The reported apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Bosnia-Herzegovina (former Yugoslavia) have attracted the attention of the world and approximately 30 million pilgrims. Since June 24, 1981, six children began to report daily visits from the “Queen of Peace” and several of the “visionaries” continue to report receiving a daily apparition from the Mother of Jesus over 25 years later.
Is Medjugorje real? Are these authentic apparitions of the Virgin Mary? What is the official position of the Catholic Church about their authenticity? Could these simply be the fraudulent deception of hysteric children (now adults) for reasons of attention and personal gain?
These and other questions concerning the reported Medjugorje phenomena have circulated in international newspapers, chancery offices, rectories and convents, and at family dining rooms the world over.
Five issues stand out from the great number of Medjugorje-related topics, as the “FAQs,” the most frequently asked questions. These five questions must be examined from the perspective of the Catholic Church’s approach to Marian apparitions and the facts specific to the reported Medjugorje event.
Church’s Official Position?
Question One: What is the official position of the Catholic Church regarding Medjugorje? Would it be an act of disobedience to pilgrimage to Medjugorje before the Church has given the apparitions a final and definitive approval?
On April 10, 1991, the Bishops’ Conference of former Yugoslavia issued the “Declaration of the Ex-Yugoslavia Bishops’ Conference on Medjugorje.” The declaration neither approves nor condemns the apparitions, but does permit personal belief in the apparitions and personal pilgrimages to Medjugorje while the Church investigation continues.
The declaration makes clear that while at that particular point in the investigation “it cannot be affirmed that one is dealing with supernatural apparitions and revelations,” it continues to state that “the faithful journeying to Medjugorje, prompted both by motives of belief and other motives, require attention and pastoral care” (1).
The Medjugorje apparitions are presently neither officially approved by the Church as being of supernatural origin (constat de supernaturalitate); nor are they condemned by the Church as being false or invalid (constat de non supernaturalitate). They are, at this time, in a type of middle category of evaluation referred to as non constat de supernaturalitate, which allows for personal belief in the authenticity of the apparitions along with personal (non-diocesan sponsored) pilgrimages to the apparition site, while the Church’s official investigation is ongoing.
The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Church’s highest authority under the Pope himself for dealing with private revelation, confirmed the legitimacy of personal belief and pilgrimages to Medjugorje at this point in the Church’s evaluation in its statement issued on May 26, 1998 (Protocol No. 154/81-06419). In the statement of Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, Secretary to the Prefect, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, to French Bishop Msgr. Gilbert Aubrey, Archbishop Bertone confirms that the 1991 Zadar statement is presently the official position of the Church regarding Medjugorje. Archbishop Bertone (presently Cardinal Bertone, Vatican Secretary of State) states: “As for the credibility of the ‘apparitions’ in question, this Dicastery respects what was decided by the bishops of the former Yugoslavia in the Declaration of Zadar, April 10, 1991” (2).
The 1998 CDF Statement on Medjugorje also makes specific reference to the personally negative position of the present local bishop of Mostar, Msgr. Peric, as constituting “what is and remains his personal opinion” (3). The present bishop’s personal position is not the official position of the Church on Medjugorje. The Vatican Congregation confirms the 1991 declaration of the ex-Yugoslavia Bishops as the present official position of the Church on Medjugorje, which in no way condemns the apparitions, but on the contrary allows for personal belief before any final decision is reached. The Vatican statement ends by likewise repeating the Church’s expressed permission for private pilgrimages to Medjugorje while further investigation takes place (4).
In August 2006, the Cardinal Puljic of Sarajevo announced that a new commission of investigation would be formed to continue the ecclesiastical process of evaluation of Medjugorje. The Commission would not be under the local bishop, but rather under the direction of the Conference of Bosnian bishops (5).
Question Two: I have heard that there may have been acts of disobedience by the Franciscan priests at St. James Parish in Medjugorje against their local bishop. Is this true, and if so, how could Our Lady ever “bless” acts of disobedience by appearing there?
As we saw in the 1998 Vatican CDF statement on Medjugorje, the present local bishop’s personal stance against Medjugorje is not the official position of the Church, and therefore it is most legitimate for a member of the Church to have personal belief in Medjugorje’s authenticity until the Church completes its final evaluation. This permission is granted by the authoritative teaching of the Holy See and the former Yugoslavian Bishops’ 1991 statement. This permission to personally believe in Medjugorje would of course include any of the Franciscan priests in Medjugorje who choose to give their own personal assent to the apparitions.
Therefore, to claim that some Franciscan priests are in acting in “disobedience” to the local bishop because some may believe in Medjugorje would be a misunderstanding of the official Vatican and Ex-Yugoslavian bishops’ statement which allows for personal belief. The unofficial, personally negative opinion of the local bishop does not bind any member of his diocese or Catholic individual elsewhere to follow his own personal opinion.
Beyond the issue of belief in Medjugorje’s authenticity, there is not a single documented account of any act of disobedience to a canonically legitimate directive from the local bishop by the Franciscan priests at St James Parish. Although there have been tensions historically between the local ordinary and the Franciscan Order of this region regarding issues such as parish assignments and custodianship, these issues are entirely irrelevant to the present issue of obedience to the local bishop by the Franciscans at St James Parish.
Even if there had been some acts of disobedience by the local Franciscans as gravely wrong as this would be in itself, it would not, on its own, discount the possibility of authentic apparitions from the Blessed Virgin Mary to the six visionaries. An appropriate Church investigation examines the issue of authenticity based on the moral integrity of the visionaries themselves along with other legitimate criteria, and not primarily upon those who may be proximate to the reported event.
Just Too Long?
Question Three: The messages of Medjugorje have been going on for over twenty-six years now. Isn’t that too long for authentic supernatural messages to take place? Can these apparitions really be true when they’ve been reportedly happening for so long?
The length of the series of a reported apparition event is not one of the valid criteria the Church uses in examining the issue of authenticity. The Holy Spirit “blows were he wills” (cf. Jn. 3:8.), and the Church concentrates on the “what” issue, the essential elements of message contents, general associated phenomena, and spiritual fruits, rather than the peripheral “how long” issue.
While we can look at Church precedence regarding the domain of approved private revelation to get some indication of what is within the boundaries of “usual”, we still must be careful not to place human or precedence limitations on the “inscrutable ways of God” (cf. Rom. 11:33).
In fact, we do have cases within the Church’s mystical tradition where a series of supernatural communications have lasted as long or even significantly longer than the more than quarter-century length of the Medjugorje messages. For example, St Brigid of Sweden (d. 1373), one of the Church’s most approved visionaries and mystics, received visions and messages for well over a quarter century. St Gertrude (d. 1302) received visions beginning in her youth and continued in an unbroken series from age 26 until her death. St Hildegard (d. 1179) received visions from her early childhood, and consistently from age 15 until her death at 83 for a total of sixty-eight years. St John Bosco (d. 1888) also began receiving visions as a child and continued to have supernatural communications for more than a half century.
More recently, St Pio of Pietrelcina (1887-1968) experienced consistent supernatural communications which lasted fifty years, including apparitions, visions, locutions, apparitions, spiritual transports, and the stigmata. Sr Lucia of Fatima (1908-2005) began receiving apparitions at the age of nine, and then proceeded to receive both apparitions and messages for decades after her original six 1917 Marian apparitions. It is believed that Sr Lucia continued to receive supernatural communication from Our Lady, which included the supernatural confirmation of the validity of the 1984 world consecration to the Immaculate Heart of Mary by Pope John Paul II, until shortly before her death in 2005 at the age of 97.
We must be careful not to use incidental criteria, such as the length of the series of the apparitions, as a fundamental reason to validate or invalidate a reported apparition. Keep in mind that the purpose of authentic private revelation is to encourage humanity to live the public revelation of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ in its fullness of Catholic truth and life. If our contemporary humanity is not responding in general to the overall message of Jesus Christ and the Church, then we should not be surprised when we see an “unusual” increase or continuation of appearances and messages from the Mother of God, the Queen of Prophets, to encourage our world to respond to the saving light of Jesus Christ amidst a world commonly admitted to be experiencing unprecedented spiritual and moral darkness. Perhaps gratitude, rather than skepticism, might be the more appropriate response.
False Ecumenical Teachings?
Question Four: Do the messages reported by the visionaries contain false teachings regarding ecumenism which contradict the official teachings of the Catholic Church’s Magisterium? I’ve heard that one reported message calls for a type of “religious indifferentism” where one religion is as good as another.
The first element that the Church considers in evaluating a reported Marian apparition is its message contents. Is the reported message in conformity with the faith and morals teachings of the Catholic Church? For the Holy Spirit, who guides the Church, and particularly the papal office of Peter, in truth (cf. Mt. 16:15-20), will not contradict himself by revealing a supernatural message to an individual that is contrary to the truth which the same Spirit reveals to the Church (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 67).
The messages of Medjugorje do not contain a single doctrinal teaching that contradicts authentic Catholic Magisterial teaching. On the contrary, the Medjugorje message presents in its most fundamental themes the Gospel message of Jesus Christ for faith, prayer, fasting, conversion, and peace, as were also expounded upon by the Fathers of the Church. At the same time, the message conveys a contemporary formulation of Catholic teachings which profoundly parallels the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, the postconciliar teachings of the Papal Magisterium, as well as embodying a present-day continuation of the approved Marian messages of Lourdes and Fatima (6).
Let us precisely examine the Medjugorje message regarding ecumenism. The message given by the Blessed Virgin states: “In God’s eyes, there are no divisions and there are no religions. You in the world have made the divisions. The one mediator is Jesus Christ. Which religion you belong to cannot be a matter of indifference. The presence of the Holy Spirit is not the same in every Church” (7). The visionary Mirjana added that the Madonna “deplored the lack of religious unity, especially in the villages. She said that everybody’s religion should be respected, and of course, one’s own”
This message accurately portrays the Catholic Church’s teaching on ecumenism from the Second Vatican Council in its most key components. Firstly, God did not make different religious divisions in the world, but rather man did. Secondly, the truth of the Holy Spirit does not dwell equally in all religions, and therefore, what religion you belong to cannot be matter of indifference. Thirdly, that in spite of substantial differences in truth, we should respect all religions in an authentic effort towards eventual unity in the one Body of Christ (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 817-822.)
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council, after discussing the elements of truth and moral life deserving respect in other world religions, confirmed the fullness of truth in Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church:
The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines, which, although differing in many from her own teachings, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that the truth which enlightens all men. Yet she is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth, and the life (John. 1 : 6). In Him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (2 Corinthians 5 : 18-19), men find the fullness of their religious life (9).
In its decree on Ecumenism, the Second Vatican Council refers to the human elements which that have led to division within the Church in a clear parallel to the Medjugorje message on ecumenism, but and likewise calls for the restoring of Christian unity in the one Church of Christ:
The restoration of unity among all Christians is one of the principal concerns of the Second Vatican Council. Christ the Lord founded one Church and one Church only. However, many Christian communities present themselves as the true inheritors of Jesus Christ; all indeed profess to be followers of the Lord but they differ in mind and go their different ways, as if Christ himself were divided. Certainly, such division openly contradicts the will of Christ, scandalizes the world, and damages the holy cause, the preaching of the Gospel to every creature (10).
Not only does the message of Medjugorje conform completely to the Church’s official teachings, but they reflect the most current expression of the Church’s teachings with its emphasis on issues precisely such as ecumenism and the contemporary Church mission of authentic Christian unity.
Question Five: I’ve heard that the visionaries were not particularly devout before the apparitions began. How do we know they have not been simply falsifying these apparitions for reasons of their own personal gain?
When the Church examines the “visionaries” or recipients of a reported apparition, they look for evidence of the moral integrity of the individual particularly from the beginning point of apparitions onward. The Church does not require a standard of holiness for the visionary before the reported supernatural occurrence begins, but rather what level of Christian virtue and integrity does the individual exhibit during the period of reported apparitions as a potential result of the apparition itself.
The Church grants the possibility that God could choose, in his mysterious ways, someone to receive a heavenly message who could be far from Christ or from the Church, and then to experience conversion as a result of the supernatural intervention. Otherwise, how could we make provision for some of the apostles and disciples of Jesus himself, such as St. Matthew or St. Mary Magdalene, whose former lives where not in conformity with the Gospel, but whose later conversion became examples of Christian discipleship for all times.
Still, a basic moral integrity, and not an exceptional standard of holiness, is what commission members of Church investigations look for in evaluating the basic conditions for a possible recipient of heavenly visits or messages (11).
The six Medjugorje visionaries, Ivanka Ivankovic, Mirjana Dragicevic, Vicka Ivankovic, Marija Pavlovic, Ivan Dragicevic and Jakov Colo, have been under the “public microscope” for their most of their adolescent and adult lives. They have been interviewed by a countless number of bishops, priests, religious, theologians, and laity. The overwhelming consensus of public opinion for those who have had direct contact with these six visionaries is a profound respect for their manifest integrity, straightforwardness, and the down-to-earth approach to the Christian life and to their experience as visionaries. Theologians who have interviewed the visionaries have likewise concluded to the same obvious presence of moral integrity and personal authenticity (12).
Remarkable personal sacrifice rather than personal gain has been the foremost experience of these six people, often at the painful expense of personal privacy and hardship. Daily talks to pilgrims, prayer groups, and healing prayer sessions have been the benchmark of life for the majority of the Medjugorje seers for the last 26 years. Worthy of particular mention is the Christian witness of Vicka Ivankovic, known for both her extraordinary suffering and her irrepressible smile.
Since the apparitions began, Vicka has suffered an inoperable brain cyst, severe spinal pain, and a series of similar physical or spiritual penances, which she joyfully chooses to offer for the conversion of sinners and the salvation of souls. Numerous reports of spiritual and physical healings have come as a result of Vicka’s praying over pilgrims, which she does only with the expressed permission of the parish priests. Although exceptional Christian holiness is not a requirement for being a true visionary, Vicka seems to embody both roles with an inspiring and contagious Christian joy.
Two medical teams, one from Milan and the other from renowned French University of Montpellier, have scientifically examined the visionaries during the time of reported apparitions. Each has independently validated the legitimacy of their state of ecstasy as being in some form of true communication outside of their ordinary time-space experience (13). These scientific studies also ruled out any possibility of “collective hallucination” and, by deduction, any form of mere human deception of falsification (14).
Is Medjugorje Real?
The Medjugorje apparitions possess all the principal characteristics that the Church looks for in manifesting supernatural authenticity. The message contents are in complete conformity with the official doctrinal teachings of the Catholic Church. The phenomena that accompany the messages constitute scientifically validated ecstasy during the apparitions and numerous reports of healings. The visionaries manifest lives of moral integrity and psychological stability. More than 200 bishops, archbishops, and cardinals have visited the site officially, in addition to the many unofficial visits by the shepherds of the Church. In addition, well over 100 bishops, archbishops, and cardinals have publicly expressed their belief in Our Lady’s presence in Medjugorje (15). The spiritual fruits of conversion and spiritual peace have been the ubiquitous testimony of the greater part of the thirty million pilgrims who have come to Medjugorje and have responded to the Queen of Peace’s call for greater faith, prayer, fasting, conversion, and peace.
Two final testimonies to the supernatural reality of Medjugorje are worthy of special mention.
On August 14, 1994, I was in Calcutta, presenting talks on the fifth Marian Dogma of Mary Co-redemptrix, Mediatrix, and Advocate to six different sections of Missionaries of Charity groups at Mother Teresa’s direct request (including two of which Mother herself attended). When I first entered her presence and walked over to the place we would sit and begin talking, I saw a calendar with the image of Our Lady of Medjugorje on its cover hanging on the wall next to us. After a few minutes of enthusiastic conversation with Mother regarding other Marian issues, I pointed up to the calendar and asked her, “Mother, do you believe in Medjugorje?” She responded by putting her finger up to her lips as if to gesture “shhh” or let us speak quietly of this, and answered, “I asked Our Lady of Medjugorje to come to my first home for the dying in Calcutta, and she did!” I did not have the courage to further question the future saint, “How did she come, Mother? – in the form of an apparition, a healing?” She simply left the subject with a serene smile on her face.
The second personal testimony comes from Pope John Paul II. Over the course of his blessed pontificate, he had received several of the visionaries in private audience, including a twenty-minute audience with Mirjana in 1987 (16); had invited numerous bishops and priests to go to Medjugorje and to pray for him there (17); and the late Cardinal Tomasek had made public the typical comment of John Paul II to inquiring bishops: “If I were not Pope I would like to go to Medjugorje to help at the work with the pilgrims” (18.).
We have in incontestable documentation the written words of Pope John Paul II to his lifetime Polish friends, Marek and Sophia Skwarnicki in their personal correspondence (released with their permission), which manifests the saintly Holy Father’s personal belief in Medjugorje, and his common spiritual practice of daily pilgriming to Medjugorje in his heart” (19). For example, in John Paul’s letter of December 1992 to the Skwarnicki Family, he writes:
I thank Sophia for everything concerning Medjugorje. I, too, go there every day as a pilgrim in my prayers: I unite in my prayers with all those who pray there or receive a calling for prayer from there (20).
On February 25, 1994, John Paul writes:
I guess Medjugorje is better understood these days. This kind of “insisting” of our Mother is better understood today when we see with our very eyes the enormousness of the danger. At the same time, the response in the way of a special prayer—and that coming from people all around the world—fills us with hope that here, too, the good will prevail (21).
And in closing his May 28, 1992, letter to his Polish friends, John Paul reiterates: “And now we every day return to Medjugorje in prayer” (22).
Is Medjugorje real? According to the Church’s own criteria, the spiritual fruits superabundant throughout the world, and the saintly witnesses and discernments of Pope John Paul II and Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, I believe the only proper theological response is “yes.”
(1) Declaration of the Ex-Yugoslavia Bishops’ Conference on Medjugorje, Ex-Yugoslavia Conference of Catholic Bishops, Zadar, April 10, 1991.
(2) Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, May 26, 1998 Statement to Msgr. Gilbert Aubry, Protocol No. 154/81-06419, Vatican City.
(5) Announcement of Cardinal Puljic of Sarajevo, Bosnia- Herzegovina, July 25, 1996, Catholic News Service.
(6) Cf. For example, M. Miravalle, Doctrinal dissertation entitled, The Message of Medjugorje: A Postconcilar Formulation of Lourdes and Fatima, May 31, 1984, which was successfully defended at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas (Angelicum) in Rome, and which presented the thesis of the complete conformity of the Medjugorje message with the teachings of the Gospels and the Church Fathers in its foundational elements, and with the Second Vatican Council, its postconciliar teachings, along with the approved messages of Lourdes and Fatima in its developmental themes.
(7) Message of Medjugorje reported between 1981-1983.
(9) Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate, n. 2.
(10) Second Vatican Council, Unitatis Redintegratio, n. 1.
(11) Cf. M. Miravalle, Private Revelation: Discerning with the Church, Queenship publications, p. 17. Cf. especially criteria of Pope Benedict XIV for recipients of prophecy, some of whom could theoretically be outside of grace, such as the prophet Balaam and Caiphas.
(12 Cf. R. Laurentin and H. Joyeux, Scientific and Medical Studies on the Apparitions at Medjugorje, Robert Faricy, S.J., A Medjugorje Retreat; Fr. Michael O’Carroll, Medjugorje: Facts, Documents, Theology: Is Medjugorje Approved?; M. Miravalle, Introduction to Medjugorje, Ch. 1.)
(13) James Paul Pandarakalam, “Are the Apparitions of Medjugorje Real?” Journal of Scientific Exploration, Vol. 15, No. 2, pp. 229-239, 2001. Cf. Laurentin and Joyeux, Scientific and Medical Studies on the Apparitions at Medjugorje.
(15) For the comprehensive list of the names of the cardinals, archbishops, and bishops, see Denis Nolan, Medjugorje and the Church, Queenship Publications, pp. 36-45.
(16) Denis Nolan, “John Paul II Believed in Medjugorje,” Mother of All Peoples Marian E-zine, June 30, 2007.
(17) Ibid. Note: I have personally spoken to three American bishops who have the same experience of an encouragement from John Paul II to visit Medjugorje and to pray for him there.
(19) “Original Letter Correspondence of Pope John Paul II to Marek and Sophia Skwarnicki,” as published in Nolan, Medjugorje and the Church, Queenship Publications, pp. 151-147.
(20) Ibid., p. 153.
(21) Ibid., p. 157.
(22) Ibid., p. 155.