see what the principles are on which this community is based, citing various passages of the book:
In truth, the subject of submission [of wives] has been largely ignored by a large number of priests, counselors, directors, and others for quite some time. [....]
In any topic of conversation when you hear discussed, Wives submit to your husbands, the response is Yes, but husbands love your wives. This, in turn, leads to a discussion of only this aspect – love your wife – and it usually dominates the conversation, homily, text, etc. [...] There exists a clear imbalance in the attention given this subject; therefore, what is rarely mentioned will be given the primary attention in what follows. It is the most important spiritual direction Caritas of Birmingham has ever printed, because if it is followed, it will work, since it is based on solid Scripture, backed with Our Lady’s messages and the lives of the saints [bold type and underlines are in the original].
[Ibid., pp. 18-19]
Narrow-mindedness has mislead many, even Christian women, to believe that subjection to male authority leads to the degradation of women, turning them into second-class citizens, when, in fact, it is a lie.
[Ibid., p. 22]
A husband is under the direction of God the Father in “aspects” as to the decisions of what is best for his wife and family. His wife is under his direction.
[Ibid., p. 149]
The father’s right to guide, if contradicted, will most definitely lead to a deterioration of family order. He directs the wife and children. It doesn’t mean a wife cannot have a spiritual director, but if his direction (the spiritual director) goes against the husband about issues then she is to drop the spiritual director.
[Ibid., p. 160]
Fatherhood and its right to rule cannot be compromised. The father’s right is so supreme that even the Pope does not have the right to usurp it (except in sin), nor will Christ Himself contradict him. [….]
A wife may think: “But I’m right about a certain issue!” It is very important to note that obedience is more important than being right [bold type is in the original].
[Ibid., p. 167]
Ok, if obedience is more important than being right, what if a husband wants to take their life’s savings to invest and the wife’s wisdom tells her it will be a mistake and she knows she is right? She must be obedient, even if because of his decision they lose their home, cars, everything. The family order will still be intact. That is far better fruit than rebellion against the husband bringing rebellion into the family, thereby killing it in the war that could result. What good will the house be, the cars, etc.?
[Ibid., p. 171]
Apart from the obvious absurdity, that doesn’t need to be highlighted, this kind of "teaching" is especially dangerous in a country like the U.S., where, as everyone knows, there are many para-religious communities that seek to persuade their followers to give them all their possessions.
In the second part of the book (entitled "Unmasking Satan’s Plans”), is reported the quotation of an interview released by the Baptist pastor H. B. London, who states:
Where we are going is to be a family-driven society in many ways, where the influence on the children is going to be almost completely a female influence.
[Ibid., p. 252]
This process of feminization exists and is a clear departure from the Scriptures.
[Ibid., p. 253]
And then he concludes as follows:
The naming of hurricanes using women’s names solely, which had been done for decades, stopped. The reason put forth was a “fairness” which equates that everything must be equal between men and women, even though God did not make it that way, either physically or emotionally. Yet in this case the truth is very simple. Statements such as 'Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned', even though they speak truth, are labeled as 'no-nos'.
Satan wants to hide these reminders and he tricks us in many ways. He plays on our sensitivity for fairness, our language, our sayings, our directions, which easily causes us to place ourselves in his hands. We do not reflect on why we are changing the gender name of hurricanes. Why were they named only after women to start with? Was it because there were elements of truth that all of society knew and accepted of how a rebellious woman’s disposition compared to a hurricane? Our changing it insinuates that those who began calling hurricanes women’s names were wrong, that there was no true reason for naming hurricanes as such. The purpose in originally naming hurricanes was [underline is in the original] because of the truth that what a rebellious woman is like is comparable to a hurricane.
[Ibid., pp. 278-279]
This is the community that has been endorsed, publicised and benefited from Marija Pavlović's alleged apparitions over 30 years - indirectly generating millions of dollars from the contributions of the US devotees.
Thanks to Diane Korzeniewski, Michigan (United States), for sending me this photo: it is a billboard of the Caritas community, with details of the website and of the phone number.
What is strange is that the community, although takes advantage from these advertisings, gets to pay them to the devotees of Our Lady of Medjugorje all over the United States. Caritas of Birmingham, in fact, in the page of its website dedicated to this campaign (which is taking place "since the early 90's") claims that "this will bring many new souls to Our Lady" and "by taking an active role for only $100.00 (plus $25 shipping of the billboard) per billboard, your impact in your home state can be very effective on souls."
The faithful receive a billboard 10' X 22' and, applying to advertising companies affiliated with the community, can post it for at least a month.
Here, an article from the newspaper Denver Post of October 24, 2010 (signed by Electa Draper), which spaks of "Nine Catholic mothers in their late 20s to mid-40s, who meet monthly to pray the rosary, helped raise $1,000 to put up two billboards in the Denver area."
Caritas of Birmingham has also a representative office at Medjugorje. A reader sent me these photos that he himself took in 2005 near the office at issue:
Article published on 24 June 2009. Last update: 7 January 2022
Copyright © Marco Corvaglia. All rights reserved