He was once a hedonistic musician. Today he is a Catholic evangelist. Charlie Brown hears Marino Restrepo’s amazing story
It’s not every day that you meet a man who says he has spoken with Our Lord and Our Lady, not to mention experiencing glimpses of hell, purgatory and heaven. Then again, it’s not every day that you meet a man who has endured six months of captivity in the jungle at the hands of vicious Colombian rebels. Even without any talk of beatific visions, the fact that Marino Restrepo survived his abduction is probably miraculous in itself.
I meet Marino just as he’s about to begin a week of testimonies at various churches throughout London. Since his mystical experience he has spent his time travelling around the world – at the last count 28 countries – giving testimonies concerning what happened during his kidnapping and promoting the work of his mission “Pilgrims of Love”.
“My home is just a suitcase,” he replies when I ask where it is he returns to after all this journeying. “I simply go from country to country staying wherever I am invited and witnessing to whoever wants to hear. People ask me why I don’t take a vacation. I tell them for 47 years I was living for myself. That’ s 47 years I was on vacation! Now it’s time for me to work for the Lord. Whatever’s left of my life is his.” The classically stern words of a missionary true to his vocation perhaps, but it would be wrong to assume that this is just another evangelical Bible-basher on a harsh tour of the world determined to make everyone feel desperately inadequate. Rather, he is seemingly driven to spread the message of God’s love that he maintains he experienced deep in the Colombian jungle.
Simplicity is an important part of that message. “We don’t understand how simple or how basic our life should be,” he says. “God wants us to constantly simplify what we do. So much of the sin we commit is because we want to know what we don’t need to know. We must become small again and learn from the example of Our Lord as a child.” Indeed, one of the central spiritual devotions of Marino’s mission is that of the Divine Infancy and specifically the novena – said in the days running up to Christmas Eve – to Jesus’s Divine Childhood, which, although no longer a common devotion in the Universal Church, is still very popular in Latin America and the Philippines. As Marino says: “If we are to be like Jesus, we need first to imitate from the beginning His time as a child.” It was the praying of this novena leading up to Christmas Eve 1997 that Marino insists brought about the events that were to change his life beyond recognition. Before then, by his own admission, he had lived purely for material pleasure, finding spiritual sustenance in whatever passing belief or occult practice was the current esoteric flavour of the month. He was a singer, and a successful one at that, living in Los Angeles with a contract signed to Sony Records. Convinced that his success was down to the runes, crystals and astrological charts which he avidly used, Marino would often be something of a New Age missionary and try to badger his family to follow his example. Looking at their lives, all he saw was failure and mediocrity compared to his own glamorous and hedonistic lifestyle, which in no small part he felt to be thanks to his latest metaphysical dabblings.
Even so, when asked by his sister during a Christmas visit home to pray the novena with her in church, he agreed, although mostly due to the fact that he was told great treasures were promised to anyone following this devotion.
“To me it was just another superstition along with my tarot and feng shui,” he explains. “So I just asked that there’d be a change in my life and I would get all the riches I’d dreamt of.” As it is often said, God evidently has something of a divine sense of humour as it was at midnight on Christmas Eve – a few hours after the final novena prayer – that Marino got his wish for a total change in circumstance, albeit more the stuff of nightmares than dreams.
On his way into his uncle’s ranch he was abducted by six masked men who intended to sell him to the FARC rebels. “I was nothing more than a commodity. Not a human being. Just an object in a transaction for them to make money.” He was hooded and tied up with a cattle rope around his waist and led deep into the jungle. Treated like an animal, he was beaten and spat upon and made to walk for hours on end, not knowing what awaited him. It was, he says with hindsight, “my own Way of the Cross leading up to crucifixion”. Finally he was thrown into a cave, which to his horror was filled with hundreds of bats flapping around him in the darkness. All over the ground was a deep layer of bat excrement out of which came enough bugs to keep a keen entomologist happy for a lifetime but which were soon dining on Marino’s flesh. This was to be his home for the next 15 days until he was to be handed over to the rebel forces.
On that day, the guerrillas came and he was summarily told by their commander that once they had got the ransom they wanted, he would be killed anyway. And with that sentence of death, he was thrown back into the cave. For the past couple of weeks he had desperately looked for solace in the esoterica and philosophies that he had followed before, but nothing seemed to help. Now stripped of everything that might support him, separated from all worldly comforts, he found himself quite literally at rock bottom amid the detritus of his life. He was at his lowest ebb and only had death to look forward to.
It was at this darkest of points that he underwent the classic mystical experience of an illumination of conscience. In an instant he began to see his life as it truly was, starting right back with his childhood. “I saw myself as a three-year-old,” he explains, “knocking the heads off flowers with a stick. I didn’t need to see any more as the reality of my entire life was contained just in that moment of destructiveness. I saw myself in the light of Truth. And with that I realised the true nature of my sins and couldn’t bear to see anymore.” But the vision continued, and his whole life in all its lurid detail did indeed flash before his eyes. Agreeing with what mystics have said over the centuries, Marino affirms: “It’s only when our worldly defences are demolished and all earthly illusions have crumbled that God can truly come into our hearts.” It was in this utterly defenceless state that Marino tells of being led into the presence of the absolute purity and love of God. Nevertheless, he also discusses his vision of purgatory and hell, not to mention the armies of fallen angels – all concepts which he accepts many Catholics are no longer keen on considering yet which he feels are a vital part of his mission. Furthermore, he reveals that he met Jesus and the Virgin Mary, from both of whom he received what theologians call “infused knowledge” – or what he also refers to as “knowledge of the heart” – forming the foundation for all his testimonies.
He was to spend another six gruelling months in captivity, during which he was constantly maltreated and threatened with death. Yet it was to end with what Marino regards as a miraculous escape when he was suddenly and inexplicably released one day at the side of a road. It would be another year before he felt called upon to speak about his vision; since then has given his testimony around the world.
When I first heard about Marino Restrepo coming to this country it was the day after the Feast of SS Peter and Paul. I thought both about St Peter being awoken by the light filling the darkness of his prison and then released by the angel; and the example of St Paul tirelessly spreading the Gospel of love throughout the known world. Similarly, Marino brings a message for as many people as possible. Although, as he says before moving on to another prayer meeting: “It’s not numbers but souls. Talking to one person gives me the same joy as 20,000. We’ re all called to be a fisherman of souls and that’s what I’m trying to do.”