For the past twenty-one years, since our first pilgrimage to Medjugorje, my husband Mike and I have had the privilege of being in contact with Fr Tomislav Pervan, OFM. Although he is probably less known to the English speaking pilgrims than some of his confreres, he is an authority on Medjugorje as well as a highly respected theologian. Recently, we met to talk about the apparitions and Father was kind enough to give me the following interview. (Sandy Tobin)
Sandy: Father, would you kindly share with us your academic background?
Fr Tomislav: I was ordained a priest in 1969 and, in 1970, I completed my studies in Philosophy and Theology in Austria. From 1972 through 1976, I continued my education in Freiburg, Germany and Graz, Austria where I graduated in January of 1977 with a Ph.D. (Doctor of Theology) in the New Testament. This specialisation in Theology and Scripture was very helpful to me when I was confronted with the apparitions here in Medjugorje.
Sandy: We first met you when you were the pastor here in Medjugorje. Would you tell us a little about that time?
Fr Tomislav: I must begin by saying that Mary is the most important woman in history. By her Fiat – her “Yes” to the Angel – she entered into human history and changed the course of the world. From the very beginning, she was and is involved in the most important events of history and salvation. Therefore, whenever and wherever she was or she is appearing, it has been for a special reason.
Mary is the greatest evangelist of all times. She is the Star of Evangelisation. Through her apparitions in Guadalupe, she won the New World for her Son, for the Church. Consider this: on the one side, the Lutheran Reformation caused a schism and divided the church in Europe; on the other side, the apparitions in Guadalupe created a “balance” as she joined the New World to the Church.
The same thing happened through Our Lady’s apparitions in Rue d’Bac, LaSalette and Lourdes (It’s the 150th Anniversary!) as well as through her apparitions to the Fatima children. We can say that Medjugorje is, in some way, the fulfilment of Fatima. Our Lady revealed that Russia would spread errors and atheistic doctrine and that there would be a new war and more serious devastation if the world did not convert. The bishops of Portugal consecrated their country to the Blessed Virgin Mary and there was no war in Portugal!
On October 31, 1942, in the Silver Jubilee year of Our Lady’s apparitions at Fatima, Pope Pius XII consecrated the world to Mary’s Immaculate Heart. Following that action, the German military began to lose the war and every great battle! Not arms, but prayers and Heaven created the turning point!
In the same way, we can say that Medjugorje is a turning point in history. Together with the Polish Pope, a charismatic and holy man – Totus Tuus – a man whose biography indicates his total connection with Mary, Medjugorje, as a movement, has changed history from Communism to freedom!
But, how did it begin? Suddenly. It was unexpected. No one was prepared for such an event. Fr Jozo Zovko came to the parish in November, 1980. He had been the pastor for less than eight months when Our Lady first appeared. He did not know the visionaries, who were totally normal teenagers, or Jakov, who was not even ten years old. And then the message:
“We’ve seen Our Lady (“Gospa”)! She is appearing!”
From that moment, the visionaries’ lives changed. They no longer had any private life. Day and night, they were hounded, questioned, requested – and they were always available. This, for me, was a sign of authenticity, especially when the Communist Police intervened, taking them to the police station in Čitluk and, later, to doctors in Čitluk and Mostar.
By the beginning of July, 1981, the Communist media – press, newspapers, radio and television reporters – attacked the visionaries, the Croats, the Franciscans and everything that was connected with our faith. The visionaries were threatened. They were forbidden to climb Podbrdo (Apparition Hill). On August 12, 1981, all of Medjugorje was declared a “restricted area”. Then, on August 17th, Father Jozo was arrested. Despite these and many more persecutions, nothing was able to change the minds and convictions of the visionaries.
In a very real sense, those days were biblical days for me, something like the dawn after a long night of Communist darkness, especially when I saw how many came to the church and the countless numbers who experienced new life through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. For me, this was a powerful sign and proof that the Blessed Mother was (and is) here, that she is conquering the kingdom of Satan. These were truly biblical times, a re-lecture or re-reading of the Acts of the Apostles.
Sandy: You later became the Provincial of your Franciscan Province. I recall how you had so many difficulties and responsibilities during the war. During your time as Provincial, you also worked very diligently to bring about a more harmonious relationship between the Franciscans and the Bishop of Mostar. Would you share some of those experiences with us?
Fr Tomislav: For about 25 years the Province was in a kind of opposition to the Bishop of Mostar and the Church because of some major problems within some parishes in the Diocese, involving some long and complicated issues. While these issues were unrelated to the apparitions, they became a stumbling block for Medjugorje. When the apparitions began, the Bishop of Mostar thought that the Blessed Mother was appearing to solve the so-called “Herzegovinian Case”. But she never appears in order to solve controversial matters in the Church.
Exactly ten years after the apparitions started – June 26th 1991 – war began in the former Yugoslavia. Why? I believe it was because we did not listen to her. She spoke about peace. That message of peace should have been heard, primarily, in the Church! Why was Mostar so severely destroyed in the war? The Bishop’s Palace? The Cathedral? The Franciscan Church was totally burned out and the monastery severely damaged. Mostar was in ruins!
Should we proceed to make more ruins? Should we ruin our relations? Should we break all ties with the Bishop? This was my preoccupation when I became the Provincial in 1994: should we go as Franciscans into the new Millennium with a ‘no’ or with ‘yes’? “No” is always a negation. I was trying to be in peace with the Bishop, then with the Church and our Franciscan Order.
My hope was to resolve the conflict that had pre-dated the apparitions by saying “yes” to the Church. This “yes” is then a “yes” to Jesus, to Mary, to Medjugorje. By God’s grace, the situation and the opinion in the Province was changed in the year 2000. The Province is now in a “normal” and “regular” status, as are all other Provinces in the OFM. Thanks be to God for this change after a full 25 years. We had to suffer many sacrifices, “But if the grain of wheat does not die… (John 12), there is no fruit,.”
You cannot say “no” to the Church and defend Medjugorje. You cannot attack the bishops, the Pope, or the Church and defend Medjugorje, not even as a member of the faithful or a pilgrim. You cannot be angry with the Church for not recognizing Medjugorje after 27 years!
We must be in accordance with the Church, with Jesus and Mary, and the rest is hers. And remember a word from the Old Testament: “Obedience is better than sacrifice, and to harken than the fat of rams. For disobedience and rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.” (1 Sam 15:22) But this is a very large issue which cannot be completely explained in an interview such as we are having now.
Sandy: What was your personal feeling when you first heard about Our Lady’s apparitions in Medjugorje?
Fr Tomislav: At that time, I was involved in the formation of our novices. I was teaching and preaching in our Monastery in Humac, about nine miles from Medjugorje. When the apparitions started, I was away, visiting some Bosnian monasteries. I returned to Humac on Saturday, June 27th, and heard about the events in Medjugorje from some of the friars.
The following day, I was celebrating the Holy Mass in Ljubuški and, during the homily, I made a reference to the apparitions in Medjugorje (maybe the first statement on Medjugorje made from the pulpit in a church!). I instructed the faithful not to be eager for signs but, rather, to be a sign. I asked them not to run to Medjugorje and make fun out of our faith but, rather, to renew the faith by confessing it openly.
Then I made a reference to the New Testament, to Gamaliel’s advice in Acts: ‘If this is of human origin, it will destroy itself and disappear. If it is from God, nobody will be able to destroy it’.
On June 30th, Fr. Jozo called me by phone and asked me to come to Medjugorje because of the recent events. He told me that something very serious was going on. It was on that day that I first met the visionaries. Meanwhile, the message had spread all over the region.
I must say that the visionaries did not make any special impression on me but, in the following days, I became completely convinced that what they were saying was true. The children were not lying.
Sandy: Do you have an opinion as to why Our Lady chose Medjugorje?
Fr Tomislav: I do, but let me begin by giving you an example. If you are standing in front of a high-rise building with 100 apartments, you will look for a known name or family, then ring the bell. You will not ring unselectively or randomly to unknown persons or people; to do so would disturb them.
Heaven proceeds in a similar way. The Blessed Mother chooses areas known to her and vice versa. She knocked and the door was open. She was accepted, welcomed, embraced. She came into a region where it was always very hard and dangerous to openly practice one’s faith. For more than three centuries, here in Herzegovina, there were no public places, churches or chapels for liturgy or worship. Everything took place under the open sky. Many martyrs lived and suffered in this area and so many Franciscans were killed because of the faith. The apparitions are, in some way, a “reward” for this faithfulness.
But remember, the former Yugoslavia was open to the Eastern as well as to the Western countries. The people came to Medjugorje from the Eastern Block, behind the Iron Curtain and also from the free West. Medjugorje became a meeting point of nations, languages, Communism and Capitalism. The message spread quickly and the fruits were more than evident.
Communism collapsed. It was conquered, not by arms or tanks but by prayers. Such was the case with Jericho in the Old Testament. The Jews who came from the desert and crossed Jordan prayed for seven days around the walls of Jericho. When the trumpets blew, the walls of the city fell! The collapse of Communism happened in the similar way—not by arms, but by the Spirit of God, by prayers, with Mary!
Sandy: Why do you think Our Lady came to the world in this way and why do you think she is staying with us for so long?
Fr Tomislav: It is significant that she appeared on June 24th, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. John was the last prophet who pointed to Jesus. He was “the voice of one from the desert”. In the same way, Mary, as the Queen of Prophets, is coming to our world in a prophetical manner, in our times, to be the voice of her Son, to point to Him. She focuses on Jesus, not on herself. She is concerned about our salvation. Jesus brings us salvation. He is the Saviour, the Redeemer, and there is no one and no other besides Jesus.
Look around. We have so many “redeemers”, so many “saviours”, so many “gurus”. They promise you everything but, in the end, there is a big NOTHING. Nihilism (which means “nothing”) is spreading. People live without hope. We live in a world the apostles (especially St Paul) faced when they began to preach the Gospel. We are in the midst of a crisis caused by men, by technique, by permanent wars, by atheism. Where is the way out?
Only in God, in Jesus. This is the reason why Mary is appearing. She said, in the very beginning, that she is coming to tell us that God exists. If He exists, we have to convert, to turn to Him, to pray, to be His people, to make peace.
Why so long? We live in a permanent danger of destroying ourselves or to be destroyed by terrorism, by arms, by global warming, etc. Mary is serving the Lord. She is always in the service of mankind and in that of her Son. She is between us and Him.
After several years of apparitions, the visionaries asked Gospa why she is appearing for such a long period of time. Her answer was: “Am I boring you?” Of course not! She is our Mother. It is right for her to be with us, support us, help us…
Sandy: So much of what we read about Medjugorje is superficial. What is the real heart of the matter?
Fr Tomislav: I think I have already answered that question. We must not be people looking for signs and wonders. For example, don’t look at the sun for a visible sign: you might damage your eyes! Rather, go to the real heart of the whole issue: convert! Have a strong faith! Believe! Pray! Put your faith in practice! Go to the sacraments! Do not be a hidden Christian but confess your faith openly! Be a person of peace! Open your heart to Jesus!
Prayer should not be a burden. It should be made out of joy! It is important to make time for Jesus, to adore him, to converse with him, to be his friend. He, himself, spoke about our love for him. If we love him, nothing is difficult and it is a joy to follow him. Christian faith is a joy and to serve Jesus is a joyful ministry.
Sandy: What do you want people to know about Medjugorje?
Fr Tomislav: This is a very huge matter. Medjugorje is not only a geographical notion any more, but a global movement. For me, personally, it is a re-reading of the early history of the Church, a re-reading of the Acts of the Apostles. All the steps we find in Acts we can discover in Medjugorje, too.
The Acts of the Apostles ends with Paul’s arrival in Rome where he preached Christ the Lord quite openly, without any hindrance. Saint Luke, the author, knows about the death of the apostles, about Paul’s decapitation and Peter’s crucifixion. But the Good News did not end with their deaths. On the contrary, the seeds of Christianity were sown.
In a similar way, we must consider the facts of Medjugorje. The visionaries are not so important; the Franciscans who were involved from the very beginning are either in Heaven or are no longer present here in Medjugorje. Medjugorje does not depend on the visionaries, witnesses or friars, but is based on a solid faith, deep experience and conversion. People come to Medjugorje for this: to make a living experience of God, of Jesus, in their own lives and to spread this message throughout the whole world.
Medjugorje is a global movement of renewal. It is putting into practice those issues proclaimed by Vatican II, by papal writings, and by the Church’s advice for today’s Christians. Confirmations of this fact are the encyclical letters of Pope John Paul II on the Eucharist and on the Rosary and their direct correlation to the practices in Medjugorje.
Sandy: What do you want people to know about the visionaries?
Fr Tomislav: In the very beginning of the events, the visionaries were confused and afraid, but unshaken in their conviction: “We see!” They no longer had a private life. No one was instructing or manipulating them. They were catapulted into the focus of a monumental event without even being asked! In some way, they were taken by chance.
If the events were not true, after a few months and all the persecution and threats they were faced with, they would have given up everything. But no! They were steadfast and persevered. Not one of them denied the facts. While theologically illiterate and not even average among their classmates, they were used as instruments of Our Lady. God is choosing the lowly ones to put to shame the great and noble.
I liken the visionaries to the ignition key of a vehicle. When the key is engaged, the engine will start but it is up to us to keep the vehicle supplied with gasoline if it is to go forward. In the same way, the messages of Our Lady, received through the visionaries, have ignited our spiritual “engines”. But we must fill our lives with prayer, fasting, conversion, peace and other good deeds if we are going to keep those engines running and move forward in our lives.
Sandy: What do you see as your role in being a parish priest of Medjugorje?
Fr Tomislav: We, here, are only the stewards of the Lord, like St Joseph who consented to God’s plan. He protected the Mother and Child. Our role is to protect our Mother here and the “newborn child”, who is now 27 years old — a mature son. We know the precepts and we know the Way. Our task is to be obedient to this Voice, to be witnesses, to share the experience with others and to be the channel of grace and Spirit.
Sandy: Our Lady has been appearing here for almost 27 years. Why should someone come to Medjugorje now?
Fr Tomislav: Man is by his destination “homo viator”, a man on the way, a wanderer and a pilgrim on this earth. He is going to his final destination for all eternity.
But, here on earth, he is like the migrant bird. When it gets cold, the bird looks for a warm place. Engraved in its’ small brain is a driving force that compels the bird to follow those special stars in the night sky that will lead it to a warm region.
It is the same way with human beings! We all look for a warm place, for home. As religious beings, we look for a warm place for our hearts, our spirits, our souls. We long to be in the warm heart of our Mother and there is something within us that drives us, that leads us to Mary.
The people who come to Medjugorje are from everywhere—from all parts of this planet—and they are at home here! In Medjugorje, we have the United Nations in prayer, peace, love and worship. We are united by Jesus and by Mary in the beautiful experience of being under her mantle.
This is also applicable to the priests who come to Medjugorje. Their task is to find their heavenly Mother and their first love, Jesus. Medjugorje provides an opportunity for them to renew their sacraments and to say “yes” to their covenant with God. This is very important in today’s crisis within the priesthood.
Sandy: Many priests have told us that they believe they received their vocation in Medjugorje. Have there been any vocations from the people who are native to this area since the apparitions began?
Fr Tomislav: Of course, there are many who became priests because of Medjugorje. Right now we have some students studying theology in Zagreb who got their vocations here and all five of our novices and our three postulants are in some way connected with Medjugorje.
Sandy: Would you tell us the current status of the investigations into the apparitions?
Fr Tomislav: For more than two years, there have been rumours that a new commission was going to be installed to investigate Medjugorje. Until now, nothing has been realised, but there are very serious signs that the Vatican, that is the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, will call into life a new commission for Medjugorje.
Medjugorje is too important for the whole Church to be put aside or to be neglected. Medjugorje is penetrating the whole Church, its spiritual life and its devotion. This fact has been acknowledged by many bishops and priests.
We are grateful to Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI for being very open toward Medjugorje, for being patient and for allowing themselves to be guided by the Spirit of the Lord. St Paul, Teacher of the Nations, said, “Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise the prophets’ warnings. Put everything to the test and hold fast to what is good” (2 Thess 5,19). Medjugorje is really a prophetic word in our times; we should listen to it.
Sandy: Do you have any final thoughts you’d care to share?
Fr Tomislav: Everything in our faith is connected with the apparitions, since Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Mary, the Apostles, St Paul, etc. God is revealing Himself, i.e., taking the veil from His Being. Mary is appearing in the Spirit and through the Spirit, unveiling her hidden face, coming to us and revealing herself to mankind.
The apparitions are evidence that God is near us, close to us, that He is intervening into our history. The apparitions are a proof that God is present in our lives, that He is not far away from us, but near to us. He is not a deistic God, but Emmanuel: God is with us!
Here, in what was once a small village that did not even appear on a map, God’s presence is obvious. Medjugorje is a living experience of God’s existence and His work in today’s world.
Sandy: Father, thank you for this interview, for your focus on the heart of the matter of Medjugorje, the biblical references and your personal insights. It is my wish that everyone in the entire world will have the opportunity to read this interview!
Fr Tomislav: Thanks be to God!