The happenings in Medjugorje have been in the Catholic news for several decades. The site in Bosnia-Herzegovina has attracted thousands, if not millions, of pilgrims over the years.
It all started in 1981 when the Blessed Virgin Mary allegedly appeared to six visionaries. Then she allegedly appeared to them and gave them messages on a daily basis afterward.
What has been lacking has been an official judgment of the authenticity of the apparitions of Mary to the seers. More problematic for many has been the unprecedented scheduling of Mary’s visits.
Now it seems a clarification is at hand.
A commission established in 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI to study the alleged apparitions at Medjugorje reportedly voted overwhelmingly to recognize as supernatural the first seven appearances of Mary in 1981. The commission was headed by Cardinal Camillo Ruini and included cardinals, bishops, theologians, experts in psychology and psychiatry and an anthropologist.
However, according to the Vatican Insider website, the commission was much more doubtful about the thousands of alleged visions that have occurred since July 4, 1981.
The committee met 17 times and screened all documents filed in the Vatican, the parish of Medjugorje and the archives of the secret services of the former Yugoslavia. The commission heard all the seers and witnesses involved, and in April 2012, they carried out an inspection in the village.
The commission noted a very clear difference between the beginning of the phenomenon and its development. Therefore they decided to issue distinct votes on the two different phases: the first seven presumed appearances between June 24 and July 3, 1981, and all that happened later.
Members and experts came out with 13 votes in favour of recognizing the supernatural nature of the first visions. The committee argues that the six young seers were psychically normal and were caught by surprise by the apparition, and that nothing of what they had seen was influenced by either the Franciscans of the parish or any other subjects. They showed resistance in telling what happened despite the police arresting them and threatened with death. The commission also rejected the hypothesis of a demonic origin of the apparitions.
Vatican Insider published its piece on the report May 16, three days after Pope Francis spoke about some details of the Ruini report to journalists travelling with him from Fatima, Portugal.
He said that, regarding the Medjugorje commission’s work, “three things need to be distinguished.”
“About the first apparitions, when (the ‘seers’) were young, the report more or less says that the investigation needs to continue.”
“Concerning the alleged current apparitions, the report expresses doubts,” he said. Furthermore, “personally, I am more ‘mischievous.’ I prefer Our Lady to be a mother, our mother, and not a telegraph operator who sends out a message every day at a certain time — this is not the mother of Jesus.”
Pope Francis said his “personal opinion” is that “these alleged apparitions have no great value.”
The “real core” of the commission’s report, he said, is “the spiritual fact, the pastoral fact” that thousands of pilgrims go to Medjugorje and are converted. “For this there is no magic wand; this spiritual-pastoral fact cannot be denied.”
The spiritual fruits of the pilgrimages, he said, are the reason why in February he appointed Polish Archbishop Henryk Hoser of Warsaw-Praga to study the best ways to provide pastoral care to townspeople and the pilgrims.
If the Catholic Church recognizes as “worthy of belief” only the initial alleged apparitions of Mary at Medjugorje, it would be the first time the church distinguished between phases of a single event, but it also would acknowledge that human beings and a host of complicating factors are involved, said a theological expert in Mariology.
Servite Father Salvatore Perrella, president of the Pontifical Institute Marianum and a member of the Ruini commission, said that although Pope Francis has not yet made a formal pronouncement on the presumed apparitions, “he thought it was a good idea to clear some of the fog.”
Perrella said he could not discuss specifics that had not already been revealed by Pope Francis to the media. But he acknowledged that one of the complicating factors was the tension existing at the parish in Medjugorje between the Franciscans assigned there and the local bishop. In some of the alleged messages, Mary sided with the Franciscans.
The Catholic Church’s evaluation of alleged apparitions sees them as “a gift of God and a sign of God’s presence at a certain time, in a certain place and to certain seers,” Perrella said. “The mother of Jesus who appears, if it is real, as the pope says, does not and cannot add anything to the revelation of Christ, but she reminds people and calls them back to the Gospel.”
Authentic messages are “simple and in line with the Gospel,” he said. If they are “banal, superficial” they cannot be truly from God.
Throughout history, the Servite said, the church has reacted to reports of apparitions with extreme caution and even “painful reserve,” but its first obligation is to protect the integrity of the faith and uphold the truth that no messages or revelations are needed to complete what Christ revealed.
The Medjugorje commission also recommended that Pope Francis lift the ban on official diocesan and parish pilgrimages to Medjugorje and that he designate the town’s parish Church of St. James as a pontifical shrine with Vatican oversight.
Allowing pilgrimages and designating the church as a shrine would be a recognition of the prayer, devotion and conversion millions of people have experienced at Medjugorje.
At the same time, he said, it would ensure that “a pastor and not a travel agency” is in charge of what happens there.