For many, it was an announcement that seemed long overdue.
On March 17, the Vatican announced the formation of a commission to investigate the authenticity of the Marian apparitions centered in Medjugorje. The commission, requested by the bishops of Bosnia-Herzegovina, will take place under the auspices of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and will begin work almost immediately. Its findings will be subject to the final authority of the CDF.
The announcement was, in many ways, unprecedented.
Franciscan University of Steubenville theology professor and mariologist Deacon Mark Miravalle noted it’s typically the local bishop or ecclesial conference that establishes these types of investigatory commissions.
It is possible for that call to come from the Vatican “if it’s not pleased with what takes place at the local level” or, if the Vatican “thinks things have not gone ideally, for the CDF to step in and take a more active role.”
But, Miravalle continued, it’s usually the local bishop who has the final say on the commission’s findings, not the CDF.
Fruits of visions
The announcement is unprecedented, but, in many ways, so is what’s taking place at Medjugorje.
It all began in 1981, when six Croatian teenagers, who lived in the small village in Bosnia-Herzegovina, reported that the Virgin Mary had appeared and given them a message to share with others. Nearly 30 years on, some of the visionaries still claim to see the Blessed Mother daily. The rest say she now appears to them only yearly.
For those inclined to accept the apparitions as true, the number of years Mary has appeared to the visionaries — 29 — as well as the number of messages received — upward of 30,000 — are signs that God is at work in Medjugorje.
“In 30 years you have no notable contradictions between the seers, and no observation — to my knowledge — that any of the messages are in any way off the beaten track in terms of faith and morals,” said Father Johann Roten, director of the University of Dayton’s Marian Library — International Marian Research Institute.
Father Roten pointed out that scientifically and medically the apparitions are among the most studied in Church history.
In addition to the messages themselves — which consist primarily of calls for repentance, conversion and peace — proponents also point to the tremendous fruits that the messages have born in the Church.
To date, more than 30 million men and women have visited Medjugorje, with countless conversions and vocations to the priesthood and religious life resulting from those visits.
“There seems to be an undeniable explosion of supernatural graces in Medjugorje,” Miravalle said.
‘Not good’ fruits
But there also seems to be an undeniable storm of controversy surrounding Medjugorje.
“The good fruits of Medjugorje are undeniable,” said Patrick Madrid, director of the Envoy Institute of Belmont Abbey College. “But we can’t disregard the fruits that aren’t good.”
Madrid, who calls himself “a skeptic, not a critic,” of Medjugorje, points to accounts of scandal surrounding several key figures as an example of those “not good” fruits.
He likewise finds fault in the very thing that so many proponents find good: the messages.
“From very early on, you see an incitement to disobedience in the messages,” Madrid said. “If this really is the Mother of God urging disobedience to the bishops, that seems at odds with her messages to people like St. Faustina, where she urged obedience even in the wake of disbelief and disapproval.”
Both proponents and skeptics have ample evidence to which they can point and ample arguments with which to respond to those who disagree with them. At this point, it can feel difficult, if not impossible, for faithful Catholics in the middle to know who’s right.
Up until now, however, the Church hierarchy has been almost as divided on the question as Catholics themselves. Both of Medjugorje’s local bishops took firm positions against the apparitions, while other bishops, such as Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, have caused a stir by making pilgrimages to the apparition site.
Clearing up ambiguity
Officially, however, the Church’s position remains neutral. In 1991, the now defunct Yugoslav bishops’ conference conducted an investigation and concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to make a determination. Although that declaration meant parishes and dioceses could not make official pilgrimages to the site, it did allow for individual pilgrimages and pilgrimages sponsored by private organizations to continue.
Neither side in the debate, however, has been satisfied with such ambiguity. Many have wanted a definitive statement.
The question, however, is, “Will they like what they get?”
If the commission affirms the apparitions’ authenticity, Father Roten believes, “it will be a great confirmation, a vindication, for those who’ve believed so long without support.”
Likewise, if the Church does sanction Medjugorje, Madrid said skeptics will need to lay down their arguments and open their hearts to what Medjugorje has to say.
If, on the other hand, the commission decides against the apparitions, there are those, like Madrid, who worry about how that conclusion will affect those whose conversions were closely linked to Medjugorje.
But Miravalle thinks such fears are overstated.
“All true members of the Church realize obedience must come first,” he explained. “Most of the [pro-Medjugorje] individuals I’ve met are obedient Catholics, with a great love for the Holy Father. I think that will continue regardless of what’s said about the apparitions.”
Emily Stimpson is an OSV contributing editor.
The Basics (sidebar)
Unlike public revelation, which pertains to the doctrines of the faith, Catholics aren’t bound to believe in private revelation, such as apparitions. Nevertheless, over the years the Church has affirmed the authenticity of numerous acts of private revelation, even establishing feast days to commemorate some of the most important.
But how does the Church decide which acts of private revelation to approve? There are three main criteria:
Content of the messages: Does it conform or conflict with public revelation?
Character of the visionary: Are they honest, balanced, docile to authority and morally upright?
Spiritual fruit: What phenomena and acts of conversion, prayer, healing and charity are concurrent with revelation?
After a careful investigation, the bishop or authority can issue one of three declarations:
Constat de supernaturalitate, which confirms that the revelation is of supernatural origin and sanctions belief.
Non constat de supernaturalitate , which states that the revelation has not been established as supernatural, nor has it been condemned as being false. This allows for continued private belief, but does not sanction it.
Constat de non supernaturalitate, which denies that the revelation is of supernatural origin and prohibits distribution of the messages and devotion.