Understanding Medjugorje

by Donal A Foley

Theotokos Books

Reviewed by Francis Phillips

Not long ago, a news item in the press that attracted worldwide coverage was a report that Cardinal George Pell of Sydney had refused to allow one of the Medjugorje visionaries to speak on the subject in a church in his diocese. This was because to grant her permission would have given tacit official approval to the apparitions that are allegedly taking place in this Croatian village. What was the reason that lay behind his decision? This important new book provides the answer.

From 24 June 1981 five teenagers and a younger boy from a small village in Bosnia-Herzegovina called Bijakovici near Medjugorje first began seeing apparitions on a local hill of someone they called "Gospa" Croatian for "Our Lady". By 2004, when Bishop Ratko Peric of Mostar, the local diocese, addressed a conference at Maynooth on the subject, 33, 000 alleged visions had been seen and a possible 57 "secrets" had been imparted. As these sightings are still occurring daily to some of the original group, monthly or annually to others, the figures need constant revision. It is this phenomenon that Foley, author of the scholarly Marian Apparitions, the Bible, and the Modern World, seeks to investigate.

The question he addresses is: are these visions from heaven or are they a religious illusion? Referring to the subject of the apparitions diplomatically as "the Vision", he has conducted a painstaking and thorough investigation of every aspect of the case and, in an area fraught with strong, even aggressive opinions his tone is moderate and charitable throughout. He begins by surveying the historical background to this turbulent patch of the Balkans: the centuries of isolation when Franciscans kept the faith alive; the 20th century violence between the Serb Chetniks and the Croat Ustasha; the mixture of heresy and pagan religion which has historically characterised the region; and, most significant, the long-running dispute between the local Church authority, vested in the Ordinary, and the Franciscan friars. These resented Pope Leo XIII's re-establishment of the secular clergy's authority. This resentment has never been resolved.

Foley draws attention also to the close links between the Charismatic Renewal movement and the Medjugorje story. Fr Jozo Zovko, the Franciscan parish priest in June 1981, was very involved in charismatic prayer-groups. Charismatic channels undoubtedly helped initially to spread the phenomenon; these channels have continued to broadcast the regular messages from the Vision around the world. The Marian theologian, Fr Rene Laurentin, an eloquent supporter of the movement who has helped to give it credibility, is also a committed charismatic. Youth 2000, one of the Church's new movements, has been linked to Medjugorje. But Foley points out that its founder, Ernest Williams, received his initial inspiration in Fatima in 1989 and that the CTS booklet on Youth 2000 states that it "awaits the definitive ruling of the Church" on the matter.

The author devotes much space to an analysis of the original 17 taped interviews with the seers, conducted by Fr Zovko and Fr Cuvalo, the parochial vicar, between 27-30 June 1981. These have certain disquieting features and are usually ignored in the copious Medjugorje literature. Vicka, one of the girls, mentions touching and kissing the Vision, who "kept laughing"; Ivan, the older boy, said the Vision's hands were "trembling". The Vision told the seers she would stay "as long as you wish!" She obligingly moved into the parish church (and then the presbytery) when the Communist authorities opposed the growing crowds on the hillside. All this, Foley suggests, is contrary to the comportment of Our Lady in her approved apparitions. His methodology includes close comparisons between the Medjugorje story and Fatima, two of whose seers have been beatified and whose spirituality has been profoundly influential in the teaching of John Paul II. He also makes the point that Our Lady's role in the economy of salvation has always been just that; economical: few apparitions, succinct messages.

To my mind the most disturbing feature of this affair is not the charismatic element with its attendant publicity machine; nor is it the lifestyles of the seers, with their large houses and constant foreign tours; nor is it even the odd behaviour of the Vision, who is alleged to have appeared on fences, in fields, on a bell tower, in a bus, with her banal messages and their occasional dubious theology. It is simply the flagrant disobedience of the local Franciscans towards proper Church authority their Bishop. After a lengthy investigation of the events the Ordinary of Mostar, Bishop Zanic, sent his definitive negative conclusions to the then Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect of the CDF, in April 1986. Even before this, the former head of the CDF, Cardinal Seper, had stated. "When the Franciscans obey the decrees of the Holy See, then I shall consider this phenomenon, not before." In 1991 the Yugoslav Bishops' Conference effectively supported Bishop Zanic's conclusions by 19 votes with one abstention, in stating that after nearly ten years of alleged visions, it could not be affirmed that "supernatural apparitions and revelations" had taken place.

In October 1994, when attending the Synod of Bishops, Bishop Peric, Zanic's successor, referred to many irregularities in Medjugorje: unauthorised religious communities establishing themselves; churches being built without permission; local Franciscans acting in disobedience. By 1997, more than 40 Franciscans were engaged in pastoral work in the diocese without faculties (i.e. diocesan permission). Adherents of Medjugorje always emphasise its "good fruits" but surely the discord and divisiveness generated by such disobedience is very bad fruit? After all, it was disobedience - and a rotten apple - that drove our first parents out of Eden.

On the question of "good fruit", Foley comments that conversions and renewed spiritual zeal are always good if they are genuine, lasting and not a transient emotional experience. He asks: in 25 years have the thousands of apparitions led to a renewal of parish life, fervour for the sacraments, increased vocations in our declining Western congregations? Or have they often led to an insatiable desire for more signs, wonders and messages - and to conflict and scandal? He quotes a priest-critic of those who adopt a too credulous attitude: "The devil is willing to tolerate some real good, so long as he has hope of accomplishing greater evil out of the affair in the long run." The author is at pains to emphasise that the thousands of visitors to Medjugorje over the years have come in good faith, ignorant of the dissensions and scandals that surround the place; but their sincerity is no guarantee of authenticity. Further, he believes that the frenetic activities at the site have distracted attention from Fatima, the most spiritually significant of the approved apparitions of the 20th century. Foley's sober presentation of facts is laborious and his style pedantic; but this very pedantry matters where rumour, unsubstantiated claims, fierce partisanship and rank disobedience are rife. This summer marks the 25th anniversary of the sightings, and there is no end in sight. Huge crowds, hungering for the supernatural, are expected at Medjugorje. Are they being led closer to God - or astray by his adversary? This is the question readers of this judicious and informative book must ask themselves.

Used with Permission by Francis Phillips and Donal A. Foley 5/14/06

Donal Anthony Foley has been researching Marian apparitions, and Marian theology, since the mid-1990s. He has degrees in Humanities (BA) and Theology (BD), and his book on the subject - Marian Apparitions, the Bible, and the Modern World - was published by Gracewing in 2002. He has written articles for a number of Catholic magazines, including the Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and also maintains a related website at: Theotokos