Medjugorje: The Probe Continues
Where the Church now stands regarding the alleged apparitions that began in 1981
Four decades ago, in Yugoslavia (now Bosnia and Herzegovina), six young people, ages 10-16, claimed that the Blessed Mother appeared to them as a group beginning in the summer of 1981. These alleged appearances or apparitions took place near the village of Medjugorje, located about 60 miles southwest of Sarajevo. The children say the Blessed Mother appeared and spoke to them when they were all together on seven occasions between June 24 and July 3, 1981. The Church, to date, has not officially confirmed that these apparitions took place, never resolving the question of whether the children experienced a supernatural event. Similarly, the Church has not officially confirmed that the apparitions did not take place.
The seers or visionaries were Jakov Colo (age 10), Ivanka Ivankovic (14), Mirjana Dragicevic (15), Ivan Dragicevic (15), Marija Pavlovic (16) and Vicka Ivankovic (16). According to the children, the messages were about the true existence of God, that men should convert their lives to God, to love one another and live in peace, to pray and fast. On some occasions, there were crowds of witnesses to the ecstasies or trances the children experienced. The seers said Mary wore a brilliant white veil and a grayish-white dress, that her comments on each occasion were brief and, during one visit, that she said whe was the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Five of the apparitions took place on Mount Podbrdo, now called Apparition Hill, which is near Medjugorje. Two apparitions occurred elsewhere with all the visionaries present. In November 1981, two of the children say the Blessed Mother took them on a tour of heaven, hell and purgatory. The children provided detailed descriptions of each place.
Following the group visions, the children (now adults) claim individually that they have continued to see and receive messages from Our Lady at different times, sometimes daily, throughout their lives. Three of the visionaries say the Blessed Virgin visits them annually, including Jakov Colo, who says that Mary visits him every Dec. 25. In her visit in 2020, Jakov says the Virgin told him that Jesus is always with us and we should open our hearts and surrender ourselves to him, allow him totally into our lives and that with Jesus we can face all the world presents. Some sources say that in total, as children and adults, the visionaries have experienced thousands of purported messages from the Blessed Mother. None of the visionaries ever entered into a religious vocation.
An apparition is an “extraordinary and remarkable appearance or manifestation of some object presented to man by God in a most singular way. The senses perceive an objective reality naturally invisible to man. It is not necessary that the object perceived be flesh and blood, it suffices that it be a sensible or luminous in form” (“The New Catholic Dictionary,” John J. Pallen and Wynne Herbermann, The Universal Knowledge Foundation, $105.99).
The Bible records numerous events in which a heavenly being appeared to a human; we know of these events through sacred Scriptures inspired by the Holy Spirit. The Church teaches that there are no new public revelations since the death of the last apostle. Although there are no new revelations, an apparition sent by God can help us better understand divine revelation. Thus, the alleged appearances by the Blessed Mother are not dismissed by the Church without a review. Apparitions or private revelations are not part of the deposit of faith and Catholics are not required to believe them.
Here is another definition, this one from “Modern Catholic Dictionary” by John A. Hardon, SJ, (Eternal Life Publications, $50): Apparition — “Supernatural vision. It is a psychical [supernatural] experience in which a person or object not accessible to normal human powers is seen and ordinarily also heard. When apparitions are claimed, the Church’s policy is to require proof of the fact, since illusions and hallucinations are so common, and the influence of the evil spirit is also taken into account. Yet from the Scriptures on there have been numerous, well-attested apparitions that were certainly of divine origin.”
Church investigations and research into an apparition are not necessarily quick — for example, it took 153 years to approve the apparition that occurred at Champion, Wisconsin (Our Lady of Good Help) in 1859. Approval of the apparition at Laus, France (Our Lady of Laus), which began in 1664, took more than 300 years. The detailed examination of the facts is meant to ensure there is no hoax, deception and that a supernatural event had occurred.
Criteria for Examination
The Council of Trent (1545-63), in its twenty-fifth session, established the local bishop as the primary authority when evaluating an alleged apparition: “No one will be allowed to place, or cause to be placed, any unusual image, in any place, or church, howsoever exempted, except that image have been approved of by the bishop. Also, that no new miracles [supernatural acts] are to be acknowledged, or new relics recognized, unless the same bishop has taken cognizance and approved thereof; who, as soon as he obtained some certain information in regard to these matters, shall, after having taken the advice of theologians, and other pious men, act therein as he shall judge to be consonant with truth and piety. But if any doubtful or difficult abuse has to be extirpated; or, in fine, if any grave question shall arise touching these matters, the bishop before deciding the controversy, shall await the sentence of the Metropolitan and the bishops of the province, in provincial council; yet so, that nothing new, or that previously has not been usual in the Church, shall be resolved, without first consulting the Roman Pontiff.”
In 1978, the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (CDF) published “Norms for Proceeding in Judging Presumed Apparitions and Revelations.” These norms guide the local bishop with how he should proceed in investigating an apparition, which normally involves a committee of experts. The norms include evaluating the determination that something miraculous actually occurred; ensuring that those making a claim are of sound mind, honest, sincere, obedient to Church authorities and can continue to live a life of faith; concluding that the alleged messages contain, “true theological and spiritual doctrine and immune from error”; and seeking to find that the apparition results in “healthy devotion and abundant and consistent spiritual fruit (spirit of prayer, conversion, testimonies of charity, etc).” Given these criteria, the result of an investigation could be: (1) evidence that the report(s) is true and something miraculous, supernatural occurred; (2) the event reported did not take place or there is no indication that it is true; (3) there is not sufficient evidence to determine whether or not the report is true. The norms also include how the Church responds if for some reason the bishop does not reach a decision.
Church Reaction to Medjugorje Apparitions
Medjugorje is part of the Diocese of Mostar, and the bishop, Pavao Zanic, was at first sympathetic to the apparition reports and the children, saying they were ordinary, normal kids, truthfully telling what they believed had occurred. But as the apparitions continued, he changed his reaction and became their most severe critic, opposing most everything they claimed. He, at one point, provided a written statement to the press claiming, with “moral certitude that the Medjugorje events are a case of collective hallucination.”
While it is not clear why he changed his mind so quickly, some say it was the fact that the apparitions seemed to have no end; also, he began to doubt the children based on the messages they were attributing to the Blessed Mother. Another story is that the bishop was having a longtime feud with an order of Franciscans in the area, and he believed that certain Franciscans influenced the children in their reported apparitions. This allegation, widely reported, was determined to be unfounded.
In 1982, the bishop of Mostar created a study of the apparitions but was not satisfied with the results. In 1984, he formed another larger investigative group. After a two-year review, this group determined that they could not authenticate whether or not the children had experienced a Marian apparition, a supernatural event. The Mostar bishop reported the results to the Sacred CDF, headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the time. Cardinal Ratzinger, in 1986, commissioned the Yugoslavia Conference of Bishops to study the Medjugorje situation.
The bishops of Yugoslavia stated in 1991, “On the basis of the investigations up until now, it cannot be established that one is dealing with supernatural apparitions or revelations.” In 1993, the Yugoslav commission of bishops said: “We bishops have accepted Medjugorje as a place of prayer, a sanctuary. This means that we have nothing against people honoring Our Lady in a way that conforms to Church doctrine and to the Faith. With regards to the supernatural aspect of apparitions, we have said that for now we cannot state there is a supernatural aspect. We still have important reservations. Therefore, this aspect is left for further inspection. The Church is not in a hurry” (Glas Koncila, National Croatian Catholic Newspaper, Aug. 15, 1993).
Almost from the beginning, thousands growing to millions of pilgrims, have visited Medjugorje and Apparition Hill, seeking to be near the places where the Blessed Mother was said to have appeared. Numerous testimonies of conversions, healings, miracles and renewed faith have been reported. Because the apparitions have never been confirmed by the Church, for years pilgrimages sponsored by a parish or diocese were not permitted. Catholics could go to Medjugorje, even sign up for a pilgrimage organized by a private entity, but the Vatican did not sanction organizing such events within the Church, as that would contradict the findings of the Yugoslav bishops. This situation would eventually change.
During the initial investigations, there were numerous medical doctors, psychologists and theologians among those who concluded that the children were normal kids with average intelligence, were not hallucinating and believed what they reported. Their stories were consistent regarding their joint experience with the Blessed Mother.
In 2010, Pope Benedict XVI created another investigative body: International Commision of Inquiry on Medjugorje. Headed by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, vicar general for the Diocese of Rome, it involved as many as 16 eminent Catholics comprising a variety of specialties: social psychiatry, medical, causes of saints, legal, Mariology, theology, four cardinals and one archbishop. This group performed as an advisory committee to the pope, meeting 17 times between 2010 and 2014.
They conducted an extensive investigation of the apparitions and, in early 2014, provided their findings in what is known as the Ruini Report to Pope Francis. The committee found merit with the first seven apparitions claimed by the children: “On the basis of these data, the … committee considers that it can affirm with reasonable certainty that the first seven apparitions prove to be intrinsically credible, as they were capable of fostering in those who saw them an awakening of faith, a conversion in their way of life and a renewed sense of belonging to the Church.”
The children, at the time of the reported original appearances, were regarded as normal in every way, genuinely surprised by the Marian visitation and not influenced by outsiders including the evil one. The committee was less certain about the apparitions reported by the “seers” individually in the years since the original seven.
These later reputed apparitions were generally considered not spontaneous but more scheduled, predictive and organized: there was, according to the committee, a “repetitive banality of some of the communications … and likewise the lack of incalculability and of transcendence which is proper to supernatural character.” The report indicated that since the apparitions were allegedly still occurring the committee did not find it appropriate to render a decision on the supernatural character of the ongoing events.
These details and several recommendations were provided to Pope Francis who asked the members of the CDF to furnish him with their individual analysis of the report.
Pope Francis responded to the Ruini Report during a papal flight news conference on May 13, 2017. He said about the first, or original, apparitions “that the investigations need to continue.” About the alleged apparitions that have been taking place after the first seven, he was cautious, saying: “The report expresses doubts. 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. And these alleged apparitions have no great value. I say this as my personal opinion. Who thinks that Our Lady would say, ‘Come tomorrow at this time and I will give a message to that seer’; No. [In the Ruini Report] a distinction is made between the two apparitions [the original seven and those following].” The pope also commented that the report emphasized the need to provide pastoral care to the millions of pilgrims that visit Medjugorje. He would soon react to that need.
Apostolic Visitor Assigned/Pilgrimages Authorized
Using recommendations of the International Commission, Pope Francis took several actions. In February 2017 he assigned retired Polish Archbishop Henryk Hoser as the papal envoy to Medjugorje. The archbishop’s charge was to determine the pastoral needs of the pilgrims who came to Medjugorje. A year later, in May 2018, Archbishop Hoser was designated as the apostolic visitor to Medjugorje; his role, according to the Vatican, “has the aim of ensuring a stable and continuous accompaniment of the parish community of Medjugorje and to the faithful who go there in pilgrimage, whose needs require special attention.” Hoser lives in Medjugorje; his duties are pastoral, not inquisitorial.
In May 2019 Archbishop Hoser and Apostolic Nuncio Luigi Pezzuto to Bosnia and Herzegovina announced that Pope Francis had authorized Church organized pilgrimages to Medjugorje. The Vatican press office followed up this announcement clarifying that the pilgrimage authorization should not be seen “as an authentication of the known events [apparitions], which still require examination by the Church. … Considering the considerable flow of people who go to Medjugorje and the abundant fruits of grace that have sprung from it, this [papal] authorization is part of the particular pastoral attention that the Holy Father intended to give to that reality, aimed at encouraging and promoting the fruits of good.”
Debate Goes On
After 40 years, the debate over the alleged apparitions at Medjugorje has been perpetuated. Many in the Church, including the two most recent bishops of Mostar, regard the apparitions as fraudulent. Conversely, there are equal numbers that support all aspects of the Medjugorje phenomenon.
The Church continues to investigate and evaluate, but at this time there has been no decision. Millions of people visit each year wanting to be in the holy surroundings. Archbishop Hoser said in a homily: “Why do people come to Medjugorje each year? They want to meet someone, to meet God, to meet Christ, to meet His mother. And then to discover the Marian way as the more certain and sure one.”
Anyone going to Medjugorje should understand that the Church has not judged whether or not Mary appeared to the children.
One of the more recent Vatican observations about Medjugorje is from Archbishop Salvatore Rino Fisichella, president of the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelization. Answering media questions on Sept. 8, 2019, he said: “I think that for the moment it is necessary to evaluate the richness of the work in Medjugorje. We need to understand all of this together: why there is such a huge number of pilgrims, of prayers, and to understand also how the possible apparitions in Medjugorje relate to the life of the Church. For that we should wait the judgment the Holy Father will give. To rush this delicate matter is a mistake.”
D.D. EMMONS writes from Pennsylvania.
Medjugorje Time Line
1981 — Near Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, six children claim to have been visited by the Blessed Mother. (Children, growing into adulthood, say the apparitions have continued throughout their lives.)
1982 — The local bishop organized an investigative committee to study the alleged apparitions. The bishop was unsatisfied with the results and, in 1984, formed a larger study group. The group was unable to say the apparitions were true and submitted a report to the Vatican Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith (CDF).
1987 — The head of the CDF, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, sent the Medjugorje issue to the Yugoslav Conference of Bishops.
1991 — The Yugoslav bishops reported that they could not determine that apparitions (supernatural events) had taken place.
1996 — Given the inconclusive results, the Vatican reiterated earlier guidance that parish or diocese-sponsored pilgrimages to Medjugorje were inappropriate.
2010-14 — The Vatican formed an International Commission of Inquiry on Medjugorje. Following four years of study, this advisory committee found there was credible evidence of supernatural events during the first seven apparitions experienced by the children. Events alleged in the years thereafter were not substantiated. The CDF received the report for analysis.
2018 — Pope Francis assigned retired Polish Archbishop Henryk Hoser as apostolic visitor to Medjugorje. The archbishop’s mission is not investigatory, but pastoral, in nature.
2019 — Pope Francis approved Catholic-sponsored pilgrimages to Medjugorje. The reported apparitions remain under study by the Church.