Review: Medjugorje: What’s Happening

The recent news that Fr Tomislav Vlasic – one of the Franciscans most involved in the early promotion of Medjugorje – has left the priesthood after being placed under investigation by the Vatican, means that an analysis of this book on Medjugorje is all the more pertinent.

One recent reviewer of this book described it “fascinating,” but like many of the claims made about Medjugorje, this is something of an exaggeration. Rather it is little more than the usual pro-Medjugorje propaganda which has been served up to a largely unsuspecting public for nearly 28 years now, since the visions began in June 1981.

The book begins with a foreword which outlines the differences between Public and private revelation, with the former being the teaching contained in the Scriptures and Tradition, and the latter events such as Fatima and Lourdes. It is claimed that “all that has been reported from Medjugorje does not contain a single statement that in any way contradicts Catholic Magisterial teaching.” However, some of the messages are theologically suspect, or at least ambiguous. For example, this message dated 31 August 1982, which calls into question Mary’s mediatory role is distinctly suspect: “I do not dispose all graces. I receive from God what I obtain through prayer. God has placed His complete trust in me.”

After these early messages, the visionaries were subject to much stricter Franciscan “supervision,” so it is not surprising that later messages were more orthodox.

However, unlike most Medjugorje books, the author does include material which reveals some of the disturbing aspects of local history. In describing the atrocities committed in the area during World War II, in 1941, we are told about the mass murder of hundreds of Serbs at the hands of the fascist Croatian Ustasha forces, which happened “within the parish of Medjugorje at the hamlet of Surmanci.” In other words, exactly forty years before the visions began, there was a horrible massacre in the same parish.

This is the first admission in the book, and it is followed by others, in what is arguably an attempt at “damage limitation.” In the old days, the most extravagant claims could be made about Medjugorje, but that time has passed and an increasing number of books have been published highlighting all the problems involved in believing in Medjugorje. The account of the first alleged vision, on 24 June 1981, (pages 18-19), has the following statement about the activities of the two initial visionaries, Ivanka and Mirjana, before they saw the Gospa: “According to some reports the girls were smoking cigarettes and listening to rock music on a radio/cassette player—perhaps for some not the most pious of preludes to what has become one of the most impressive claims of religious apparitions in Church history.”

In other words it is pretty much accepted that the girls were smoking and listening to rock music —in fact it can’t be denied now, since Medjugorje authors Fr Rene Laurentin and Wayne Weible have both admitted this. So the visions did not get off to a very promising start.

The accounts of the various visions of the first week or so then continue, but there is a big problem: these accounts cannot be adequately reconciled with the most crucial evidence of all, that is the transcripts of the original tapes made of the visionaries’ experiences at this time, by Fr Cuvalo, the local curate, and later, by Fr Zovko, the parish priest. These raise serious questions about Medjugorje. For example, the author is apparently unaware that the recognized transcripts indicate the rather strange facts that at one point the Vision’s hands were trembling, while at another the Gospa was laughing, as well as Fr Zovko’s concern that no apparent message of any substance was being given to the visionaries after five days.

A close scrutiny of the transcripts, in conjunction with a comparison between what happened at Medjugorje and unapproved apparitions, indicates that the most likely explanation for the initial visions is that their cause was diabolical. This is an unpalatable for many, but it is difficult to avoid such a conclusion.

One of the most important interviews took place at about 6:30 p.m. on the evening of 30 June. This involved Fr Zovko and five of the six visionaries, as well as two other young women, social workers, who had driven them, via a roundabout route stopping at various points, to a place called Cerno, near Medjugorje, where their visions took place that day.

The idea has grown up that the visionaries were in some way “abducted” by these social workers, as part of a Communist plot to discredit them. And this is the version of events that appears on page 53 of the book. But it seems that the visionaries knew them and agreed to go. Indeed, the evidence from the tape transcript clearly indicates that the visionaries themselves wanted to go to a different place.

There are versions of the transcripts of the interviews in the book, but there are discrepancies between them and the authoritative version given in the book by Fr Ivo Sivric, The Hidden Side of Medjugorje. Fr Sivric, a Franciscan well acquainted with Medjugorje, essentially concluded that it was impossible to accept that Medjugorje was genuine, and interestingly, a pro-Medjugorje writer, Daria Klanac, in her Aux Sources de Medjugorje, gives her own version of the transcripts, which substantially agrees with that of Fr Sivric.

There is more attempted damage limitation on page 59, this time in connection with the fact that during this interview, it became clear that the Gospa was only supposed to be appearing for another three days, a fact which is backed up in the transcripts by the witness of the two social workers, who heard the visionaries repeat the words “three times.” So there is independent confirmation that at this stage, 30 June 1981, there were only supposed to be another three visions, and this is apparent even in the Klanac version. Nearly 28 years, and tens of thousands of visions later, though, there appears to be no end to the events cantered on the visionaries of Medjugorje.

The author also mentions the infamous “bloody handkerchief” incident, which Vicka, arguably the chief visionary, wrote about in her Diary, and which concerned a meeting between a “driver” and a man covered in blood—Christ according to the visionary—who ordered that a handkerchief soaked in blood should be thrown in a river. This driver then met Mary who asked for the handkerchief, which he reluctantly handed over. However, the author fails to mention that the Gospa then reportedly said, “If you had not given it to me, that would have been the end of the world.” Asked about this, Vicka stated categorically that: “The Gospa said that was the truth.” A Blessed Virgin who threatens the end of the world over a handkerchief—surely we are in the realms of complete fantasy here?

There is also an attempt, on page 107, to distance Medjugorje from the activities of some other visionaries, such as Vassula Ryden, Christina Gallagher and Theresa Lopez, an attempt which sits uncomfortably with the fact that many recent alleged visionaries began their careers following a visit to Medjugorje.

Supporters of Fatima who have criticized Medjugorje are described as producing statements which appear “breathtaking in their vitriol,” while those who have looked critically at the lives of the visionaries or the Franciscans—a procedure which is absolutely necessary if the truth of their claims is to be assessed—are described as “obsessives.” This is a nice inversion of reality: presumably this means that those who swallow every claim made about Medjugorje, no matter how ridiculous it might be, are the sensible ones.

There are clear signs that this work is a compilation taken from ultra pro-Medjugorje sources: for example, on page 108, the conflict around Medjugorje between 1991 and 1995, is described as the “Croatian Homeland War,” which is hardly a neutral term. Letters to the Catholic Press and articles supportive of Medjugorje are also printed verbatim, as are interviews with various figures connected with the shrine. But letters which were critical of Medjugorje, and which answered the points put forward by pro-Medjugorje correspondents, are conveniently omitted.

There is also an attempt to equate Medjugorje with approved Marian apparitions such as Guadalupe, Rue du Bac, La Salette, Lourdes, Fatima, Beauraing and Bannuex, but anyone who knows anything about those events must realize that they have little or nothing in common with Medjugorje.

On page 181, the mistaken notion that the Church could not condemn Medjugorje while the visions continue is repeated, despite that fact that the Church has condemned false visions while they were alleged to be continuing in the past.

The various scientific studies carried out on the visionaries are mentioned approvingly, but the fact that the various experiments designed to test their claims were fundamentally flawed is not acknowledged. This is both because some of them were lacking in sufficient rigor, and also because no amount of scientific investigation can ever tell us anything conclusive about alleged supernatural events—the natural and the supernatural are in two completely different realms.

Many other critical points could be made about this book, and to be fair, the illustrations are good and informative, many of them being quite rare, and in themselves, a clear sign of the privileged access which the author had to early Medjugorje sources—no one even remotely critical of Medjugorje would have had such access.

It’s hard to see how one reviewer could describe this book as “balanced,” and “well-grounded,” or on an even more bizarre note, state that it was “possibly the most comprehensive critique to date.” How can a book which is so obviously slanted in favour of the usual material about Medjugorje possibly be described as a “critique?”

Readers looking for an objective investigation into Medjugorje will be deeply disappointed by this flawed book. It is to be sincerely hoped that the Church will definitively rule on this matter before even more damage is done to genuine Marian devotion.