Making sense of Medjugorje

Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo: blazekg/iStock

I woke on Sunday morning to an influx of social media notifications and texts. A statement about Medjugorje was proclaimed in the parish church of St. James in the remote Bosnian town. Videos people sent me were not in English and not translated. Then someone sent me the Vatican News article and I now understood what took place: Official pilgrimages to Medjugorje are now permitted by the Holy See.

Before yesterday’s announcement, priests or bishops could accompany pilgrims but not organize pilgrimages themselves. This had been rumored for years since the establishment of the Ruini commission to investigate the alleged apparitions which began in 1981 still continue on a daily basis for some of the visionaries. Many believed the appointment of Archbishop Henryk Hoser as a pastoral envoy to Medjugorje in 2017 signaled something positive.

Medjugorje has divided theologians for decades. Some are ardent proponents and others are skeptical. Because of its divisiveness, I never wanted to get involved and become labeled as part of a side. Therefore, I’ve held a very complex position on Medjugorje.

In 2005 and 2008 I visited Medjugorje. It had a profound impact on my spiritual life as a young man. While I had a deep Marian devotion from my youth, that pilgrimage ignited my love of Mary, apparitions, and shrines. In 2008, at a crossroads in life, having left college seminary, studied political science, I returned there on pilgrimage to see if God would make clear his path for my life. I consecrated myself to Mary for the first time atop Apparition Hill and began discerning priesthood once again.

Whenever people ask my thoughts about Medjugorje, I tell them it’s complicated. I believe that the apparitions must have happened in the very beginning. There is no way that several children get together and make something like this up. I want to believe the apparitions are still ongoing because millions of people have flocked to this apparition site. There is something unsettling to think that so many of us have been duped for years.

St. James Church in Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Photo: Paolo_Toffanin/iStock

Yet, there is still something about different phenomena surrounding Medjugorje that unsettle me, making me question it. I do believe and I want to believe. I read the monthly messages. And I’ve seen the fruit of Medjugorje: The church was full for Mass; people climbed hills and mountains to pray the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross; many sought to receive the sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation. The stories of healings and vocations make an impression on you. It would seem easy to believe that this is of God.

Why the controversy? For some it is the content of some of the alleged messages that the Queen of Peace spoke to the visionaries, questions whether if it is consistent with doctrinal truths. For others, it has been the mere length of years — daily apparitions since 1981, meaning more than 30,000 apparitions. Some have found apparent disobedience on the part of visionaries troubling. Still others wonder why none of the five visionaries became priests or religious.

Followers and adherents of a Medjugorian spirituality talk about five stones which comprise the message: Mass, confession, prayer from the heart, Scripture readings, and fasting. Besides the few messages which propose doctrinal questions, overall the messages of Medjugorje are consistent with the Scriptures. They invite conversion and call us to the sacramental life of the Church.

The Gospa (Our Lady) requested the visionaries to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays on bread and water, hearkening back to this practice of early Christianity. Perhaps the length of Mary’s apparitions, tells us that we are not listening and we need the presence of a loving mother to guide us through these difficult times.

Yesterday morning I tweeted a thread in response to the Medjugorje news: “On one of my visits to Lourdes, as I sat in front of the grotto, I said to myself, ‘Why bring people to Medjugorje when you can bring them here.’ … I still offer my strong adviso: visit places of approved apparition.” This drew criticisms from my followers. But those comments provide for us a chance to make sense of the Medjugorje apparitions.

The National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, Wis. Photo: Paul McKibben/Bayard, Inc.

One person commented about how the Champion, Wisconsin, apparitions (which I extensively write about and promote, including a new book) was not approved until 2010. Heeding my advice, I suppose one can argue I would have advocated not visiting the National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help (the Champion site’s formal name).

In my opinion there is a nuance here. Medjugorje has been controversial for decades, which included condemnatory statements from the local bishop. On the other hand, Champion has always enjoyed the favor of the local bishop throughout the decades, which was formalized by special decree recognizing the authenticity of the apparitions. I caution about following the latest apparitions. Stick with ones that have stood the test of time.

People will always bring up the good fruit, as I did earlier. Vocations, confessions, conversions, etc. Yes, people visit Medjugorje because of the apparitions of Mary; otherwise they wouldn’t go. But the reality is vocations are being born from the sacramental life of the Church. The fruit of Medjugorje do not necessarily come from the apparitions themselves but are a byproduct of the apparitions which lead people to the source and summit of the faith.

In my initial response to Sunday’s Medjugorje news, I also stated that this declaration does not substantiate the apparitions. One person rightly pointed out that neither does it discredit them. For what it’s worth, the Vatican press office went to great lengths to ensure this was not seen as an approval of the apparitions or the content of the messages.

If you don’t know what to make of Medjugorje or if you are troubled by the pope’s permission for official pilgrimages, the good news is that with any private revelation you need not believe it. It is not necessary for your salvation. Perhaps you will find another Marian apparition more fitting for your devotion like Lourdes, Fatima, or Champion.

In the end, what Our Lady asks in any of her apparitions, is for us to love her Son, make use of the sacraments, and to pray often. If you are doing that, than it doesn’t really matter which apparition you try to live, because in the end, you’ll be living the Gospel.

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