apparitions of Our Lady at Medjugorje. Thousands of pilgrims continue to flock to Bosnia-Herzegovina yet the Church has not declared that the visions are authentic. Mark Dowd investigates
Will the Church ever recognise Medjugorje?
My grandmother took one aeroplane flight only in her long life. She went on a parish pilgrimage to Lourdes in the early 1980s. She returned exhilarated. For almost 15 years the holy water she brought back for us in the 12 centimetre-high Virgin Mary bottle stared at me accusingly on visits home to Manchester, the fumes from the gas fire rendering a strange shimmering effect as the receptacle fixed its gaze on me across the sitting room from its secure place on the mantelpiece.
I've never been to Lourdes. I did make it to Knock with my parents on their first visit to Ireland in 1996. "What do you think then?" I asked my mother over lunch after we had been to Mass there. She looked slightly guilty, as though she was letting me down.
"It's a bit tacky, isn't it?" she said. Dad nodded in agreement. He said nothing, just sipping his half pint of Guinness, but his silence felt rather accusatory.
That, I thought, was that. No more Marian shrines. After all, these places aren't articles of faith, are they, I thought to myself. You can be a good Catholic without buying into all this, well, superstition.
So when the BBC World Service called and asked me to visit Medjugorje to make a programme to mark the 25th anniversary of the June apparitions, I felt very odd about it. It was made clear that they wanted someone who was suspended somewhere on a spectrum between hostile cynicism and unquestioning acceptance. "What did I feel about the place?" I was asked.
I didn't rightly know. All I can remember is watching an Everyman programme in the 1980s and being intrigued by interviews with the six visionaries and also the visiting scientists and psychologists who performed all manner of tests on the children while they were experiencing their "encounters".
They had stuck needles in them, placed hot silver discs on their skin and waved all sorts of objects in front of them without registering a millimetre of movement from the cornea. Nothing appeared to get through to them during these periods of communion with Our Lady.
So 20 years on I turned up in Medjugorje and saw how life had changed for these men and women, most of whom are now in early middle age. At 9am a crowd of around 600 people thronged around the house of Jakov Colo.
It resembled a scene from a Big Brother eviction night more than a depiction of Catholic piety. Questions were fired at him and he gave
answers about Our Lady, the messages he and the others have received and the importance of "inner conversion".
"Our mother," he told us, "wanted us to conform our lives to that of her Son. Everything will flow from that."
Trudging away from what had been, in effect, a mini-press conference on the lawn of his rather splen did detached house, I felt cynicism eating away at me: what if this was all a business ruse to exploit millions of gullible Catholics? I was not the only one with such unworthy thoughts. The local Bishop of MostarDuvno, Mgr Ratko Peric, spoke about his misgivings on a visit to Ireland in 2004. The visionaries, he said, "thanks to the apparitions, have good homes and a comfortable existence, at least that is what the mass media say".
I did raise this point with another of the visionaries, Ivan Dragicevic. Ivan spends half the year with his wife and children in Boston, Massachusetts
and the rest of the time in BosniaHerzegovina. How did he pay for all this? How did he feed his wife and children? Donations from pilgrims? "No, I don't receive any donations," he told me, " I survive like many of the people here, providing food and accommodation for visitors who want to come and see the place with their own eyes." I did press him further on whether this could really funerall his outgoings, but he appeared not so much irritated by the line of questioning, as bored by the marginal importance of it all. I suppose if you have glimpsed heaven such enquiries appear to be exactly what they are, proddings from a sceptical journalist.
The sceptic's case is put directly by the local bishop: why have none of these six individuals gone on to become priests or nuns (like Bernadette did) if they are specially chosen by God? Bishop Ratko Peric might betray a little clericalism in his analysis (whatever happened to the "priesthood of all believers") but some of his other anxieties are shared by many.
"There is," he says, "a real danger that the Madonna and the Church could be privatised. People could start contriving a Madonna and a Church according to their own taste, perception and deception: by not submitting their reason as believers to the official Magisterium of the Church, but rather forcing the Church to follow and recognise their fantasy."
Moreover, say the critics, the Vatican's refusal to pronounce on the authenticity of the apparitions is proof of the dubious nature of what is going on. They point to the fact that Bernadette 's experience was declared authentic in 1862, some four years after her experiences of the Immaculate Conception. Fatima took 13 years before joining the official list in 1930.
But, say Medjugorje supporters, this was only possible after the apparitions had finished. They interpret Rome's silence not as implicit disapproval, but simply as cautious wisdom. One such supporter is the exotically named Milona von Habsburg de Rambure, a descendant of the family of the last Austro-Hungarian Emperor. She has written to the present Pope about Medjugorje (when he was Cardinal Ratzinger), outlining her enthusiasm for what is happening in the hills of Herzegovina.
"Both he and John Paul II," she said, "they knew. But the Church is being cautious. It is too soon to say anything yet until the apparitions cease."
According to three of the visionaries, daily encounters at precise times in the day are still a regular part of their lives and therefore it is going to be some time before Rome can allow itself to come off the fence and take a stance.
1 had been hoping to stay with Ivan as he had his daily 6,40pm encounter, but a visiting Church official had made it clear that he didn't want any press around as he sat there with Ivan, so I had to fall back on other experiences as I endeavoured to leave my own "fence" and take a stand.
In the end, I did come off the fence, and here is why: the stories of the pilgrims. In the short time in Medjugorje, I met far too many people who spoke credibly and movingly of feeling bestowed with "that peace that surpasseth all understanding" on their visits here.
As we sat in the square of St James's Church, some 10 feet away from the brilliant white statue of Our Lady, Milona von Habsburg recalled her first trip here in 1984.
"My life was out of sorts. I was walking up the hill towards the large white cross up there and it felt like a metaphor for my life; I felt weighed down. Then on top of the hill, I looked down on the small village before me. Suddenly, I had a very strange sense that I was being watched, seen right through by a pair of invisible eyes. It was a totally nonjudgmental presence of unconditional acceptance. A powerful peace accompanied that moment which has lasted with me ever since."
Moments after this experience, she says that she cried tears of joy and relief.
"Every tap was switched on. I couldn't stop. I just cried and cried."
Like St Thomas in the post-Resurrection gospel narratives, many of us want a piece of the action for ourselves and suspend assent until the "proof" is there and yes, it would have been better for this article (and for my future fife), if I had undergone something similar in my three days in Medjugorje.
I didn't, but I saw and heard plenty of "evidence" that has pushed me much further along that spectrum between cynicism and acceptance, most of all the events of the evening of WednesdayMay 10.
Twice a week there is adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in the parish church at lOpm. The place must hold no more than 700 people at most, so it's standing room only, and that is 15 minutes before the start (what we'd give for these scenes in post-Christian Britain).
The procession enters with the monstrance placed on the altar and for one hour in a medley of music (interrupted by meticulously observed periods of silence), a rhythmic chant envelops the place; the melody is the same, but the words of adoration are reproduced for all to sing in French, German, Croatian, English, Italian and even Japanese. You get to see the words on a suitably placed screen on a wall to the left of the main altar, so after a short time everyone is drawn into the multi-lingual chant. 1 stared around from my vantage point just inside the side-door half way down the church.
Young people, so many of them, with eyes focused on the image in front of them on the altar, invalids in wheelchairs and most touching of all, an elderly couple draped in each other's arms, their heads tilted towards each other in intimate contact, singing together "Gospa majka moja" — "Our Pilgrims, left, pray at Medjugorje