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Amid a cemetery's peace, a show of undying faith.

The Blessed Mother has come to Hillside, Ill., and won't go away. I arrived at Queen of Heaven Cemetery a skeptic and returned a skeptic, but something happened while I was there. My faith got a booster shot, not from the 15-foot cross where Mary has been seen standing almost daily since July 1991, but from the faith of the people I met there.

I'll never be the same.

Queen of Heaven and Mount Carmel cemeteries are joined at the hip by a wide road. Thousands of Chicago-area Catholics are stretched out there, waiting for God. Cemeteries have ethnic and economic neighborhoods, too. Those who lived in mansions while their brain waves waved now rest in stone mausoleums that measure their affluence while on earth.

Not much is working well in the church today, but the cemetery business is good. It remains, in Oscar Wilde's words, "a great church to die in." A lot of faith is buried there. It is a good spot for an apparition.

In August 1990, an immigrant electrician named Joe Reinholtz claimed to have been visited by the Virgin Mary in the veterans' section of the cemetery, where a large polyester-resin crucifix stood among three trees. Initially, Joe told only a few friends who came with him regularly. By July of the following year, however, the word was out, and visitors began to come - some by the bus-load.

Jean and I drove there on a dreary Saturday afternoon after Christmas. The cemetery was covered with thousands of plastic Christmas wreaths. The crucifix had been moved to the far southeast corner because the original location had been overrun by visitors. Now it stands in the center of an asphalt circle, looking oddly like a basketball backboard on a parish parking lot.

Perhaps 50 people came during our time there. The cemetery has installed a parking lot. (One visitor said that Mary had cost the Chicago church about $300,000.) There was no evidence of any commercialism.

It was a quiet place. Chicago Tribune columnist Eugene Kennedy observed: "These men and women do not come to these shrines to find faith there. They bring faith with them in a peaceful and composed way. They come not so much to look upward at something wonderful but rather to gaze inward at everything that is commonplace in their lives."

Two men with union jackets stood at the edge of the circle. "We came to see our brother," one said. "He's over there in the veterans' section. We put him down last year." Asked why they walked to the crucifix, they answered simply: "Why not? There could be something here."

Another man said quietly: "I was born a Catholic but I'm nothing now. I'm here because she likes to come." He jerked his thumb toward the crucifix where his wife was placing a small, white plant. When she returned to his side, she whispered: "He's an atheist. I do everything I can. I even pushed him up to communion not long ago, but he just put it in his pocket."

Watching him limp toward their car, she whispered, "He's got a heart of gold. His leg is falling apart. I come here to pray for him."

A big man in a peaked cap was saying his rosary. He wore black pants. I thought he was a priest but learned that not many priests come. They may be intimidated by the sign that reads: "At this point the archdiocese has no evidence that an unusual or supernatural phenomenon is taking place at the cemetery."

The man with the black pants said, "I live only eight minutes from here. I come every day. I had two sons. One died at 40 of a heart attack, and last year the other one shot himself. He was only 43. He had a wife and kids and loads of money. I learned later that he had cancer. Couldn't face it. I began coming here. Not long after, while I was in bed, I heard my son just as clear as if I was listening to him on the phone. He said, |Dad, I'm fine. Don't worry. I'm at peace.' So, I come here every day. I'm paying back. I've never seen anything, but others have."

Jean spoke with a well-dressed Polish immigrant whose crystal beads glistened in the few minutes of sun. He pointed to the cross's original base, now on the periphery of the circle, which had been moved with the crucifix. "Those stains are the blood of Christ which dripped from the crucifix," he said with mountain-moving faith. "The Blessed Mother has been seen 260 times throughout the United States. I come two days a week. I've got to work the other days."

A thin man was on his knees at the base of the cross. He was tidying up the flowers and attaching an icon of Our lady of Guadalupe to the base. "I come here often," he said. "I was here at 3 a.m. this morning"

(The cemetery personnel keeps an arm's-length distance. They only want to ensure the smooth operation of the cemetery, especially on Sundays, when some 500 people arrive to pray with Joe Reinholtz, who has obeyed the advice he received not to talk with the media.)

Perhaps the most touching sight was that of a fat man trying to reach the feet of the corpus, now white because the patina has been worn away by the fingers of the faithful. He strained to reach because he was trying to hold his wife's hand while she sat in her wheelchair. He had lugged the girl he once danced with and let his belly fall over his belt for all to see in the hope that the woman he loved would find the strength to walk again.

I sought out Patricia Hackett, a close friend of Joe Reinholtz. She is president of the Ambassadors of Mary, a priest-founded lay organization begun in 1946 to "spread the reign of Jesus through Mary." The storefront on West Diversey contained more than 30 images of Mary on its narrow walls. Prominent among them was a statue of Our Lady of Fatima, a special devotion for the Ambassadors.

Questioning someone with faith that never blinks is a speedy process. I tried a few curve balls, such as "Did you see Mary as the co-redemptrix?" and "Are you prepared to believe that Mary is equally present in the Eucharist?" Her answer: "If the Holy Father said so, I would believe. He's infallible on questions like that." Amen.

Pat is a retired telephone company worker and an eight-time pilgrim to Medjugorje. We talked for four hours while the rosary-makers assembled one rosary every 25 minutes. At noon, they stopped for the Angelus. "I just believe," Pat said, "and I've never been more at peace."

She visits the cemetery each morning, often watching as her friend Joe carries on his conversation with Mary at the foot of the cross.

At the cemetery, one woman had shot a roll of film while her smiling son embraced the cross. She will most likely find an image - something my cynical mind will see as a light leak or bent sun ray. For Pat Hackett, though, it was simple. "Children often see Mary there," she said. "He was smiling because he saw Mary."

After talking to the pilgrims at the cemetery, I discovered they weren't looking for much: a job, relief from pain, consolation from grief, the strength to give up the bottle. In Kennedy's words, they "find a height from which they can look homeward."

"I don't know about all the sightings," Pat said, "but I believe the ones in Conyers, Ga., and Golden, Colo., and Scottsdale, Ariz. The evidence is so similar. Jesus is clearly sending Mary with a message. He's sending her to bring us to our knees."

The experience conjures up memories of Karl Rahner sitting on the stage at a commencement at which he received an honorary degree. While the rhetoric droned on, Rahner fingered his beads. It reminds one of John Tracy Ellis, the father of American Catholic church history, telling his good finished Monsignor George Higgins, "Don't bring me any more books, George. I'm finished reading." Ellis prayed his beads while waiting for God.

There is another story, about Swiss theologian Karl Barth, a leading thinker of 20th-century Protestantism, who had produced nearly 80 books on the theology of the Word. Asked to sum it all up, Barth replied: "Jesus loves me; this I know, because the Bible tells me so."

I still can't swallow the notion of Marys going to Jesus and saying: "Son, Fred is a lush. Cross him off the list." Rahner has written that we ought to abandon such primitive, perverted notions. "Let us leave aside all images," he said, "and simply say that, since every human being is of significance for every other human being, a Christian can prayerfully realize the continuing fundamental significance of the Blessed Virgin Mary when he says, |Pray for me.'"

Out at Hillside - or perhaps in your living room or car - a Hail Mary may be more significant than all the theological talk about it.
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Author:Unsworth, Tim
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Jan 29, 1993
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