National Geographic magazine's cover story reveals Mary's appeal

IMAGE: CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

By Carol Zimmermann

(CNS) — Maureen Orth, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair magazine who has
written about music icons, world leaders and Hollywood celebrities, tackled
a completely different subject for National Geographic magazine: the Virgin

For the magazine’s December
cover story, “Mary the most powerful woman in the world,” Orth
visited several countries and interviewed dozens of people with strong devotional
ties to the Mary — including from those who claim to have seen her, those who
believe her intercession has healed them and those seeking her spiritual
guidance and intercession.

In the magazine’s Washington
office Nov. 24, Orth, widow of Tim Russert, moderator of NBC’s “Meet the
Press,” who died in 2008, said what made the biggest impression on her while
interviewing people for the article was Mary’s universal appeal across diverse

“It was a huge journey all
over the world,” she said, noting that what particularly stands out after a
year of visiting Marian devotional sites in Bosnia-Herzegovina, France, Mexico,
Egypt and Rwanda is that Mary is the “hope and solace of so many people
including Muslims.”

The Muslim appreciation of Mary,
as a “holy woman of God,” she told Catholic News Service, “is a bridge that ought to
be explored,” especially in this time of strife caused by religious

Orth, a practicing Catholic, who
certainly knew about Mary before this assignment, said she learned a great deal
from talking with scholarly experts and reading mystics who wrote about the
life of Mary but whose observations didn’t make it into the article.

She came away with a “more
personal relationship” with Mary than an intellectual one, saying she
understood Mary more as a person after talking with so many who are devoted to

She also witnessed the deep
faith of many who have traveled great distances to be where apparitions of Mary
are said to have taken place such as Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina, where six
village children said they first saw Mary in 1981 and continue to see apparitions
there. A Vatican doctrinal congregation is still studying these claims.

In the small village, Orth met four
stage-4 cancer victims last November: Two have since died, one is under
treatment and another shows no signs of the disease. All four spoke of spiritual
conversions and inner peace, she said.

A 59-year-old hockey dad from
Boston told Orth that in 2000 one of the Medjugorje visionaries prayed with him
for a cure of the cancer that riddled his body, giving him only months
left to live. During the prayer, he felt a sensation of heat in his body. When
he went back to Boston a week later, a CT scan at Massachusetts General
Hospital revealed that his tumors were almost gone.

Since then, he’s been back to Medjugorje
13 times.

The editors at National
Geographic wrote in the margin by Orth’s account of his story: “Why do
miracles happen to some people and not others?” Orth, who doesn’t have an
answer to that theological query, noted the challenge of explaining spiritual accounts
in a scientific magazine.

One of Orth’s most inspiring
stops for the story, primarily because she had not been unaware of it, was the
small village of Kibeho, Rwanda, described as the place where Mary appeared to three
young girls in the 1980s and foretold the genocide that took place in that
country in 1994.

In 2001, that Vatican verified
the claims of the three girls. One had been killed in the genocide, one became
a monastic sister in Italy and the third fled to the Democratic Republic of the
Congo and then Kenya during the three-month onslaught when the majority Hutu
attacked the minority Tutsi and more than 800,000 people were killed.

The girls, Orth writes, “said
they spent countless hours in conversations with the Virgin, who called herself
Nyina wa Jambo, Mother of the Word. Mary spoke to the girls so often that they
called her Mama.”

But even though Mary is said to
have spoken of the love of Jesus and gave these girls motherly advice, she is
also said to have shown them images of heaven, hell and purgatory along with
horrific images of genocide that she warned could happen if Rwandans did not
renew their hearts and dispel evil.

Orth said that the people she
spoke with who said they saw apparitions all seemed genuine. She approached
them as she would an investigative journalist. Their stories have been
consistent throughout the years and they also have undergone extensive
questioning from Vatican officials.

Orth pointed out that very
little is known about Mary from the Bible, but as her story reveals, the lack
of details about Mary has not stopped people from reaching out to her in prayer
and devotion as a way to better understand and approach God.

“The number of people who use
her as their guide and their way to a higher meaning, that was impressive across
the board,” Orth said.

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.

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