The New York Times isn't sure what to make of Pope Francis and Medjugorje


It’s been 25 years since I visited Medjugorje, the village in Bosnia and Herzegovina where six teenagers claimed the Virgin Mary began appearing to them daily.

Marian appearances aren’t uncommon; look at the devotion around places such as Fatima and Lourdes. But these teenagers, ages 10-16, had a late 20th century take on Mary’s purported sayings, with threats of worldwide cataclysms and a sign that would appear on a local mountain.

Despite a number of hardships in the early years, they stuck to their story. I’d been following this phenomenon for several years when in May 1990, a Roman Catholic group invited me to accompany them to the site for an article I published in The Houston Post

Not being Catholic, there were some aspects, such as the constant praying of the Rosary by seemingly everyone there, that didn’t appeal to me. Of course I noticed the souvenir shops (of which there were only a few at that point) and how much they were charging for a simple Mary statue. Then again, pilgrims were tramping all over their tiny roads, vineyards and tobacco fields, making a normal life fairly difficult. Were I a local, I’d have opened up a shop and B&B too.

And then nearly 10 years to the day the apparitions began, Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia, sparking a war that ravaged that part of the world. Thus, some of Mary’s purported prophecies of war were fulfilled, at least in the short term.

This is why I was interested to see the New York Times’ story about the site now that the Vatican is poised to make a ruling on the authenticity of the apparitions. It begins:

MEDJUGORJE, Bosnia and Herzegovina -- At exactly 6:40 p.m. one sultry day this month, the peal of church bells rang though the main square of this town, bringing countless pilgrims instantly to their knees.
The ringing marked the moment, 34 years ago, when a group of six youths say the Virgin Mary appeared to them. Three of them say she has continued to do so, usually at the same time, every day since.
Over that period, the scheduled apparitions have drawn millions of believers to this small town, and a good dose of suspicion from skeptics, including, perhaps, Pope Francis. In what was interpreted as a thinly veiled jab at the claims, he recently joked during a morning homily about “visionaries who can tell us exactly what message Our Lady will be sending at 4 o’clock this afternoon.”
Soon the Vatican is expected to make public the findings of its own investigation into the reported apparitions, which was concluded 18 months ago. Though the inquiry was started by Francis’ predecessor, Benedict, if the conclusions are doubtful, as some speculate, they could pit a populist pope against a popular shrine.

It’s really too bad Pope Francis hasn’t visited this place, because if he had, I’m thinking he’d not be mocking it. The story goes on to say how the once-tiny village has turned into a mini-Lourdes, with zillions of souvenir stores, hotels and other accommodations for pilgrims.

We hear about how some of the visionaries are raking in money from the tourism industry -- not a new complaint. The piece feels like a quick drop-in by a reporter who tried to follow the visionaries around and toured the souvenir stands. She only got a quote, and that a very brief one, from one of the seers, so she had to make do with some pilgrims plus the local parish priest and a collection of skeptics and journalists.

Not that the seers would say all that much. I got to interview the most talkative one: Vicka Ivankovic-Mijatovic, back in 1990 and it was difficult to get anything but vagueries out of her. Maybe it was the language barrier but even back then, visionaries were circumspect.

The reporter does mention reports of miraculous healings and conversions. I would have liked an account from at least one to balance out the skeptics who, the story says, wonder how the visionaries can promise in advance when Mary will appear.

That is a no-brainer. Three of the six seers say Mary always appears to them daily at 6:40 pm. The reporter did say it’s taken the Catholic Church up to 290 years to approve reported visions, which partly explains why the church hasn’t gotten around to ruling on Medjugorje for 34 years.

One thing I wish the reporter -- who didn’t have the luxury of hanging out there for a week like I had -- had portrayed was the sanctity of the place. I was curious as to whether there’s still long lines for confession and whether the church during the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament devotional hour was still packed to the gills. No matter where you go in Medjugorje or Bijakovici (the neighboring village across the fields), there are people praying, singing or ascending one of two local hills that bear shrines or the stations of the cross.

The photographer did the climb but the writer apparently did not.

I was much taken with the worshipful attitude of the pilgrims and just by the feel of the place. We went on a day trip to Mostar at one point and on our way back into Medjugorje, the darkness I’d felt all day lifted as we drove into town. My imagination? Maybe. There was plenty to find fault with there. Even nine years into the apparitions, the messages seemed pretty repetitive and banal; 34 years into them, they haven’t changed.

Still, during the first decade of the apparitions, much was said of how unimpressive the visionaries were; how none of them were particularly outstanding in terms of looks or intelligence, which conversely gave some believability to the apparitions. What were the chances, people were saying back then, that a pack of six teens would make up such a tale, then stick with it for nine years?

These kids had every scientific test in the book done on them back in the early days. Click here, then scroll down to see a photo of the visionaries covered with wires as part of a test of their brain waves during a vision. 

These visionaries are now in their 50s. So I wish the reporter had a line or two giving the visionaries some benefit of the doubt. Are six people going to agree to lie about something for 34 years? There are plenty of sources who could have commented on that. The six seers have been criticized endlessly about many things, including the fact that none of them became a priest or a nun as did the seers in Fatima and Lourdes.

I might add, it’s very tough to write stories that deal with the miraculous, with visions, with any supernatural phenomena. That’s why religion reporters rarely write about divine healings. They’re impossible to prove and most times, doctors won’t go on the record (often for valid legal reasons) about their patients. And it’s doubly hard to explain the esoteric world of Marian apparitions to a secular audience.

Word is that the Vatican is going to reject the apparitions partly for the reasons brought up in this article, including the concern that the seers are profiting way too much from this enterprise whereas seers of other Marian apparitions have never done so.

Some of the visionaries are already reacting to this possibility, a factoid the Times article should have included. It’s a fascinating topic to report on and the publication of Vatican findings is going to draw more reporters into the mix. I hope the journalists who get to wade into this do plenty of research into it, including the many books written on this topic during the 1980s. And remember to ask critical questions of both sides.

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