Medjugorje Talking Point article for Catholic Times by Donal Anthony Foley
In his recent Talking Point article, Fr Jim Mulligan pointed out that Medjugorje is back in the news, principally because of the announcement of a new Commission under Cardinal Ruini, but also because of the rather provocative visit to the “shrine” by Cardinal Schonborn during the Christmas season.
Fr Mulligan then described how the alleged visions began in 1981, before going on to quote some of “Our Lady’s” words. At this point, of course, the obvious question is, how do we know the Blessed Virgin has actually said anything at Medjugorje? Fr Mulligan didn’t answer that question, but just assumed it was the case, before describing the content of the “messages,” a list including “continuous prayer,” reconciliation with God and our neighbour, fasting, almsgiving, scripture reading and partaking of the sacraments. These are all very good and worthy activities, but again there is no hard evidence that any messages asking for these things are genuine.
Fr Mulligan then focused on the number of priests, bishops, and even cardinals, who have visited Medjugorje, and quoted the figure of 30 million pilgrims, or roughly about 1 million a year since its origin in 1981. This sounds impressive until it is realised that 5 million people a year visit both Lourdes and Fatimaor ten times as many as go to Medjugorje. As for clerical visitors, it cannot be emphasized often enough that the number or status of the people who visit Medjugorje has no absolute bearing on authenticitythe main factor to be considered is simply whether or not there is any evidence for a genuine supernatural intervention there.
Fr Mulligan’s points about the influence of a visit to Medjugorje on young priests and young people generally are well made, but they also have to be put into context, in the light of the drastic decline in the Church in the Western World over the last 30 or 40 years. When young people come into contact with a strong local religious atmosphere, as is the case at Medjugorje, then that is bound to have a positive effect, as chroniclers of pilgrimages down the ages have noted. But again, such enthusiasm is not proof that anything supernatural has happened just that the native religious culture has had a strong effect on visiting pilgrims, in comparison to what they are used to at home.
The same is the case with the communities and initiatives which have developed around Medjugorje, such as the Cenacolo community, and even as regards the number of confessions heard therewhen people suddenly experience a culture where confession is freely available and promotedunlike, sadly, the case in many western countriesthen naturally this is going to have a positive effect on them.
In fact about half the article was taken up with commendations from figures such as Cardinal Schonborn, or the Italian cardinal, Ersilio Tonini, while Fr Mulligan also claimed that the approbation of Fr René Laurentin for Medjugorje was of great significance. This fact has certainly been important, but what most people don’t realise is that Fr Laurentin, in his reputedly authoritative Chronological Corpus of the Messages, changed the Gospa’s response to Ivanka during one of the visions (see www.theotokos.org.uk/pages/unapprov/medjugor/laurentin.html for details). This is an activity which can hardly give us much confidence about his ability to portray the whole truth about Medjugorje.
The visionaries were interviewed and taped by Fr Zovko and his curate during the first week or so of the visions, and the transcripts of these tapes are the key to understanding Medjugorje. When analysed they bring to light many disturbing aspects surrounding the original visions they present a “warts and all” picture of Medjugorje which is far from flattering, but they have been largely ignored by Medjugorje writers in favour of later interviews, which in some cases cannot be reconciled with what is actually on the original tapes.
Fr Mulligan also cites Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar as a supporter of Medjugorje, but it seems as though the Swiss theologian was unduly influenced by Fr Laurentin, and had not made any detailed studies of Medjugorje himself. And in fact some time after his public statements in favour of Medjugorje von Balthasar withdrew his belief in the genuineness of the ongoing claims for visions therebut he was less public in his retraction than in his original criticisms. He apparently told a group on retreat under him, around 1987, that he did believe in Medjugorje at one time but no longer. In any event, the result was no positive public statement on Medjugorje from him after that point.
Fr Mulligan then referred to the Zadar declaration, which was made by the bishops of the former Yugoslavia in 1991, and which stated that after nearly ten years of alleged visions, it could not be affirmed that “supernatural apparitions and revelations” had taken place. He characterised this decision as placing Medjugorje “in a position of ongoing investigation by the Church.”
Actually, though, if this decision is properly understood, it is essentially negative, because what the bishops were really saying was that after thousands of alleged visions, they were not prepared to verify any of themnot oneas being of supernatural origin. Surely that is an extraordinary fact. At recognised apparition sites, such as Lourdes and Fatima, the local bishop was able to give a positive approbation on the basis of a small number of apparitionsat La Salette and Pontmain, just onebut at Medjugorje, even after ten years, and thousands of alleged visions, this proved impossible.
To go further, surely it is stretching things beyond the bounds of credibility to maintain that the Yugoslav Bishops had been genuinely holding out some hope that, perhaps after several thousand more alleged visions, they would have been able, at some future point, to come to a positive conclusion?
The facts are that both the original bishop of Mostar, Bishop Zanic, and his successor, Bishop Peric, have been resolutely opposed to Medjugorjeand despite what some supporters of Medjugorje say, it is not the case that the Medjugorje dossier was “taken out of the hands” of Bishop Zanic, as was pointed out by Msgr Henri Brincard, bishop of Puy-en-Velay during an assembly of the French bishops in January 2001. This act was simply an acknowledgement that Medjugorje had become too big an issue to be dealt with on a purely diocesan level.
Likewise, as noted above, the Zadar declaration, is essentially negative, while at an even higher level, all the evidence suggests that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faithformerly headed by Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVIhas had serious long-term reservations about Medjugorje. This is clear from the report issued by Bishop Peric following his ad limina visit to the Pope in February 2006. It seems that regarding Medjugorje, the Pope indicated that for some time, the CDF had been sceptical as regards the claims of daily visions made by some of the visionaries.
Fr Mulligan also states that: “The visionaries were told that these would be the last apparitions of Our Lady that mankind would experience ‘in this manner.’” It’s a pity somebody didn’t tell this to those individuals who have come home from a trip to Medjugorje and then started to claim that they themselves have been seeing the Blessed Virgin. And who is to say they are wrong, if discernment is to be based on the number and eminence of visitors to a particular alleged shrine, or on personal factors such as the way people “feel” about a particular visionary?
Fr Mulligan then summarised the alleged “secrets” received by the visionaries at Medjugorje, but of course there is no evidence that any of them are genuine, and this is particularly the case with the secret which says that a permanent sign, which is to be “beautiful, intangible, indestructible” is to be left on apparition hill. The problem with this is that if a permanent, but obviously miraculous sign is to be left there, then this would tend to do away with the need for faithunlike the case with artefacts such as the Shroud of Turin, or the Guadalupe Tilma with Our Lady’s image from Mexico. The word “intangible”that is not capable of being touched, (or even perceived), is the big problem for this “secret,” since artefacts such as the Shroud and Tilma can be touched.
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 of implicitly negativeexplicitly in the case of the local bishops, and implicitly as regards the Zadar declaration. All the 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 care of. Some extraordinary supernatural facts about Medjugorje are going to have to suddenly appear if the Commission is to overturn the previously established ecclesial positions, and despite Fr Mulligan’s optimism, it is very difficult to see this happening.
This article appeared initially in the Catholic Times.