Medjugorje Deception or Miracle?

Author: Antonio Gaspari


Antonio Gaspari

The Vatican is undecided. Catholic bishops are divided. Critics warn that popular devotion is being manipulated...

And yet—15 years after the first claimed apparitions, and despite the bitter Bosnian war which devastated the surrounding area, the pilgrims continue to come—no, <to throng> to Medjugorje. By the millions. They are seeking the Virgin Mother of God, Mary Most Holy, and they believe Mary is appearing in Medjugorje.

In spite of the skepticism of agnostics, the doubts of Christians, and a fair amount of official Church disapproval, the pilgrims continue to seek out the place where six young Medjugorje visionaries (now, after 15 years, married with children of their own), have "seen" and "heard" the Virgin every day for a decade and a half.

Let us begin at the end, with the fruits. The Medjugorje phenomenon, by all accounts, has already produced spiritual fruits in great abundance. Letters, oral testimonies, even medical certificates, attest to miraculous healings, unexpected conversions and renewed faith. In Medjugorje's wake, Catholic radio and television programs have sprung up, and new prayer groups and religious movements are being formed.

This is, from one perspective, highly "counter-cultural." On the threshold of the Third Millennium, just as technology and science are facilitating greater understanding and control of our physical world, miracles, supernatural events and apparitions are multiplying at a dizzying rate. And it is making some Catholic intellectuals a bit uncomfortable. After the Second Vatican Council, some of them predicted "Lourdes will disappear." But Lourdes attracts more visitors every year. And the pattern is worldwide. Although the Marxist Yugoslav state and then the local bishop discouraged visits to Medjugorje, the phenomenon has met with phenomenal worldwide interest and support. At the same time, miraculous apparitions have been reported and greeted by religious fervor in many other places: Akita in Japan, Kibeco in Rwanda, Cua in Nicaragua, San Nicolas in Argentina, and Finca Betania in Venezuela.

Is all this a "sign of the times"? A signal that the Lord is sending to show mankind how false is the idea that the world can get by without God? Or something else? In this report, <Inside the Vatican> focuses on Medjugorje in a preliminary attempt to answer some of these questions.

The First Apparitions

Between June 24 and June 26, 1981, first two, then six children (now adults) from the Bosnian village of Medjugorje, not far from the city of Mostar, reported seeing, first an effulgence of bright light, then a vision of the Virgin Mary. These six young people were: Ivanka Ivankovich (15 years), Mirjana Dragicevic (16), Vicka Ivankovic (16), Ivan Dragivecic (16), Marija Pavlovic (16) and Jakov Colo (10). The apparitions were repeated and soon prompted a strong response from the then-Marxist state: the six were subjected to intense questioning by doctors and psychologists. The results of these analyses were negative. The doctors found no evidence of any kind of hoax. The boys and girls were not ill. They were not lying. They were of average intelligence from normal farming families, "no better or worse than others their age." They showed no signs of any psychological disorders.

In the initial phase, the Bishop of Mostar, Monsignor Pavao Zanic, was sympathetic to the young visionaries. On July 25, 1981, he made a statement to the press to the effect that: "No one has forced them or influenced them in any manner. These are six normal children; they are not lying; they express themselves from the depth of their hearts. Are we dealing here with a personal vision or a supernatural occurrence? It is hard to say. However, it is certain that they are not lying."

However, for reasons still not entirely clear, Bishop Zanic almost immediately changed his attitude, becoming the main critic and opponent of the Medjugorje apparitions. Nonetheless, the six continued to experience apparitions. Even today, four of the "Medjugorje seers" continue to experience daily apparitions of the Madonna though they do not live in Medjugorje any longer. Only Vicka, the most beloved by the pilgrims, has never left the "hill of the apparitions," not even in the months when war raged in the region. For Marjana, who studied in the USA, and is married (to an Italian) with children, the visions have almost entirely ceased. Ivanka sees the Virgin infrequently. Ivan married an American who converted while on pilgrimage to Medjugorje.

How The Apparitions Occur

The apparitions come about in a very simple, spontaneous manner. The children wait, reciting the rosary. They enter the sacristy just before the last part of the Rosary, praying out loud along with the crowd. Then, suddenly, they kneel down simultaneously. They look upwards, in the same direction, with hopeful, tranquil expressions. Their lips move as if they are speaking, but they make no sounds. Where their glances converge indicates the location of the apparition at a point very close to them. In general, the apparitions last from one to three minutes; then their voices become audible again. After coming out of their ecstatic trance, the visionaries report the Virgin's words to the assembled pilgrims.

Experiments on the children in ecstasy, for instance pressure on Vicka's arm, or lifting up the smaller Jakov, have not evoked the slightest reaction, not even a change of expression. Jakov's knees bent again in prayer when he was released.

Studies conducted by a medical team from the University of Montpellier, France, led by Henri Joyeux, member of the French Surgeons' Academy and recipient of international medical awards, and another group, led by the Italian Marco Margnelli, specialist in investigating visions, have ascertained that, while in contemplation the Medjugorje teenagers were not dreaming, sleeping with open eyes, or in epileptic or cataleptic states. It is interesting to note that Professor Margnelli, a convinced Marxist, converted to Catholicism after his Medjugorje experience.

The Medjugorje visionaries remain functional while losing contact with the ordinary world. All their physical functions, including photometric and other reflexes, remain unaltered. The individuals speak, converse or pray with the Madonna, never losing their equilibrium, and return from their ecstasy without trauma.

The most incredible aspect of the Medjugorje phenomenon is that, at a distance of 15 years, the six visionaries remain simple, healthy and joyous individuals without neurotic symptoms. This is especially surprising since they have been subjected to interrogations, interviews, psychological and medical analyses, and pressure from both the State and the Church. They are apparently free from the temptations and pressures which often accompany world fame and popularity.

Attacks and Criticism

Unfortunately, the same tranquillity and good spirits exhibited by the Medjugorje visionaries have not characterized critics of the phenomenon. Even Catholics disagree on the authenticity of the experience.

For most Catholic traditionalists, the apparitions are manipulations of the Catholic Charismatic Revival. (The Charismatics have a very active community of nuns at the site). Father Grumel, priest of the Melchisedek Order, describes Medjugorje as a "diabolic fraud." Another organization, the Catholic Counter Reform, which also condemns the Second Vatican Council and the Pope, shares this view. Some Catholic liberals suspect manipulation of the Medjugorje phenomenon by the Franciscan Order.

Traditionalists complain that the Medjugorje apparitions tend to downplay the importance of Fatima. The Fatima message was anti-Communist in character, while Medjugorje is more open and ecumenical. Liberals deplore the type of irrational and incredulous faith evoked by Medjugorje, and use psychological terms to explain the popular devotion engendered by the phenomenon.

The most frequent criticisms relate to: the number of apparitions, the Madonna's loquaciousness, and the banality of her messages (with frequent mention of devils or demons), as reported by the Medjugorje visionaries.

Medjugorje's apologists argue that the apparitions are an unexpected miracle which confounds human understanding. Mary's true message from Medjugorje, they say, can be summarized in seven words: God, faith, conversion, prayer, fasting, peace and reconciliation, words which were repeated during the first six days of apparitions. The Virgin's other words, accumulating from the daily visions, have a loving, educational value. They are simple, as the Gospels are simple, because they are meant for simple people, not for intellectuals or theologians.

Some of Medjugorje's outspoken supporters include: Father Robert Faricy, Gregorian University professor of Spirituality; the renowned Catholic theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar; Bishop Myles McKeon of Bunbury, Australia; Timothy Manning, former Archbishop of Los Angeles. The Archbishop of Zaghreb, Cardinal Franjo Kuharic invited Vicka Ivankovic to the archbishopric in 1983, and the apparition took place there at the usual hour.

"By Their Fruits Ye Shall Know Them"

When we speak of the fruits Medjugorje bears for the Church, even critics are silent. Today pilgrims—both Christian and non-Christian—arrive at Medjugorje from every corner of the world. With more than 16 million visitors, the site has become the scene of an exceptional spiritual revival. More confessions are heard in Medjugorje than in any other parish of the entire world; more than 150 confessors work without interruption here every day. In the year 1990 (before the outbreak of civil war), 1,900,000 people took Communion (more than at Fatima); 30,000 priests and bishops have visited the site. Many conversions are reported, even among those who come out of curiosity, or simply to accompany friends or relatives. In the USA 600 Medjugorje prayer groups have been formed; in Austria 500; and several hundred in Italy.

The Medjugorje visionaries are generating an effective spiritual crusade. Their message has reached more than 16 million visitors; even the war which ravaged Bosnia for over four years never stopped the flow of pilgrims. The present rate is over a million each year. During the war years, in the midst of bombardments and battles, over 200,000 visitors came to the site.

State Reactions

In the early years, the Communist Yugoslav press presented the Medjugorje apparitions as a political plot disguised as a religious phenomenon. Marxist authorities attributed the apparitions to a resuscitated <Ustasi> (Croatian nationalist group with Nazi sympathies) attempt at national destabilization. Cartoons showed the six visionaries manipulated by evil Franciscans, or the Virgin armed with a machine gun. Such political theories are no longer aired. The present post-Iron Curtain Yugoslav government recognizes Medjugorje as a strictly religious issue and no longer interferes in the event.

Episcopal Reactions

It is surprising that the Medjugorje apparitions have encountered their most virulent opposition from the local episcopate, that is, from the Bishop of Mostar; first Pavao Zanic, and from 24 July, 1994, Ratko Peric. Although, as we have seen above, Bishop Zanic initially favored the Medjugorje apparitions, by October 30,1984, he had already changed his mind. On that date he distributed his <Positio> (position statement) to the press, writing that he had a "moral certitude that the Medjugorje events are a case of collective hallucination." In particular, Zanic accused Father Tomislav Vlasic (Franciscan priest in the Medjugorje parish) of being a "conjurer, manipulator, and deceiver."

Monsignor Zanic appointed the first investigative committee on 11 January, 1982. He was not satisfied with the results and commissioned another inquiry in March 1984. Nine of the 14 members of the second (larger) commission were chosen among certain theologians who were known to be skeptical concerning supernatural events. Bishop Zanic stated in the commission's final press communique that: "The commission disapproves of religious or lay groups which organize Church pilgrimages (i.e. to Medjugorje)." Bishop Zanic had this communique published in the Vatican's semi-official daily <L'Osservatore Romano>, giving the impression of conclusions approved by the Holy See itself. The Yugoslav Bishops' Conference clarified that only official Church pilgrimages to Medjugorje were prohibited, that is until a final Holy See verdict had been reached.

On March 25, 1985, a letter from Bishop Zanic ordered the Medjugorje parish priests to cancel all pilgrimages, and to forbid the 6 young visionaries from gathering in the church or adjacent area. The gatherings were then transposed to the parish residence. In September 1987, Zanic forbid the apparition gatherings in the parish hall as well. Towards the end of 1986, Zanic traveled to Rome to inform the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of his views on Medjugorje, but Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation, transferred decisional authority to the Yugoslav Bishops' Conference.

Yugoslav Bishops' Conference Decision

In May 1987, the Yugoslav Bishops' Conference nominated Bishop Frajo Comarica, Auxiliary Bishop of Banja Luka, ex-professor of theology at Sarajevo University, and youngest bishop in the Yugoslav episcopate, as President of the Medjugorje Inquiry Commission. By mid-1988 the Commission was reported to have terminated its work with a positive judgment on the apparitions. However, not wishing to directly contradict Bishop Zanic, the group continued its proceedings at a snail's pace, hoping that the pilgrimages would diminish and disappear. After a long and exhausting "tug-of-war" within the episcopate, the Yugoslav Bishops' Conference, in the 1990 (November 27-28) extraordinary assembly in Zaghreb, approved the following Declaration:

<1) From the very beginning, the Bishops have been following events in Medjugorje through reports by the local Bishop, the local diocesan Commission, and the Yugoslav Bishops' Commission on Medjugorje. On the basis of research conducted until now, we cannot affirm that there have been supernatural apparitions or revelations.

2) Nonetheless, the continuing gatherings of faithful, inspired by religious motives and arriving from various parts of the world, necessitate the Bishops' constant attention and concern. For that reason. our Bishops' Conference, in a spirit of ecclesial communion, is willing to assist the resident Bishop in organizing pastoral activities at Medjugorje, in order to promote a correct liturgical and pastoral life in the parish, and thus avoid events or teachings which may not conform to the spirit of the Church.>

To many, this Declaration appeared ambiguous. Although the supernatural essence of the apparitions is not affirmed, there is recognition of the resulting "cult," to be "managed" by the resident Bishop. On this subject, ax-Archbishop of Split Frane Franic stated in an interview with the Italian daily <Corriere della Sera>, on January 15, 1991, that only the ferocious opposition of Bishop Zanic, who refused to budge from his own verdict, had impeded a positive decision on the Medjugorje apparitions: "The bishops do not wish to humiliate Monsignor, Zanic," Franic stated, "And when it was brought to his attention.. :hat his opposition was unfounded, he began to cry and shout, and the bishops finally stopped arguing."

Cardinal Franjo Kuharic, Archbishop of Zaghreb and President of the Yugoslav Bishops' Conference, in an interview with Croatian public television on December 23, 1990, said that the Yugoslav Bishops' Conference, including himself, "has a positive opinion of Medjugorje events."

How can we explain Bishop Zanic's behavior? Most conclusions on the subject seem to focus on the long-standing conflicts between the Franciscan and secular clergy in the Mostar region.

Diocesan-Franciscan Rivalry

The Franciscans brought the Catholic faith to the Bosnia-Herzegovina region and safeguarded the Church throughout the four centuries of Turkish domination (1490-1881). Rome later introduced the secular clergy into the area. Many Franciscan parishes passed to secular priests, but many others refused to relinquish their Franciscan pastors.

When Rome appointed a secular bishop in 1943, the rivalry became particularly harsh; the Franciscans claimed they relinquished more parishes than they received in exchange. In the process, the area's faithful suffered greatly. When Mostar's first secular bishop appointed a secular priest for the traditionally Franciscan parish of Grude, the parishioners barricaded the doors to obstruct the installation.

When Monsignor Zanic became Bishop of Mostar on 14 September, 1980, he annexed 80% of the city's parishes to the secular clergy. We should note here that Mostar was the very earliest Franciscan parish. Many Franciscan parishes refused to pass under the authority of the secular episcopate, allowing their Franciscan priests to administer the sacraments and say Mass. Zanic has succeeded in having two young Franciscan priests suspended <a divinis> by the Franciscan Procurator. The implacable conflict between Zanic and the Franciscans reached its climax in the Franciscan parish of Medjugorje.

Vatican Reaction

Cardinal Ratzinger has not pronounced negatively on the Medjugorje apparitions. Nevertheless, the troubling aspect of a parallel magisterium, that is, continuing Marian messages as reported by the six visionaries, induced his office to discourage pilgrimages to the site. In June 1985, then-Secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Alberto Bovone (presently Pro-Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints), wrote a letter to the Italian Bishops' Conference (Italians have always been the most numerous group of pilgrims) urging them to "publicly discourage the organization of pilgrimages to Medjugorje."

This year that position was reaffirmed by the new Secretary, Monsignor Tarcisio Bertone, in a letter sent to the (French) Bishop of Langres, Monsignor. Leon Taverdet, who asked whether it was "advisable for Catholics to make pilgrimages to Medjugorje?" Bovone's letter, published in the French daily <La Croix>, referred to the Yugoslav Bishops "note" of 10 April, 1991, which stated: "It is not possible to affirm that we are dealing with supernatural apparitions or revelations," and based its prohibition on that statement. The French ban was couched in these terms: "Official Church pilgrimages to Medjugorje as a site of authentic Marian apparitions are not to be organized, since that would contradict what has been affirmed by the Yugoslav Bishops' Conference."

Most Vatican-watchers believe, along with many members of the Curia, that an official Holy See judgment on Medjugorje will never be announced, firstly because the Church cannot express a definitive opinion while the event is still going on; secondly, because the issue has become complicated by the personal involvement of certain bishops; and thirdly, because continuing Medjugorje "messages" could contradict Church teaching.

Doubts arise concerning the nature of the apparitions. Are these true divine apparitions, or only personal visions. The difference is that apparitions, even supernatural apparitions, have an outward aspect, verifiable by experts; whereas visions, which indeed are experienced by many saints, are purely subjective in origin. One thing is, however, perfectly clear. While the Vatican hesitates concerning Medjugorje, pilgrims continue to flock towards what they consider a truly holy site.

Pope John Paul II’s Opinion

In line with Roman Catholic tradition, Pope John Paul II considers the Medjugorje phenomenon an issue for the local hierarchy. It is, however, common knowledge, that the Pope is sympathetic to the Marian site. In a meeting with Bishop Paul Hnilica, the Pope reportedly said: "If I were not the Pope, I would probably have visited Medjugorje by now." During a meeting with the Superior General of the Franciscan Order, the Holy Father asked: "All around Medjugorje bombs have been falling, and yet Medjugorje itself was never damaged. Is this not perhaps a miracle of God?"

This article was taken from the November 1996 issue of "Inside the Vatican." Subscriptions: Inside the Vatican, Martin de Porres Lay Dominican Community, 3050 Gap Knob Road, New Hope, KY 40052, 1-800-789-9494, Fax: 502-325-3091.