Sometimes something so amazing happens that it defies explanation. I have always felt called to share the remarkable story of this waterfall photo from Medjugorje, but the time was never right. Now it is.
The Photo Itself
Before I tell the story, it is probably best to begin by looking at the photo in a quick 3-slide progression. The first slide is the original 1991 image completely untouched. The second two are images of the Blessed Mother that – more than 25 years later – can now be overlaid to better reveal the same image in the original.
(NOTE: This displays MUCH better on a larger screen. Trust me: it’s worth the effort to pull it up in a larger format)
This picture literally helped save my faith when I was a young man.
Today, nobody in my family knows exactly where the original negative is. (Speculation: probably in a drawer somewhere at my parents’ house!) In a digital world, preserving a crisp electronic copy would not be a problem. But this photo was taken more than 25 years ago with old fashioned film. Making copies of copies has lead to a more blurry image, but it still remains clear enough for almost everyone to see.
Context and Background of My Family and the Apparitions at Medjugorje
In the late 1980s and early ’90s, while I was studying at the University of Notre Dame, my Dad and Mom went on a series of pilgrimages to Medjugorje (in then Yugoslavia), a holy place where the Blessed Mother of Jesus was reportedly appearing to some young people with a message of conversion, peace, prayer, fasting, reading the bible, and the frequent reception of the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist.
These pilgrimages had a profound positive effect on both of them and most everyone else in our large Catholic family. Since most people who read this story will not know me or my family personally, it’ll be helpful to know a little bit about us for context.
Mom and Dad had 12 children of their own, then lost #13 during pregnancy. So how did they respond? They went and signed up to provide foster care whenever Catholic Charities needed to place a newborn for a month or two. After about a dozen such placements, one of these babies remained with our family for two years while a court decided his fate. When the court ruled that the little boy could be adopted, Mom and Dad defied convention and adopted him themselves. This was an unpopular move with some people because my new sibling in our 100% Polish family was black. There is no sense in naming names and rehashing unpleasant details. Let’s just say that this did not go over very well with everyone. But Mom and Dad never flinched. At least they never flinched in front of us. That is how this adorable little boy, Johnny, became my 12th sibling.
He was brought into a family home brimming with love and faith and goodness. It was often chaotic, but mostly controlled chaos. Mom was always busy taking care of the kids and the house. If she ever got involved in anything else, it was usually the Right to Life movement and perhaps lending a hand to a neighbor in need. Dad was active in the Knights of Columbus and served on school boards and parish or diocesan councils. We often prayed the family rosary during Lent, but the rosary really became a primary focus of our family after Mom and Dad started visiting Medjugorje. That’s when the tenor of the house became dramatically more faith filled. Instead of just during Lent, we began to pray it together every night.
I have to admit that I didn’t always enjoy their commitment to pray the family rosary.
Regardless of it’s inconvenience, Mom and Dad stood firm. If we had friends over to the house they had two choices: either join us or wait for us in another room. This made us kids feel awkward, but it also taught us a lesson about priorities and commitment. Praying those family rosaries together blessed us in a way that is hard to overstate. All of this took our family’s spiritual life to a deeper level.
In January of 1991, Dad took my sister Lisa and some of her friends on this pilgrimage. While the group was elsewhere, Dad went with a local guy named Mario to a nearby waterfall to go fishing. Although they didn’t catch anything, it was a serene and comforting setting that brought my Dad peace. When it was time to leave, Dad stood on a tree that had fallen into the river and took one picture to capture the moment – and that was that.
Three months later back home, Lisa was alone in her bedroom looking through the stack of photos when she noticed something stunning. In subsequent days her discovery set off an impressive series of incidents where a person would look at the photo and immediately feel called to renew his or her faith.
What everyone saw still impresses me to this day. It is obviously an image formed simply by the water. But how? How could water “know” to form an image of Our Lady at the precise moment that my dad took that photo? How could the water molecules just “happen” to form the same image of Our Lady that had brought so many pilgrims to that place?
Remember, this is 1991 in the days well before photo-shopping technology. Photos were taken on film, not digitally. As was the custom in those days, the film was dropped off at a local drug store to be developed and they came back in a large batch. It took a long time for people to come to the house to look at them.
As amazement spread, Dad made copies to give to people. Hundreds, if not thousands of people ended up scrutinizing it. As more and more people looked, they found some other images. For instance, a great many people see the image of an angel in the traditional pose of crowning the Blessed Mother as queen. (For my non-Catholic Christian friends who may raise an eyebrow here, here is a Catholic explanation of Mary’s queenship.) In the slide show below, I have interspersed the waterfall photo with some traditional depictions of angels crowning Mary, a relatively common theme in Catholic art.
It would be hard to exaggerate the effect that this photo has had on many many people both inside my own circle of family and friends and outside of it. My family has many stories which chronicle the ways this photo has touched people’s hearts and brought them to Christ.
Here’s just one small story to illustrate the effect. Back in the early ’90s, I was friends with two young men from Panama named Carlos and Ernesto who were living at Moreau Seminary and studying at Notre Dame. Their sponsor and mentor was Archbishop Marcos McGrath, CSC, the Archbishop of Panama and a Holy Cross priest. Although they were not seminarians, they lived in the seminary and participated in its community life. Carlos and Ernesto were periodic visitors to my parents’ house in Elkhart, Indiana. Both were impressed and touched by the photo. When Dad gave Ernesto a 5″x7″ copy, Ernesto asked if he could have another one to give to Archbishop McGrath. When Ernesto returned from Panama after his visit, he returned to see my dad. Much to my Dad’s surprise, he carried with him a request from the archbishop for a larger version of the photo!
Archbishop McGrath was so deeply touched by it that he wanted to frame and display it for his own private devotion!
A couple years later, when I hit a time of great darkness and skepticism in my own spiritual life, I can remember turning to this photograph many times thinking, “There is just no possible way that the water formed these images by coincidence. That would be just too absurd to believe!”
By this time, I had already studied logical proofs of the existence of God. I understood how scientific study of the created world made the probability of God highly likely. Yet despite the mountains of evidence I had already carefully evaluated and accepted, I was still somehow unsure whether God was a personal God who really knew and loved me.
Sadly, I had also encountered some snobby Catholics who condescendingly thought praying the rosary was silly. In the seminary, those of us who prayed it were sometimes questioned or ridiculed. As a young and naive person in this kind of atmosphere, I began to question this practice myself. I didn’t want to be simpleton. At the same time, I also began to question the very existence of a personal and intimate God.
This waterfall photo helped call me back to faith. Like an icon or religious piece of art, I turned to it over and over again in times of struggle and doubt. Through it, the Blessed Mother seemed to whisper into my soul, “My son is real. Do whatever He tells you!”
I didn’t hear this with my ears, but it was much more than a thought. I heard it! Whenever I doubted my own sanity, I would listen to other people’s stories about how much this photo had re-energized their own faith. These testimonies helped to strengthen mine. Eventually, I left the seminary and got married. My wife and I visited Medjugorje as part of our honeymoon in 1996.
Over the years, I have seen only good fruit come from the “tree” of Medjugorje. So many people have testified that the messages of Medjugorje have led to a renewed prayer life, a return to the Sacraments of the Church, and an attitude of service to others. These people share a more vibrant faith and especially a deepened devotion to the Holy Eucharist. It has impressed me deeply to this day.
Before I conclude, I’d like to point out one more image in the photo. Some among my family and friends have called it “the silent scream.” I think it looks very much like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Different people have different interpretations of it. I’m not going to offer one here, but take a look:
If you see the images in the water and it helps you, then great. If you do not see anything remarkable, then no problem. True faith is based on a lot more than an image in a photograph. It is not necessary to be impressed by this photo, but it has helped me more than I can adequately describe. Thank you, Blessed Mother, for this precious gift. Amen.
(Next up: Part 3 of 3: The most amazing image of all: Juan Diego’s Tilma of Our Lady of Guadalupe)