The Vatican’s impending decision could stun the shrine’s devotees, says Donal Anthony Foley This year saw the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the alleged visions at Medjugorje. Great numbers of pilgrims have visited the “shrine” in Bosnia-Herzegovina during this period, and the alleged visions and visionaries have a worldwide following. But is Medjugorje a case of genuine Marian apparitions? What if this isn’t the case, and it turns out to be a huge religious deception?
Many people are uncomfortable with this second possibility and would rather focus on the “good fruits” which have arisen out of the visions, and which have certainly been present in factors such as individuals coming back to Church, or finding their vocation. But we cannot assess a series of alleged visions just on the basis of good fruits: we also need to investigate the totality of what actually happened.
Regarding Medjugorje, the Church is now doing just that at the highest level, following the formation, in March 2010, of an international commission led by Cardinal Camillo Ruini. Once it comes to a decision, this will be delivered to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), but the final verdict rests with Pope Benedict XVI.
It doesn’t seem to be widely understood, particularly by a good number of Medjugorje supporters, that it is quite possible that the commission will issue a negative judgment. But if the ultimate judgment, as ratified by the Pope, is negative, how will rank and file Medjugorje supporters react? They are used to seeing a generally positive media position on Medjugorje, even though there is a growing body of evidence pointing to serious problems regarding the alleged visions and the visionaries, as well as their immediate associates.
A good example of this is the laicisation, in June 2009, of Fr Tomislav Vlasic, one of early spiritual directors of the visionaries. He had previously been reported to the CDF “for the diffusion of dubious doctrine, manipulation of consciences, suspected mysticism, disobedience toward legitimately issued orders” and charges contra sextum – that is, in connection with the Sixth Commandment, and thus relating to sexual matters.
According to the papal nuncio to Bosnia-Herzegovina, Archbishop D’Errico, Medjugorje is a subject which “deals with a question for which [Pope Benedict] feels responsible as the supreme head of the Church to pronounce a clear message”.
So we can expect a definite decision one way or the other from the Pope regarding Medjugorje, but there are signs that this decision is likely to be negative.
This is clear from the fact that the Vatican has adopted a more critical stance regarding alleged mystics generally since Pope Benedict came to power. Figures such as Brother Gino, an alleged stigmatist, and members of the Army of Mary, a sect founded by one Marie-Paule Giguère in Canada, in 1971, have been disciplined by the CDF in recent years. And it is surely significant that Cardinal Ruini overturned a positive diocesan decision about the alleged weeping statue at Civitavecchia, which has Medjugorje connections, and so has a track record of being cautious about alleged mystical events.
The crucial point in all this, and the one which will surely be the most significant for the Ruini commission, is that up to now, official Church pronouncements about Medjugorje have either been explicitly or implicitly negative – explicitly in the case of the successive local bishops, and implicitly as regards the 1981 Zadar Declaration, where the bishops of ex-Yugoslavia said that “on the basis of investigation up till now, it cannot be established that one is dealing with supernatural apparitions and revelations”.
Other statements concerning, for example, pilgrimages have essentially been of a pastoral nature and designed to ensure that the genuine needs of pilgrims were taken into account. Some striking supernatural facts about Medjugorje are going to have to suddenly emerge if the commission is to overturn the previously established ecclesial positions, and it is very difficult to see this happening.
Where does all this leave the Catholic media, given its largely positive reports about Medjugorje? If it doesn’t properly investigate Medjugorje its credibility will be called into question, and, just as happened with the sex abuse crisis, it will be left up to the secular press to take the lead in exposing some of the less savoury aspects of Medjugorje.
So there needs to be a much more critical approach from the Catholic media towards Medjugorje, both to get to the facts and also to prepare Medjugorje supporters for the real possibility of a negative decision. If such a decision was to come tomorrow, it would be nothing less than a bombshell for most convinced Medjugorje adherents and could conceivably lead to some of them leaving the Church. They would be quite entitled to ask: “Why weren’t we told about all this negative information concerning Medjugorje?” But there is also a need for the leaders of the Medjugorje movement in this country, and farther afield, to start to inform their followers about the possibility of a negative verdict. There do seem to have been signs of more questioning articles and news reports more recently, as though people are starting to realise that a negative decision is a distinct possibility, but I would argue that much more needs to be done.
What, then, if the decision is negative? My hope is that, if this is the case, convinced Medjugorje supporters will turn to the approved apparitions of Our Lady, particularly Fatima, as this has (unlike Medjugorje) obtained the full approval of the Church and of all the popes since Pius XII. When Pope Benedict visited the shrine in May 2010 he went out of his way to emphasise that “Fatima...has a message for the entire world and touches history here and now, and sheds light on this history.” The Fatima message provides a blueprint for the future and an absolutely sure and certain devotional path, and it is to be hoped that Medjugorje supporters will realise this and act on it, rather than continue to uncritically support the alleged visions.
Donal Anthony Foley is the author of the recently published Medjugorje Revisited: 30 Years of Visions or Religious Fraud? (Theotokos Books), and maintains a related website at Theotokos.org.uk