Fr Richard Foley SJ examines distorted news reporting of the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje and the Yugoslav church's divided reaction to them.
SOME WILDLY distorted reports have been circulating lately about Medjugorje. The prize-winner appeared in The Mail on Sunday of November 18. Within the compass of a 350-word piece it managed to pack at least ten errors of fact besides twisting the whole thing out of all recognition.
Unfortunately a portion of the Catholic press also got things wrong. One prominent headline announced: "Bishops ban all pilgrimages." Not true — only "official" pilgrimages have been banned; that is, those organised at diocesan and parochial level.
Unofficial or private pilgrimages remain perfectly legitimate. Let us never forget that the faithful have the right — limited only by any danger to faith or morals — to investigate and see for themselves any spiritual sources, including alleged private revelations, that promise to benefit their prayer and general understanding and practice of the faith.
According to three wellknown canon lawyers, private individuals are perfectly entitled to avail themselves of the obvious advantages, logistic and economic, to be derived from placing their travelling and other arrangements in the hands of professionals. Any resultant combinations or groupings of pilgrims are altogether adventitious; they do not amount to official pilgrimages inasmuch as they arise from private enterprise, and are not tied up and identified with some diocesan or parochial initiative Or some specifically Catholic institution, organisation or body.
The French theologian Canon Rene Laurentin, in a speciallywritten article for Le Figaro on November 12 pointed out that well before the Medjugorje phenomenon began there had been a conflict between the Franciscans in Herzegovina and the bishop of Mostar over the allocation of parishes.
Ironically enough, the bishop initially welcomed the news of the apparitions "with tears of joy"; but within a matter of
weeks he took sides with his unaccepting secular clergy.
Early in 1982 (the apparitions began in June of the previous year) the bishop appointed a four-man commission, comprising two Franciscans and two seculars.
When their verdict proved to be divided, he nominated, in March of this year, a new commission. Ten of the 14 priests on it were selected by him on the basis of their known opposition to the Medjugorje claims. Not surprisingly, this commission, over which the bishop presides, adopted a negative attitude from the very outset and came out strongly against organised pilgrimages.
On October 1 I the commission was reconvened by the bishop at Sarajevo and urged by him to issue an even more condemnatory communiqué. But, Laurentin goes on to say, its members evidently had some misgivings and no agreement was reached.
Next, the bishop invited the Yugoslav episcopal conference to endorse the commission's findings and to come out with the strongest-possible condemnatory communiqué.
Misgivings arose once again, however, for the bishops realise full well that the Church champions freedom in the matter of prayer — especially where, as is abundantly the case at Medjugorje, it is good and fruitful.
So what the assembled hierarchy decided to do by way of compromise was to insert an important nuance into the draft text. "One should not organise pilgrimages to Medjugorje" was amended to read, "One should not organise official pilgrimages to Medjugorje."
It is no secret, by the way, that some Yugoslav bishops fully accept Medjugorje; the Archbishop of Split has even been there incognito and hails it as the most sanctifying and stimulating think that could ever have happened to the Church in Yugoslavia.
On October 30 the Bishop of Mostar published a swingeing attack on Medjugorje and its Franciscan staff. Fr Tomislav Vlasic, the spiritual director of the visionaries, is roundly denounced as a charismatic magician, liar and perjurer.
All of which, I agree with Laurentin, makes astonishing reading for those who know Fr Vlasic and appreciate the radiance of his total commitment and zeal for God's kingdom.
Cardinal Ratzinger has made it quite clear that the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has not adopted any official position vis-a-vis Medjugorje.
And it is surely not without significance that he has gone on record as saying in this same context that "God could talk to our own age through humble or simple people and through extraordinary signs."
Also to be noted is that Pope John Paul It has personally requested the Bishop of Mostar to avoid all precipitation in the matter of passing definitive judgment on Medjugorje.
Nor is Laurentin by any means the only theologian of international repute to have visited and accepted Medjugorje as a priceless and timely gift offered to our sinful, warthreatened world by the Mother of God.
Two others that can be named out of many are Robert Faricey, SJ (his book on the subject is obtainable from Veritas Publications) and Michael O'Carroll, CSSp, author of the well-known Marian encyclopaedia.
The piece de resistance of Laurentin's article is his paragraph narrating how the bishop has interrogated each of the visionaries somewhat severely. When with Mania (a pleasant but unsophisticated country girl of 18) he reproached her in connection with the fact that every week they fast and pray specifically for him. "You pray for me", he said, "as though I were a sinner."
"No, my Lord", she replied with total sincerity, "we pray for you as our bishop."
The Medjugorje experience was quite wonderfully uplifting and inspiring. Nor have I met anyone, including priests, that did not register the same impression.
The genuine and deep faith of the multitudes that go there; the peace that pervades everyone and everything; the volume of prayer and the willingness to fast and do penance; the dozens of priests hearing Confessions out in the open; the concelebrated Mass with as many as 60 priests from all over the world; the beautiful mystery of Mary that alone could possibly account for this phenomenon of sanctification and renewal — these are some of the Medjugorje memories that vibrate with the music of gospel holiness, love and service.