Dr. Janz is associate professor of historical theology at Loyola University, New Orleans, Louisiana.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, August 26-September 2, 1987, p. 724. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
A critical eye is cast on the "apparition" of the Virgin in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia. "…I wonder what kind of God would heal the aches and pains of rich Americans while turning a deaf ear to the cries of starving children elsewhere in the world."
For too long now, many thoughtful American Christians have dismissed the phenomenon at Medjugorje as a curious but ultimately trivial interruption of the church’s confident march into modernity. The fact is that in the past few years, between 7 and 8 million Christians have climbed to the top of this rugged mountain in Yugoslavia where Mary supposedly appeared, the first time in 1981, to five children who live in the vicinity. Though this event is in many ways a "sign of contradiction," it is also a major sign of the times, and as such deserves our attention.
Medjugorje is an inauspicious and impoverished village in the central Yugoslavian province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It is now experiencing what must be its first economic boom. Franciscans run the church there, as they do all the churches in the diocese of Mostar. This church is almost always overflowing with pilgrims praying the rosary in a multitude of languages. Long lines of penitents wait patiently at the confessionals. Beside the church a bazaar brims with religious paraphernalia of every imaginable sort, and American pilgrims, quickly accustoming themselves to Mediterranean ways, participate enthusiastically in the loud bartering.
On the other side of the church stands the rectory, where in a basement room the five children gather every evening at 7:30 to pray the rosary and listen for the Blessed Mother’s voice (the local bishop won’t let them use the church for these vigils). Around the window of this tiny room throngs of pilgrims crowd — some kneeling, some weeping, some saying the rosary, but all in deep devotion and fervent expectation.
But the real focal point of this phenomenon — the true sacred place — lies about a mile away: the mountain where the first apparition occurred. While dozens of tour buses wait, thousands of pilgrims of every description — the maimed, the blind, the infirm, the elderly, middle-aged American housewives, professionals, students and even a few yuppies in designer jogging suits — walk or crawl up the mountain. Many people who crawl up the hill suffer physical or mental disease or handicaps. Others are experiencing emotional anguish. For this pain, people here cry to Mary for help.
The path leading to the summit is extremely rough and the ascent is not easy. The summit itself is a small level area where a large cross marks the location of the first appearance. Strewn about are other, smaller crosses, planted by groups of pilgrims. Here and along the way one sees innumerable messages to Mary, some painted on the rocks and some written on bits of paper attached to the crosses. In one way or another, and in multitudes of languages, most say the same thing: "Mary, help us." Candles, flowers, bits of clothing, fragments of colored glass and so on have been carefully placed beneath many of the crosses.
As they gain the summit, the pilgrims also reach a pinnacle of religious fervor — which sometimes becomes hysteria — expressed through prayer and ecstasy, a great many tears, quiet moaning or cries to Mary for assistance. People claim that as a result of their visit they have been healed, had demons cast out, and the like. Some profess to have witnessed other supernatural events and miracles, such as the visage of Mary appearing in the sun, or the sacred heart pulsating in the sun — and that their lengthy staring at the sun does not damage their eyes. People hear various messages from Mary, rosary beads turn to gold, the sun spins in the sky. These apparent manifestations of the sacred draw people to Medjugorje.
After talking to various church and government officials in Yugoslavia, I began to understand why Medjugorje has attracted so many people. Yugoslavian political theologian Marko Orsolic, O.F.M., a professor at the Theological Faculty in Sarajevo and general secretary for the Council of Priests and Religions in Yugoslavia, told me that the country’s bishops have prohibited all Yugoslavian priests from leading pilgrims to Medjugorje. He claims to know of only one priest — the local pastor — who believes the apparition to be authentic. One of the five children who first claimed to see the vision studied under Orsolic for three years, and consequently Orsolic knows him well. Orsolic speculates that the children first spoke of the apparition as a joke, but when the tour buses quickly started arriving they were psychologically trapped. The pastor at Medjugorje then began to supervise their reported messages from Mary and to teach them theological language in which to express the messages. Though the vast majority of Franciscans believe the apparition’s to be inauthentic, they continue to serve in Medjugorje because, Orsolic said, "it is our duty to meet the profound needs of the millions of lost and anguished souls who come here."
Tomislav Pervan, the Medjugorje pastor, has for years been under enormous pressure from the press, tour groups and church officials. He now grants no interviews, and it was only through the good offices of Orsolic that I was allowed to ask him a few questions. Pervan told me that the religious flea market beside the church embarrasses him and the church. He claims to believe firmly in the children’s apparitions, but seems skeptical about the numerous daily miracles occurring on the hill. He will not speculate on the event’s political implications. To him the phenomenon is not a conservative but a progressive movement, the beginning of a church renewal and a continuation of the spirit of Vatican II. And he is convinced that ultimately this movement will profoundly transform the universal church.
To investigate Medjugorje, the bishops of Yugoslavia appointed a 15-member commission, including two psychiatrists and one representative from each of the ten Yugoslav theological faculties. The commission met for two years and aimed to leave no stone unturned. The psychiatrists found the children to be normal. But the commission concluded unanimously that the apparitions were not real.
One of the commission members is Peter Krasic, O.F.M., a professor of theology and vice-provincial of the Franciscans in Herzegovina, Medjugorje’s jurisdiction. He said that one of the major reasons for the commission’s decision was that Mary’s messages to the children sometimes conflicted with the New Testament. Krasic added that the final report had been submitted to the bishops of Yugoslavia, but that they had refused to make it public. Their reason, he asserted, was that business interests in Mostar and the surrounding area have prevailed on the bishops not to release the report.
Another member of the commission, Ljubo Lucic, O.F.M., a professor on the theological faculty in Sarajevo, confirmed Krasic’s remarks. He also cited a few of the children’s strange stories including Mary’s alleged predictions of the world’s end. He said that there were "obvious contradictions" among the different children’s versions of Mary’s messages and that the commission had documented 13 clear cases in which the children were "deliberately and consciously lying." Lucic added that it was not only local Yugoslavian business interests that wanted to suppress the commission’s report, but that a large Italian tourist agency had pleaded with Vatican officials, who hold a copy of the report, not to release it because they might thereby bankrupt the company. These business interests convinced the Vatican to appoint a new commission to begin a new investigation. Their report is not expected for several years.
According to Filip Simic, deputy minister for religious affairs in Bosnia Herzegovina, the state does not oppose the event at Medjugorje. These apparitions’ authenticity is not a matter of public concern, he said; that is up to the private judgment of the individual. But what is of public concern is Yugoslavian society’s clear failure to meet the needs of Medjugorje’s Yugoslavian pilgrims. The state does not fear that this interest will become a reactionary political movement, Simic said, adding that "the previous era’s Stalinist hostility to religion is on the wane in Yugoslavia, thank God."
Reflecting on these opinions, I see no reasonable alternative to accepting the findings of the bishops’ commission. But I also would criticize the commission for limiting its concern to the positivistic determination of whether the apparitions are true. The far more interesting and important issue is the meaning of this entire event. What crisis of modernity precipitates such new religious movements? What deep religious need seeks fulfillment on this hill in Yugoslavia? What have 7 or 8 million Christians searched for here? Because he fastened on these questions. I think that cabinet minister Simic was more perceptive than the bishops’ commission.
Obviously, different Christians come to Medjugorje for vastly different reasons. Certainly one is the endless human longing for religious certitude. To live in the absence of such confirmation — that is, to live by faith — is difficult. Seeing with our own eyes the sun swirling around in the sky or hearing Mary’s voice vindicates our long-held religious beliefs and makes our deepest doubts disappear.
Ironically, it is deep doubt, not deep faith, that drives people to Medjugorje. We need to remember that the Gospels represent Jesus as very critical of those who continually longed for signs and wonders. "Unless you see signs and wonders," he said, "you will not believe" (John 4:48). And after the disciple Thomas was finally given "proof," Jesus said to him, "You have believed because you have seen, but blessed are those who have not seen and have believed" (John 20:29) We all want to see, and we all want proof. But the traditional Christian understanding is that this need will go unfulfilled until, as St. Paul says, "we see him face to face."
Second, I think that part of the crisis of modernity is that we in the West live in a one-dimensional world. In our secular societies human experience is largely reduced to its physical, material and technological dimensions. Going to Medjugorje is a protest against this state of affairs. People yearn profoundly to encounter another dimension — the spiritual, the transcendental, the supernatural. Visiting a place such as Medjugorje is an attempt to fulfill this largely unfulfilled need. When 7 or 8 million Christians make such a pilgrimage, the churches need to ask themselves why they are failing to fulfill believers’ needs.
There are also economic and political dimensions to the Medjugorje phenomenon. Many of Medjugorje’s American visitors come from the affluent upper-middle class. One of the results is that travel agents get rich from this religious event, while churches face financial crises. In Medjugorje I met the owner of an American travel agency. This was her 11th trip to the hill; her agency had already led 8,000 people there. She allowed as how God had worked in a marvelous way, influencing ABC network executives to broadcast nationally its New Orleans affiliate station’s report on Medjugorje. For after that, her business grew enormously, with no end in sight.
But more important, for American visitors Mary’s message at Medjugorje is a comfortable one: she affirms that God exists, and she instructs them to pray devoutly. Many of these affluent Americans leave with the conviction that Mary has now come to save the world from socialism — thus sanctioning the economic system which has allowed them to accumulate their wealth, and leaving undisturbed their pleasant way of life.
I do not know whether healing takes place on this hill. But I wonder what kind of God would heal the aches and pains of rich Americans while turning a deaf ear to the cries of starving children elsewhere in the world. I share with all those who visit Medjugorje the devout wish that there would be help for us there. I, too, know people who are sick and dying, who suffer the anguish of mental illness, who are filled with fear and doubt, who long for a spark of warmth in a cold and heartless world, who search for an intimation of immortality. But in the final analysis, I am afraid that for these things there is little help in Medjugorje. Real hope, I think, lies elsewhere, at another cross on another hill.