For 36 years visionaries have said the Blessed Virgin Mary has appeared to them at Medjugorje and has given them messages for the betterment of the whole world from their village in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
For almost as long controversy has lingered over the alleged apparitions, with local bishops clashing with Franciscans associated with the visionaries. The current bishop as recently as February declared that the Madonna is not appearing as Our Lady of Peace in what was once a war-torn province of Yugoslavia.
But millions of pilgrims from all over the world flock to Medjugorje every year, and numerous reports of miraculous healings, conversions and vocations have prompted Church leaders seriously to consider what has been occurring over the past four decades.
Waiting for confirmation
In recent years a Vatican commission has studied the reported apparitions. Pope Francis in February sent an envoy, led by Archbishop Henryk Hoser of Warsaw-Praga, Poland, to assess the pastoral needs of the villagers and pilgrims in Medjugorje.
“Whether or not Pope Francis rules that some early apparitions are in fact authentic, or that none are, or that they will continue to delay a final judgment until the apparitions cease definitively, Pope Francis very likely will opt to establish something to attend to the pastoral needs of the many millions of pilgrims who have gone to this place of conversion and healing,” said Michael O’Neill, author and creator of The Miracle Hunter, a website that tracks Marian apparitions and miracles.
O’Neill told Our Sunday Visitor that the pope could seek to establish a shrine under the Vatican’s purview in order to pay attention to local pastoral needs while addressing the ongoing conflict between the local bishop and the Franciscans who have overseen Medjugorje since the beginning.
“No matter what the judgment is rendered by the pope, short of the unlikeliest of all scenarios where he approves all the events of over 35 years, believers will be arriving with questions and concerns that will need to be pastorally tended to, especially as the messages will likely still be continuing to be reported,” said O’Neill, who added that the Church’s position “will need to be reaffirmed and explained.”
Steve Shawl, who runs The Medjugorje Web, an online portal on the reported apparitions, told OSV that it will be interesting to see what Pope Francis officially will say about Medjugorje when Archbishop Hoser finishes his work.
“Medjugorje is a place of amazing graces. The fruits in vocations, healings, conversions and confessions are like no other place on earth. For now, Medjugorje is a place where Our Lady is, not was,” said Shawl, who believes that when the alleged apparitions at Medjugorje conclude, they will be on the same level as the Church-approved Marian apparitions at Fatima and Lourdes.
Doubt and hesitation
But lingering concerns over some of the content of the reported visions — including reports that the Blessed Virgin Mary laughs in a strange way and disappears when asked certain questions — in part prompted the Vatican in 2010 to assemble a commission of theologians, bishops, historians, psychologists, anthropologists and Mariologists to study Medjugorje.
According to published reports, the commission’s findings — known as the “Ruini Report” for the commission’s chair, Cardinal Camillo Ruini — voted 13 to 1 to confirm the supernatural basis of the first seven apparitions that appeared in 1981. The commission did not rule on the thousands of alleged subsequent apparitions.
O’Neill noted that there have been instances of approved Marian apparitions — such as Le Laus, France, in 1664; Kibeho, Rwanda, in 1981; and San Nicholas, Argentina, in 1983 — where hundreds or thousands of messages were claimed over the course of several years.
“Approving the first seven messages only would fit more neatly with the shorter run of visions in the most highly recognized cases of Marian apparitions — that is Guadalupe, Lourdes and Fatima,” O’Neill said.
Mark Miravalle, a professor of theology and mariology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, also noted that Sister Lucia dos Santos, one of the Fatima visionaries, claimed to receive messages for years beyond the approved apparitions of 1917.
“There is precedence in previous apparitions having early Church approval while the later apparitions were not given approval,” Miravalle told OSV.
But Pope Francis has expressed personal doubts about Medjugorje. While traveling from Fatima on May 13, the pope compared the apparition at Medjurgorje a postmistress who sends messages at stated times.
“This isn’t Jesus’ mother,” the pope said. “And these alleged apparitions don’t have much value. I say this as a personal opinion, but it is clear. Who thinks that Our Lady says, ‘Come, because tomorrow at this time I will give a message to that seer?’ No!”
In the same interview Pope Francis praised the Ruini commission and agreed that people who travel to Medjugorje do find God and convert. Miravalle told OSV that it is “very significant” that the pope praised the Ruini report, which Miravalle said could be seen as a window into the pope’s thinking.
“Pope Francis seems to have a personal difficulty with the idea that Our Lady would come each day and that she would pre-announce what time she comes,” Miravalle said. “However, you have massive precedence within Marian apparitions of Our Lady doing just that.”
Donal Anthony Foley, the author of a number of books on Marian apparitions, told OSV that the Ruini commission is an advisory board and that one of its members, Father Salvatore Perrella, said recently that the facts about Medjugorje are so complex “that the pontiff is free to conduct a further investigation.”
Foley added that he sees a serious dilemma with the commission splitting the Medjugorje visions into true and uncertain categories.
“This is a problem because it implies that the real Blessed Virgin appeared to the visionaries knowing that once she stopped doing so, they would then go [on] to fabricate further visions,” Foley said. “This seems like an extremely unlikely scenario to me and strongly points against authenticity for the phenomenon as a whole.”
While acknowledging that “good fruits certainly exist” in Medjugorje, Foley said the primary focus should be on the actual facts regarding the claimed apparitions. He noted there have been concerns that the scientific and medical tests done on the visionaries were not rigorous enough, and transcripts of reports from the visionaries during the first week or so of the alleged visitations in 1981 are problematic.
“The contents of these transcriptions are worrying from the point of view of authenticity, since they reveal a laughing Virgin Mary who told the visionaries that she would remain with them as long as they wanted — and there are other worrying incidents,” said Foley, who believes the Church should focus Catholics’ attention on Church-approved apparitions, such as at Fatima and Lourdes.
O’Neill, who has taken a more neutral position on Medjugorje, said the Church will need to release “a very clear document” with special instructions for the visionaries on how they are to interact with the faithful and that they are not to spread any new claimed messages.
“There is a lot of speculation as to what will happen. No one really knows for sure,” O’Neill said. “But the Catholic world is certainly waiting at attention for the answer.”
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.