Famous for its sweet pears and as the filming site for dramas like Jumong and Goblin, the South Korean city of Naju is about three to four hours southwest of Seoul.
But for the faithful, Naju offers another attraction of note: a modern-day Marian apparition site.
This refers to the Blessed Virgin Mary appearing to a visionary or group of visionaries in order to deliver a timely message that reinforces certain aspects of the Catholic Church’s beliefs and teachings. The most famous ones are probably that of Our Lady of Lourdes (France) in 1858 and Our Lady of Fatima (Portugal) in 1917, which inspire devotions worldwide, causing millions to flock in pilgrimage to these sites every year.
More on the politics of faith:
It is to Naju that Bro. Jun Banaag, OP, led our group of 52 Filipino pilgrims to last month. As our pilgrimage’s spiritual director, he was tasked with guiding us through the experience, especially since the apparitions here had not yet been officially confirmed by the Vatican.
As the story goes, Our Lady of Naju chose to reveal herself to Julia Kim, a middle-aged mother of four. She, together with her husband Julio, converted to Catholicism when she was miraculously cured from terminal cancer earlier in her life. Kim subscribed to the belief that her sufferings were blessings from God and offered her new lease on life to Him.
Upon her baptism, she was gifted a statue of the Blessed Mother. In 1985, it was this same statue that started weeping tears of blood and emitting a distinct floral fragrance. It was shortly after these phenomena that Kim claims the Blessed Mother started imparting her messages of love to her, and she embarked on her mission to share these with others. These messages centered around the importance of prayer (especially the rosary), sacrifice, peace and love through forgiveness and reconciliation, respect for all human life, and support for the clergy through ceaseless prayer.
Kim and her congregation, Mary’s Ark of Salvation, call their chapel in Naju as Blessed Mother’s House. About 8 kilometers away is the prayer mountain where Kim says Mary appeared to her in a vision in 1992. She was pointed to this site, where she found a spring that is said to contain healing water. Kim then led the development of the mountain, which now includes a Way of the Cross, which allow for meditation on Christ’s ultimate sacrifice. There is also an access to the healing spring, which they refer to as the Naju Water of Graces.
Over the years, there has been a lot of documentation regarding miraculous events that had happened at these two sites. Many of these events involved Kim. Anything from stigmata to Eucharistic miracles (Holy Communion turning to flesh in her mouth) were witnessed by many pilgrims and clergy from all over the world. On more than one occasion, Prayer Mountain had been rained on by what is claimed to be the “Lord’s Precious Blood” and mother’s milk, the evidence of which Naju devotees have exerted much effort to preserve.
And then there are the healing miracles. Similar to Lourdes, there have been many reports of pilgrims experiencing healing of various sicknesses after visiting Naju and drinking the Water of Grace. From minor illnesses to the dead being brought back to life, there are many testimonies that seem to affirm that faith can indeed overcome anything.
Closer to home, our pilgrimage organizer, Pepito Reyes, had himself experienced a miracle from Our Lady of Naju in November 2014. As a diabetic, Reyes’s disease had progressed to a point where his leg had to be operated on to prevent amputation. While his doctor was able to save the leg, by the time he visited Naju, he had been in a wheelchair, and, for about six months, could only walk with great difficulty using a cane. Kim prayed with Reyes and kissed his leg and told him that by the time they saw each other for Mass the next day, he would be walking.
During Mass the next day, he remembers kneeling down at one point and, as he tried to get up, realized frantically that he could not find his cane. “Nakatayo naman ako, at nalaman namin na di pala nawawala yung cane. Naiwan ko siya sa bus! Di ko namalayan na nakalakad na pala ako mula sa bus hanggang sa chapel na walang tulong!” he recounts. “This is why I am very emotional when it comes to Naju. I was healed here, through Julia, by the Blessed Virgin of Naju.”
As if this testimony was not enough, our pilgrimage group experienced other miracles during our visit to Prayer Mountain. Banaag and a handful of pilgrims saw a dancing sun in the sky after we finished the Stations of the Cross. Among these pilgrims was Dr. Edwin Bernabe, whose heart was full not just because of the dancing sun, but because he saw it.
Bernabe first came to Naju in 2015, and at the time, he was diagnosed with kidney failure. But he still believed that he had a purpose, and, after getting a donor, had a transplant on Easter Sunday of 2017. “So when the Lord resurrected on Easter Sunday, I was also given a second life. Along with the disease, I had a rupture of retinal blood vessels in my right eye, a retinal hemorrhage, so I could only see out of my left eye,” he remembers. On this recent trip, he went to have his face washed in the water of Prayer Mountain. He would pray for healing, and stopped at each Station of the Cross, removing his glasses. “When we reached the end, I saw the dancing sun in the sky and it was beautiful. When we returned to the bus, I noticed that I could see the shadow of my fingers… and now I can see my sister’s face and my mother,” he says. “But I believe I don’t deserve this, yet He gave this to me. And I would like to thank the Lord and His Mother.”
With all these signs, why has Our Lady of Naju not been confirmed by the church?
To date, amid a multitude of claims throughout the world, the Vatican has canonically approved only 12 Marian apparition sites, predominantly in Europe. The devout know that such canonical approval does not come lightly. Investigations to confirm the supernatural nature of miracles can take decades or even centuries. “One instance where the Holy Eucharist turned into flesh in Julia’s mouth actually happened in Rome when Pope John Paul II administered communion to her during Mass. The church has many doctrines and the statements, actions and evidence of the events should in no way contradict any of these doctrines. That’s why you can be very sure with the Church. Before it makes a pronouncement, it has gone through very intense investigation,” says Banaag.
Like many things that we don’t understand or can’t substantiate factually, the circumstances surrounding Kim and her small congregation has been the subject of much debate. A cursory search of information about the Naju apparitions and Kim will yield, in equal measures, fervent supporters and passionate debunkers. In fact, Kim and her flock have actually been excommunicated by the Bishop of Gwangju, even as their claim continues to be investigated by Rome.
“There are rules. Where there is a possibility of the supernatural, the church will get involved to determine whether it is or not,” Banaag says. While such an investigation is going on, it will advise the specific flock to stop all liturgical activities and practices so as not to confuse its people. In this case, the Bishop of Gwangju ordered them to stop because she is within the jurisdiction of the diocese. “Rome will not tell her directly and it has not issued direct excommunication orders against Julia,” he continues. “Because their group refused to follow, the Bishop excommunicated them.”
Don’t stop believing
While supernatural events can strengthen the faith of people, Banaag says that the church is careful to point that it is the “fruit that is important.” You should not go to Naju because of these supernatural events or Kim, and you should not believe that was is happening is because of her. “You don’t worship or adore Julia but you take a lesson from the events that are happening. You go there to reflect, to deepen your faith. The stations of the cross on Prayer Mountain is a liturgical activity to help you reflect on the passion and suffering of Christ,” he says.
Browsing through the testimony videos, I was surprised to discover that I knew yet another Naju devotee. Our Lady of Naju had also touched the life of Mae Rizada, a friend whom I had met through a business venture some years ago. She had an incurable disease called polycystic ovarian syndrome that prevented her from conceiving. Rizada first went to Naju in 2014 and went home completely cured. Still, the path to having her much longed-for baby was not easy, and it was only last year, after four miscarriages, that she was finally able to hold her child Rafa in her arms. “The miracles I saw in Naju are never ending. It’s very close to my heart. Even strangers nahe-heal sa rosary! Or just by praying for them,” she says.
On the matter of the excommunication and rift with the local bishop, Rizada says that they don’t feel bothered by it, and thinks that the church is just careful that people start worshipping Kim. “What we experience there is what we believe in.” Pepito Reyes agrees and says that he can’t be bothered by the politics. “My faith is in Mama Mary and Jesus,” he says, emphasizing that he can’t discredit the healing he received and that his relationship with God is stronger.
Reflecting further on his experience, Bernabe says that as a doctor he feels cynical about what happened to him, or if the improvement has been there all along. He even doubted the sun phenomenon. But just like Thomas, he eventually believed, and thinks, on hindsight it was a message for him “that my vision can be fully regained with further treatment, that I have to see my doctor, living angels, to complete my healing. But deep down in my heart and mind, something good happened to me in that moment,” he says.