By David Scott
Located in southeast Yugoslavia, just off the Adriatic coast, the little village of Medjugorie wasn’t even mentioned on Yugoslav maps published a decade ago.
Before 1981, Medjugorie was notable only as the quiet home to several thousand peasant farmers who grew tobacco, grapes and wheat, and steered their cows and goats along unpaved country roads.
But, ever since the Mother of Christ reportedly started appearing to six children here nine summers ago, Medjugorie has been transfigured.
Today, it is the world’s newest religious mecca, and its streets teem and bustle with the devout and the curious who come seeking the one the peasants call the “Gospa” (the Croatian word for the “Madonna”).
“There is no place in the world like Medjugorie,” said Rev. William Crandall, pastor of St. Joseph’s Church in Worcestor, near Albany, New York. “People came here from every corner of the world. Why? Because God is there in a special way.”
Named for its obscure place in a valley “between two hills,” Medjugorie has been raised up as the summit of an international revival of traditional Catholic piety and devotions.
“I feel so much closer to Jesus and Mary, now,” said another pilgrim from the Albany area, who asked not to be identified by name. “I never realized that I could ask them things and talk to them personally. I always thought they were too far away.”
According to the young people who claim to be seeing her, the Gospa of Medjugorie, has come bearing a message of “peace, only peace,” to the Church and the world.
But her coming, real or not, has occasioned bitter divisions, splitting congregations and dioceses all over the world and provoking consternation even within the walls of the Vatican.
Place of Turmoil
Throughout its centuries-old history, Medjugorie has been the scene of religious and political turmoil. Now once more it is the site of struggle.
This time, it’s a battle over a basic question: Is the Mother of God really there, prophesying to a torn and troubled world, or is it all a cruel hoax being foisted on anxious Catholics hungering for a closer encounter with the divine?
Some historians and theologians say the conflict over Medjugorie reveals much about the concerns and fears of Catholics as the Church draws nearer to the third Christian millennium. They say the debates reflect a much larger struggle to define what it means to be a Catholic today, 25 years after the Second Vatican Council and a decade before the end of the 20th century.
“Marian piety has always been a vehicle that helps people channel their deepest feelings,” said Rev. Stephen Avella, SDS, a historian at St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee.
Sandra Zimdars-Swartz, who teaches religion at the University of Kansas and is writing a book on appariations, believes that through their devotion to Medjugorie “people are saying that they really do have a crisis of meaning in their lives and that their suffering has to be addressed with very powerful symbols.”
Whatever the larger issues, the immediate question is whether the apparition is real.
Normally, it’s the local bishop’s job to study and rule on the validity of an apparition in his diocese. But, in the highly charged emotional atmosphere at Medjugorie, where visionaries and pilgrims have made extraordinary claims about miracles and prophecies, and in the light of the social changes sweeping Eastern Europe, the Vatican has taken control of the investigation.
Both believers and skeptics claim to have Pope John Paul II in their corner, but the stakes are high and the Vatican has been very cautious in handling the case of Medjugorie.
At issue is the Church’s reputation and credibility in the skeptical and secular modern world as well as its faithfulness to the teachings of Christ and the Church, said Rev. Frederick Jelly, OP, a theologian at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland.
“If the apparition is not authentic, and the Church seems to favor it, or approve it, or say that it is ‘worthy of pious belief,’ then she is running the risk of exposing the faith to ridicule,” he said. “If the message of an alleged apparition is distorted, or contrary to the Gospel or the traditional teachings of the Church, then the Church is running the risk of contradicting herself, so she is very careful.”
Testimonies of conversion and faith have even the skeptics convinced of the power of the Medjugorie phenomenon.
As Rev. James Gill, SJ, a psychiatrist at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Connecticut, said, “No matter what the Church decides in the long run about their authenticity, it is obvious that God brings a great deal of spiritual good out of what’s happening in places like Medjugorie.”
Searching a Vision for ‘Clues’
For those convinced that the apparitions at Medjugorie are real, the proof lies in the “good fruits” of prayer, fasting and frequent communion and confession being produced by the cult’s followers.
“According to the Gospel, you recognize the tree by its fruits,” said Rev. Rene Laurentin, a French theologian and leading authority on appearances of Mary. “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. The fruits of Medjugorie are extraordinary: Hundreds of thousands have changed their lives and have made a profound conversion.”
Others say that, regardless of believers’ good intentions and pious commitments, the Church has to be concerned with whether an actual visitation of the Blessed Mother is taking place at Medjugorie.
“All the sincerity in the world is no substitute for the truth,” said Father Jelly.
In 1988, Father Jelly headed up an investigation of the alleged apparitions of Mary at Lubbock, Texas.
His team found no evidence of “miraculous” events taking place there and the apparition was repudiated by Bishop Michael J. Sheehan of Lubbock.
Vatican guidelines drawn up in 1978 standardized the procedure for studying apparitions. The local bishop is to appoint a team of scientists, psychiatrists and theologians to study its origins and claims, as well as its content, and the character of the purported seers.
But, like many scientific investigations, the findings of experts at Medjugorie are disputed and difficult for non-specialists to evaluate.
Father Laurentin and others, including Archbishop Frane Franic of Split, Yugoslavia, are “morally certain” that the “Gospa” is appearing at Medjugorie.
In an interview published in an inaugural issue of Medjugorie Magazine (Summer 1990), Archbishop Franic revealed that Mary had spoken directly to his “conscience,” confirming his conviction that her visits are true.
Father Laurentin also claims a personal relationship with Mary. In one of the Gospa’s messages, she advised people to “read Father Laurentin’s books.”
In the dozen or so apologetic books and monographs he has written over the past nine years, Father Laurentin has tirelessly charted the progress of research that he believes “proves” that miraculous things are happening at Medjugorie.
Among the scientific conclusions, Father Laurentin said in an interview, is the fact that physicians have found that some of the 300 claimed “healings” at Medjugorie defy ordinary medical explanations.
Also, optics specialists have concluded that “luminous phenomena” at Medjugorie, like the sun spinning and dancing, can’t be linked to “natural causes.”
More compelling to him is psychological evidence that the young visionaries at Medjugorie are in a state of “religious ecstasy” when they are supposedly talking to the Gospa. Studies have found that they don’t blink and that they are impervious to pain while communicating with her.
Even more convincing are the “synchronisms” in their behavior while allegedly in Mary’s presence. The six seers move in such unison while kneeling and rising and murmuring their prayers that some researchers believe their rituals couldn’t have been rehearsed and must be spontaneous responses to the apparition.
But all those findings have been disputed by other authorities.
Louis Belanger, a parapsychologist at the University of Montreal, said the studies at Medjugorie suffer from shoddy research methods and are riddled with contradictory and unsubstantiated findings.
In an interview he said that his own review of the data indicates that miraculous healings haven’t happened and that the alleged visionaries aren’t religious estatics.
Father Laurentin refused to discuss the dispute. He and other supporters say that the physical evidence of the apparition is ample and growing. They say, too, that the messages being delivered by the Gospa are theologically sound.
“The message is Biblical and in the tradition of the Church,” said Rev. John Byrnes, OSA, associate pastor of St. Mary’s Church in Waterford, New York.
At Medjugorie, Mary has been unfolding a progressive “pedagogy” on “the right road to sanctity,” said Sister Margaret Catherine Sims, CSJ, who has directed 32 pilgrimages to Medjugorie for the Boston-based Center for Peace.
Medjugorie’s embattled champions attribute the criticisms to the disarming clarity of the Gospa’s teachings.
“The simplicity of her call is too much for the pride of some theologians and Christians,” charged Father Crandall, the Albany-area pastor who has led pilgrimages to Medjugorie.
But critics of Medjugorie, including the local bishop there, charge that Father Laurentin, especially, has deliberately falsified the evidence in order to cover up facts which prove the apparition is bogus.
The questions they raise are serious because much of the popular momentum behind the apparition rests on Father Laurentin’s energetic apologetics and his reputation as the official chronicler of the Church-approved apparition of Mary at Lourdes, France, in 1858.
Repeating charges he has made since the early days of the supposed apparition, Bishop Pavao Zanic of Mostar (the diocese which includes Medjugorie) issued a pamphlet last March accusing Father Laurentin of “hiding the truth and defending falsehoods.”
The bishop said that Father Laurentin had even asked him not to reveal certain things that would damage the apparition’s credibility.
Bishop Zanic’s most serious charge is that Father Laurentin scuttled evidence showing that, seven days after the appearances allegedly began, the Gospa announced that her visits would end in three more days, on July 3, 1981.
His charges are backed by the research of Rev. Ivo Sivric, OFM, a native of Medjugorie and now a Croatian associate pastor in St. Louis, Missouri. If the Gospa herself said her visits would end, they ask, how is it that Mary has kept on appearing daily for nine years?
As with the scientific studies, Father Laurentin refused to discuss the controversy in an interview, demurring that he would not “descend into polemics.”
At issue are 17 tape recordings which preserve the initial interrogations of the seers by Rev. Jozo Zovko, OFM, then the skeptical pastor of St. James Church in Medjugorie, and now a leading figure in the international Medjugorie movement.
In his books, Father Laurentin doesn’t deny that the seer Mirjana, on June 30, 1981, relayed from the Gospa the message that her visions would end in “three more days.” But that was “only her interpretation,” Father Laurentin contends. Due to the fatigue and stress weighing on the seers at the time, they gave many “answers without significance” in those early interviews, he maintains.
In an interview, Father Sivric questioned why Father Laurentin judged that statement by the Gospa to be trifling and wrong while deeming other answers given in those interviews to be fit for inclusion in his quasi-official Chronological Corpus of the Messages at Medjugorie.
He also cited other instances where the mariologist has concealed messages which show the Gospa to be “an entity peddling gossip and threats and prophesies of God’s punishment.”
How do the critics explain the Medjugorie phenomenon? Father Sivric knows his homeland to be historically very superstitious. Its folklore is filled with legends of divine visitations. The current apparitions “probably started as a joke,” he suggested, “something to do to shake up the village.”
According to that scenario, the young visionaries, drawing on the story of St. Bernadette of Lourdes (which they had read only weeks before their own apparitions began), concocted a tall tale about seeing the Gospa.
The “message” of peace and reconciliation is rooted in the youngsters’ ardent wish for peace in their homes and neighborhood. The seers’ families, Father Sivric explained, are quarrelsome and contentious, and their neighborhood is rife with “disputes and vindictiveness, even on Christmas when all others are at peace.”
Continuing with his explanation, Father Sivric said that the youngsters must have been surprised when their supposed sighting of the Gospa was seized upon and exploited by the local Franciscan community and later the Yugoslav government.
The Franciscans used the apparition to fill their coffers with millions of dollars in contributions and to strengthen their hand against the hostile Bishop Zanic, Father Sivric suggests.
After initially fearing the apparition was a vehicle for launching an ethnic Croat rebellion, he said, the Yugoslav government has come around to promoting foreign pilgrimages to the site as a way of bolstering the country’s teetering economy.
“Now, the visionaries are simply hostages to the Franciscans and the government,” Father Sivric concluded. “They are forced to perform.”
No Belief Required
Whatever the outcome of the Church’s inquiry into the supernatural origins of the apparition, it seems that the feverish response Medjugorie’s advocates rests on a misunderstanding of what the Church actually teaches about “private revelations” such as apparitions.
According to the Church, believers shouldn’t be looking for new revelations of God’s will, but rather should be trying to live out the principles articulated in the Gospel and by the Church for the past 2,000 years.
Father Jelly said that, while private revelations may be an aid to Catholic faith, they don’t add anything to the content of that faith.
“Private revelations are providential happenings which may help to confirm, support, or apply more concretely to today’s situation the values of the Gospel,” he said.
But Catholics are only required to believe the public revelation of Jesus, which includes the testimony of the Gospels as well as the teachings of the Church. They are never required to believe in “private” revelations such as the one claimed at Medjugorie.
Moreover, in approving private revelations, as the Church did by permitting shrines at Fatima and Lourdes, the Church never claims that the Virgin was actually present there.
“The Church has not said that Mary appeared at Fatima,” said Sister Patricia Smith, RSM, a theologian for the Sisters of Mercy in Baltimore.
“It isn’t well known on a popular level,” she added, “but what the Church does say in a very few instances (such as Fatima and Lourdes) is that something worthwhile religiously is going on there, something of God’s grace and presence. Therefore, the devotion and the prayerful life that surrounds this place are worthy of fostering, ‘worthy of pious belief.’ People can believe in an apparition until the Church says otherwise, but they don’t have to believe in it, even if it is recognized by the Church.”
The Case of the Bloody Hanky
Skeptics of the Medjugorie visions often support their doubt by pointing to a 1981 message to the seer Vicka, in which the Blessed Mother interpreted the fantastic encounter of a local cab driver.
The cabbie said he’d been hailed by a bleeding man who, upon climbing into the cab, handed him a blood-stained handkerchief and asked him to dispose of it. Further up on the road, a woman dressed in black flagged the cabbie down. She pleaded with him to give the hanky to her instead of throwing it out as the bleeding man had suggested.
Mary supposedly told Vicka that the bleeding man was Jesus and that she, Mary, was the woman in black; the bloody rag was the world. By keeping the cab driver from throwing out the rag, Mary had stopped Jesus from destroying the world.
Though Vicka recorded the message in her diary, Father Rene Laurentin, a leading international supporter of alleged visions, doesn’t include it in his “Chronological Corpus.”
In a published rebuttal to Bishop Zanic of Mostar, a critic of the alleged visions, Father Laurentin called the cab driver’s tale an “ill-founded rumor.”
But he doesn’t explain why Mary would allegedly interpret such a rumor for Vicka and why she would then include it in her diary, charges Brother James, SD, a San Francisco priest who has traveled several times to Medjugorie and has published books and articles critical of the apparition.
For Bishop Zanic, the story points out the superstitious and un-Christian theology being peddled at Medjugorie.
“What kind of theology is this?” he asked in a pamphlet published in March 1990. “From this it appears that Jesus wants to destroy the world … and that it’s Our Lady who will save the world!”
Bishop Zanic says that if the bloody rag story is not proof enough that the visionaries are lying, the apparition’s choosing sides against him in a dispute with the Franciscans at St. James is. Mary, he says, would never dispute his authority as the local vicar of Christ because that authority descends from her Son directly.
Otheres worry more generally about the increasingly apocalyptic tone of the apparition. of Mary at Medjugorie.
The visionaries cast the Church as the main actor on the stage of world history, which they portray as a drama in which Mary and Satan are locked in cosmic battles for human souls. They say Mary is warning that the curtain is about to fall on the history of the world.
“These are my last apparitions to mankind,” she has reportedly stated. In the closing years of the 20th century, which “is under control of the Devil,” the world is “on the edge of catastrophe,” about to be “chastised” by God for its “moral decay” and because “it does not look for God.”
According to the visionaries, Mary is stalling God and warning the world, in order to give people more time to mend their ways before the end comes.
Sister Sims likens Mary’s message to warnings of an approaching hurricane. There is no stopping the storm from hitting the mainland, but the better people are prepared, the fewer casualties there will be.
“There is a chastisement that is going to come, but it doesn’t have to be a disastrous, tragic happening,” she said. “Mary is trying to avert that, but, because some people won’t believe, it’s going to happen.”
With such dire warnings, Medjugorie follows the pattern of other recent alleged appearances of Mary, according to Father Gill.
“They say God is ready to punish; God is going to act in a vengeful and vindictive way by sending scourges upon humanity; God is disappointed and feels let down by people, the visionaries say, so God is going to destroy either cities or countries or the world,” he said.
Indeed, Medjugorie followers repeat the Virgin’s supposed message about a special pact that God has made with Satan, granting him “permission to submit the Church to a period of trial for one century.” With that century now drawing to a finish, the cult’s supporters see the initial signs of Mary’s ultimate triumph in the political and economic changes sweeping the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Medjugorie supporters also point to Pope John Paul II’s papacy to claim that “these are Marian times,” said Father Jelly. They cite John Paul’s personal motto—“Totus Tuus, Maria” (“All for You, Mary”) and his high-profile visits to the world’s major Marian shrines.
They also note his diplomatic role in Poland and Ukraine and his 1987 meeting with Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev.
It is no coincidence, they feel, that they aborted attempt on the pope’s life in 1981 happened on the anniversary of Mary’s 1917 visitation at Fatima, Portugal. Finally, they point out that John Paul’s 1984 consecration of the planet to Mary’s Sacred Heart was in accordance with the request Mary had made at Fatima.
Dorothy Bolduc, a Medjugorie supporter from St. Mary’s parish in Clinton Heights, outside of Albany, remembers her Polish grandparents cowering from Communist helicopters that would sweep over their neighborhood.
She is convinced that Mary is engineering the democratization movement in that country and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Her belief was bolstered by a news photograph published earlier this year showing the British and Polish prime ministers embracing beneath a statue of the Blessed Mother.
“There wasn’t a word mentioned about Mary,” she said, “but her eyes are looking down right on them in the picture, and I could just feel that she was answering our rosaries for the conversion of Russia.”
Rev. Alfred Wenshman, SJ, a Boston-based pilgrimage leader, believe it is no coincidence that the first Voice of America broadcast Soviet authorities allowed to reach their citizens contained a program he produced on Our Lady of Medjugorie.
In that 1987 broadcast, Father Wenshman told the Russian people that, for years, other people had been praying for the conversion of their atheistic leaders.
The broadcast, like the changes in the Soviet bloc, is “a gift from Mary,” he said in an interview. “You can’t explain it any other way.”
Despite the encouraging changes in the Soviet bloc, champions of Medjugorie still believe that the “chastisement” of the world is nigh.
For the last six years, Lucille Johnson, a pilgrm from Delmar, New York, has been expecting it. “I’m so sure that it will come in our lifetime that I’ll put my life on it,” she said.
Dan Farano, from Rensselaer, New York agrees. “The chastisements are close at hand,” he said.
They, like many Medjugorie followers, believe that Mary has been unfolding her warnings about the end of the world through a series of “private revelations” which began at Fatima.
They believe Mary was really speaking at Garabandal, Spain, in the 1960s and continues to speak through Dom Stefano Goddi, the Italian founder of the Marian Movement of Priests. Neither of these alleged appearances have been approved by the Church.
But their bleak outlook has some worried that the apparition is more of a projection of devotees’ fears than it is any message from God.
Some followers are attracted to the apparition by “the images of Mary as a very loving mother who is calling people back during a time of crisis to offer them shelter, comfort and protection,” Zimdars-Swartz explained.
However, she added, the other side of Mary’s maternal face is “a militaristic image of an army making ready for battle.”
Zimdars-Swartz and others fear that their sense of God’s imminent judgement makes Medjugorie followers susceptible to exploitation by demagogic, fundamentalist leaders.
In the past, Marian piety has been exploited to advance fascist and authoritarian agendas, such as those of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Gen. Francisco Franco in Spain.
And the apparition at Medjugorie is again showing signs of “giving shape and direction to the political frustrations” of the visionaries and their followers, according to Nicholas Perry and Loreto Echeverria, authors of Under the Heel of Mary (Routledge 1988).
The Expectations of Many Hearts
Nine years after they began, the alleged sitings of Mary at Medjugorie show no sign of letting up. Nor does the battle over their authenticity.
Whether the apparition is real or not, there is no question that Medjugorie has become a canvas upon which Catholics can project their anxieties about the fate of the earth, the Church, their families and communities, and about the meaning and purpose of their own lives.
People bring to Medjugorie “a common want—to know that God is still alive and active and concerned about the condition of the earth,” says Father Gill.
And whatever the Church decides to do, the Medjugorie phenomenon confirms what Pope John Paul II said in dedicating the world to the heart of Mary in 1984: On the threshold of the third Christian millennium, “the expectations of many human hearts” continue to find in Mary a meaning for “the many different ills of the present time and their fears of the menaces that brood over the future.”
Originally published in The Evangelist (October 4-25, 1990)
© David Scott, 2005. All rights reserved.