On December 25, 1997, a wealthy Hollywood film producer, Marino Restrepo, was abducted for ransom by the Colombian mafia and taken away to the Amazon Jungle. Waiting for his execution, he had an experience which made him aware of what happens at the Particular Judgement that every man is subject to at the time of death...
by Lilla Danilecka
Marino Restrepo was born in the town of Anserma, Colombia, in 1950 to a wealthy family of coffee plantation owners, who exported their produce to Spain. He was one of ten siblings. The huge family lived a pious Catholic life, which Marino abandoned at the age of 15 when he was sent to school in Bogotá. After many years, he remembers that although since then he had been moving away from God for 33 years, he had never forgotten the sight of his grandmother praying her rosary.
These were the 1960s. A teenager separated from his family in Bogotá, he began taking drugs and indulged in so-called free sex, to which he was enslaved until his conversion in 1997. When he was 20, he married a girl whom he had made pregnant. She insisted on having the baby against the will of her parents, so they eloped and moved to Hamburg, Germany, where they lived for six years. There, Marino Restrepo’s two sons were born. Later, the whole family moved to the United States and settled first in New York City and later in Hollywood, California, where Marino set out on a career in show business. He travelled, earned more and more as an actor, composer, film producer and screen-play writer, regularly visited his family in Colombia and supported them financially. He felt fulfilled and happily in control of his life.
Marino Restrepo considered himself a believer, because he “professed” all that was fashionable: he believed in reincarnation, conjured up spirits, told fortunes by tarot cards, read New Age literature, followed philosophical trends and spent huge amounts of money to have his house arranged in agreement with feng shui principles. He remembers: “I did not know, or rather I forgot, that I was taught in my childhood that not all ghosts came to us from God. For many years, I had been involved with the spirits of darkness and eventually turned into an outright pagan. The ‘self’ was the focus of my life. I created my own faith, my own internal ‘kingdom’, and I treated others as if they were my servants. The only thing that counted then was achieving success. I lived a life entirely dominated by mundane mentality: earn as much as possible, become famous and enjoy life. I don’t mean to say that the world and all that it holds are reprehensible, in the world created by God there are many good things. It was my attitude to worldly goods and the way I lived that had been demonic, because I lived in utter separation from God.”
In 1997, Marino flew to Colombia for Christmas. At that time his family was going through a particularly hard time of grief over the loss of five members in less than five years. In 1992, Marino’s wife died of cancer, followed by two of his brothers and both parents. “Each of us asked himself the question: Who is going to be next?” – Marino Restrepo writes. “Although I believed in reincarnation, one of my sisters succeeded in persuading me to go to church on December 16th, when the novena to the Infant Jesus, popular in Latin America and the Philippines, was beginning. (...) I resolved to ask the Infant Jesus to change my life for one better still. As I had in mind something else than my sister, I did not tell her about my intention. I knew that she and the rest of my family had prayed for my conversion for years. My head was brimming over with horrible ideas for making more money, achieving greater fame and enjoying even greater pleasure. My sister encouraged me to pray fervently, to which I nodded with an ironic smile. Oh, if I had known then what I was asking for!” Lord Jesus did not let me down.
Exactly 24 hours after the end of the novena, at midnight on December 25, 1997, Marino Restrepo was driving one of his uncles to a farm after the Christmas dinner. Suddenly, from the brush, six gunmen emerged right in front of the car. They dragged the driver from the car, bound him, put a bag over his head and a noose around his neck, and pulling him like an animal on a leash led him deep into the jungle. It was a typical abduction for ransom. The abductors were ruthless. They had detailed intelligence on the Restrepo family – they knew all the addresses and daily routines of their members. They told their hostage that after the ransom is paid, they would kill him anyway. Marino knew that they were not joking and that it was not a movie.... At dawn they came to a cave full of bats, their excrements and vermin. Marino was guarded as a prisoner. The hostage’s body soon turned into one swollen, painful and itching wound covered with stings. Owing to the fact that his hands were still tied, he did not make it worse by scratching.
It was not the gift he expected! Yet, today Marino Restrepo remembers these horrors as the greatest grace of his life. “Then, sitting in darkness, on muck, eaten alive by vermin, hungry and scared, I began to search my heart for anything I could clutch at. My mind was crossed by all philosophical systems I knew, magic rituals and mantras, etc. I could not find anything of help in the circumstances I was in! For years I had used magic to help solve problems of other people, hadn’t I? Now nothing worked. Finally, I dug up in myself only a dying ember of the Catholic faith of my childhood. It was so dim that despite a great effort I could not remember any prayer whatsoever. I understood that it was there, in the faith of my grandparents and parents that the truth and might lay, which I had lost! I was enveloped in profound sadness.”
Before Marino’s eyes, images of his whole life passed: “The first recollection was of purposefully destroying plants in the garden around the family home. I broke them by riding over them on a bike. I was three at that time. A servant ran after me and called on me to stop, but I did not listen.” This image was followed by his next good and bad deeds from childhood. Good ones moved past quickly and painlessly, bad ones froze in the frame as it were. When the plot of the “film” reached the time when Marino was about 12 years old, he began to feel great pain at the sight of his own sins. “It was me – he remembers – a man who did not believe at all in the existence of sin! I had ridiculed people who said this word, I had cracked jokes about it. And now I felt excruciating pain because of my sins, but it was neither physical nor mental pain. It was purely spiritual pain.”
Marino realized that his soul in the state of mortal sin had no right to approach God. He saw that what he had done in life and what seemed good to him (charitable work, membership in Amnesty International and human rights organizations, financial support to his family, etc.) followed from purely selfish and vain motivations. “People said that I was a good man and imitated me. I was so puffed up with my righteousness. In reality I was a great liar, a cheat and a lecher. What is more, I had the cheek to consider myself a decent man! I realized all that in a single moment when the Lord called me by name. I saw the darkness of my soul and so great a hardness of heart that I simply could not open it up to the Love that had revealed itself in front of me. I had no key to my own heart because I had never truly loved a person in my life.”
Marino Restrepo understood that only Divine Love counts in life, specifically, accepting it and giving it gratuitously to other people. On this, the trial ended. “When the voice of God calling me by name had gone silent, I felt incredibly, unimaginably lonely. I was alone and I felt I was sinking in the abyss of death without God. An urgent need of Love tore my heart apart. I felt like my soul would soon suffocate because of the lack of Love which it needs as the body needs oxygen. Terrifying silence fell around me.”
Marino looked down and saw a huge chasm opening under him from the bottom of which inhuman cries and wails reached him. He did not want to look at it but he felt bound to. The scared man’s eyes met hell and what is even worse, he was fully aware that he deserved it. “I saw in it, not hundreds, not thousands but millions of souls! One after another they were falling in there without end. I realized that we, Catholics, have all we need to avoid hell. God equipped us better than the most powerful army of the world.” Marino Restrepo saw scenes similar to those which frightened St. Sister Faustyna, St. Francis and St. Jacinta and many other saints. Interestingly enough, about theology, he knew next to nothing.
Next, God spoke to him again and asked if he would agree to be his instrument in proclaiming to people the need to convert. Marino replied with the simplicity of a child: “Yes, provided I will not have to prepare for the task by reading some learned books.” He was surprised when the Lord said that daily reading of the holy Bible would be enough, because its regular reading purifies man’s senses: eyes, ears and the tongue, and gives the power to see people as God does, which we call an intuitive ability to read people, not being aware that this is a great gift from the Holy Spirit.
After the vision of hell, Marino saw first Purgatory, including its degrees of purification, and souls begging for our prayers and oblations, and Heaven full of saved souls and angels. He became also aware how great a mystery the communion of saints is, the help they give us who live on earth and the help of angels. “God does not want anybody’s soul to end up in hell or even in Purgatory,” Marino writes. “It is his desire to take every man from earth straight to heaven. Heaven is our true home.”
Marino Restrepo came to know the great power of the sacrament of reconciliation, which literally frees man from the shackles of evil. A good illustration of this sacrament is the scene from the Gospel according to Mark (5:1-17) in which Jesus met a demoniac, who ran up to Jesus and begged to be freed in the country of the Gernasenes. The cast-out “legion” of evil spirits was sent to swine, which drowned in the lake. In the soul of the freed man, however, a wound left by sin remained open. The only cure that can heal the wound is the Eucharist: a small inconspicuous Host, under the species of which the true Body of Christ is concealed. It is so important therefore to receive Communion as soon as possible after the confession.
In the course of his mystical experience, Marino Restrepo, condemned to death by his abductors, learned with absolute certainty that for 33 years he had lived in a state of mortal sin and moved solely around the territory ruled by the “prince of this world.” He knew that without the sacrament of reconciliation his soul would stay within this territory for eternity. This is how Marino explains the miracle of his setting free, which turned out a real gift from Jesus and a grace of Divine Mercy, because it gave him an opportunity to avail himself of the sacrament of reconciliation. The grace of the return to earth
Marino already knew that his soul was in such a miserable shape that it would not be able to enter heaven or even Purgatory. “Heaven stood open before me and everybody there invited me in, but the committed evil and the lack of any contrition for it acted as a centrifugal force, casting me away and stopping on the way to the home of the Father. I felt an enormous pressure of this evil. I knew that my greatest enemies were not demons but I myself! I needed help and freeing from own “self” which was my adversary number one. (...) My pride was so great as to bring me down as if I had had a heavy stone tied to my neck. At the same time, I knew how much God wanted to forgive me everything. In an act of great, incomprehensible mercy, he sent me back to earth, to the cave.”
|Only divine love counts in life, specifically, accepting it and giving it gratuitously to other people.|
The circumstances had not changed. What had changed was the internal attitude of the condemned man who calmed down and prayed for nothing else but for the grace of not dying without the sacrament of reconciliation. Marino began to live every day in the spirit of penance – he would offer all his physical and mental torments in atonement for his sins, but he knew that the rest of his life was not long enough for him to atone. He was 47 and begged only for Divine Mercy.
Marino was a hostage of the guerrillas for another six months. On a certain night, quite unexpectedly and without giving any reason, the abductors brought him out of the basement and told him to go straight ahead along a road, without looking back. “I thought that the hour of execution had come. I walked and waited for a fatal bullet to hit me in the back. I walked on, but no shot was fired. On a bend in the road, I looked back from the corner of my eye. The abductors were gone, they had retreated into the forest. I was not sure if I was free. For half a year of captivity, I had no will of my own. I had grown accustomed that at all times somebody told me what to do and I had lost the ability to make my own decisions. I walked on without thinking until a bus caught up with me at dawn and stopped a few meters ahead. A woman got off and I ran to get in, but the driver shut the door in my face. I was able to block it with my knee and open by force. People on the bus looked at me with disgust. I was unshaven, stank of filth, while the clothes I had had on for half a year were in shreds. I must have looked like a caveman. Without a word I walked along the aisle, followed by the eyes of astounded passengers and took a seat at the far end, by an open window. We came to a town where I went to a police station. My relatives came to fetch me and drove me home.”
When Marino Restrepo recovered physically, he asked for his confession to be heard at a monastery of the Franciscan Fathers. It was a very long confession... The prior, an Italian priest, agreed to be his spiritual guide.
After some time, Marino returned to California, to his adult sons. There, he learned how to be a Catholic, beginning with the basics. At Mass, he initially felt like a child who does not know what is taking place. He was frightened that evil would draw him back, he was afraid of his old self, and had nightmares about it. He knew that the only way to avoid a still greater disaster was to cling with his whole heart to Jesus and the Church.
A year and a half later, Marino travelled to Colombia to spend Easter with his family. On Palm Sunday, the church was so full of people that he could not get inside. Through the open door of the nave, above the heads of the congregation, he saw only a huge crucifix, hanging over the altar. Staring at it, he felt that Jesus invited him to take on an evangelizing mission, to bear witness to what he had experienced and seen with his soul’s eyes during his captivity. Jesus did not force him to do anything, only asked him to take on this task to rescue the souls he cared so much about.
Marino did not hesitate long. He left Hollywood and made up his mind to become a celibatarian or a lay Catholic missionary. He has founded an organization named Mision Catolica Peregrinos de Amor (Catholic Mission of the Pilgrims of Love) and tirelessly travels the world to carry his testimony and the good news of the Gospel to churches. He has also published his memoirs. “On occasion, people ask me if I have any time left for myself. Time for myself? For 47 years I spent time only for myself. Now I live for the Lord and I don’t know a greater joy. The work I do for him gives me inner calm. I travel around the world and ‘trumpet’ to wake as many people and put them back on their feet. I tell them that life on earth lasts but a while, but we have only this while to decide what all of eternity will be like for us. Everybody wants to go to heaven. Many laugh at me when I tell them that I have resolved to become a saint. Mockingly, they tap their foreheads because they do not realize that only saints go to heaven. If we don’t sanctify ourselves on earth, we will be sanctified in Purgatory – but this will be much more painful. If we don’t want to be saints, then it’s our choice ... That’s it.”
Marino Restrepo’s life took a radical turn, as he admits, through an incredible grace of Divine Mercy. He received a second chance which he would not waste for all the world. He proclaims his testimony because, as he says, we have grown so accustomed to watering down Christianity that in many communities it is “politically incorrect” to remind others about the shackles of sin, activities of Satan, hell, etc. So-called “decent people” don’t want to listen because “they don’t do anything wrong, do they?”
Marino Restrepo resolved to be a pilgrim of love, like St. John Paul II and many others who dared to remind their fellowmen about ultimate matters. He undertook the effort of living in God’s light because after what he has experienced he knows that this light can be extinguished by no darkness. Therefore, this testimony of conversion – of a Colombian from Hollywood – is not “another fire-and-brimstone story” but rather an instance of courage to look boldly towards heaven with love and trust in Divine Mercy, which can get man out of the worst trouble. v