Earlier this year, the Vatican announced that it had completed its thorough investigation of the alleged apparitions and messages of our Blessed Mother to six individuals in Medjugorje, Macedonia, which began in June of 1981 and continue to this day. The findings of this investigation are currently being examined by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Once this examination is complete, the results of the investigation will then be forwarded to the desk of Pope Francis, who will make the final judgment regarding the authenticity of these apparitions and messages.
What will our Holy Father decide with regard to Medjugorje? It's difficult to predict his decision because of the complexity of the situation. Debate as to the authenticity of the alleged apparitions and messages has been raging for decades among theologians, bishops, priests, and canon lawyers, while millions of lay faithful have embraced the apparitions and messages as authentic. Unless I am mistaken, a number of years ago the Vatican under Blessed John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger did issue a provisional statement to the effect that the alleged appearances and messages of Our Lady in Medjugorje were "worthy of belief" and that therefore the lay faithful were temporarily permitted to accept them and believe in them if they wished.
However, recent signals from the Church hierarchy have sounded a decidedly negative tone. A few years ago, Vinko Puljic, the Bishop of Medjugorje, filed an official complaint with the Holy See regarding the massive goings-on in his diocese surrounding the alleged apparitions, which prompted the Vatican in 2010 to appoint a special commission of selected bishops, priests, theologians, and lay faithful from around the world to investigate the whole matter. Last October, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (the Vatican office in charge of the commission of investigation), sent a letter to the U.S. bishops ordering them to forbid alleged Medjugorje visionary Ivan Dragicevic from speaking at two public events in the States during which he expected to receive apparitions from Our Lady. Cardinal Mueller pointed out in his letter that the alleged apparitions have yet to be ruled authentic. With regard to the credibility of these "apparitions," Cardinal Mueller stated that "all should accept the declaration" of the former Yugoslavian bishops dated April 10, 1991, to the effect that there is no proof that apparitions or supernatural revelations have taken place at Medjugorje.
For those of us who have uncritically embraced the alleged Medjugorje revelations as authentic for many years, such pronouncements and restrictions from the Church hierarchy may seem harsh and severe, even conspiratorial, designed to persecute true visionaries and to shut down authentic apparitions. However, the Church, as Mater et Magister (Mother and Teacher), is simply doing its job of looking carefully into and rigorously evaluating claims of supernatural phenomena and private revelation in light of Catholic doctrine and discipline in order to provide sure guidance for the faithful. The Church bears a tremendous responsibility in this regard. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith would rather err on the side of caution than approve alleged apparitions that turn out to be a fraud. Taking the latter course would cause great scandal and confusion among the faithful, possibly leading to many people losing their souls, and would seriously damage the Church's reputation. Sometimes we children of the Church don't understand why she won't give us what we want when we want it, but our Mother the Church knows what is best for us and we have to trust her judgment.
The Church, upon duly investigating, did find proof of supernatural occurrences in the cases of the apparitions at Lourdes, Fatima, Guadalupe, Knock, Paray-le-Monial (Saint Margaret Mary Alacoque and the Sacred Heart devotion), Rue du Bac (Saint Catherine Laboure and the Miraculous Medal), Banneaux, San Gervasio (Mother Eugenia Ravasio and the Eternal Father), Plock and Vilnius (Saint Faustina and Divine Mercy), Garabandal, and others (I'm not sure about Kibeho, Rwanda, but I think that one has been approved by the local bishop). What is not always remembered, however, is that several of these now approved private revelations were at one time restricted or banned altogether, either by the local bishop or by Rome, or both, before further investigations finally confirmed their authenticity beyond doubt. For example, the Bishop of Fatima once temporarily forbade Sister Lucia from circulating messages she had received from Our Lady in his diocese. Grammatical errors caused Saint Faustina's diary to be condemned by the Church in the 1960s. Even the great Italian mystic Saint Pio of Pietrelcina was severely restricted by the Holy See for many years until the Church was satisfied that he was not involved in any suspicious activities. So keep in mind that recent negative statements from the Church hierarchy concerning alleged supernatural events at Medjugorje do not necessarily portend a final negative decision. These matters are complicated, and many factors are involved.
Church leaders have said little or nothing publicly thus far about the theological content of the Medjugorje messages and whether there is anything in them that conflicts with Church teaching. I'm no canon lawyer, but it seems to me the main questions at stake here are 1) whether the alleged apparitions of Our Lady at Medjugorje are authentic supernatural events of divine origin or not, 2) whether the alleged messages are theologically sound and in conformity with Church teaching or not, and 3) whether the alleged seers are telling the truth or not. All of these questions are further complicated by the fact that not just one alleged visionary, but six, are involved in the case of Medjugorje.
On one hand, the alleged apparitions at Medjugorje have borne a great deal of positive fruit in the life of the Church that no objective observer can ignore or dismiss. Over the past thirty-three years, millions of people have experienced life-changing conversions and renewal, spiritual and emotional healings, and all manner of graces and heavenly blessings as a result of making pilgrimage to Medjugorje to pray to Our Blessed Mother; millions more have been led through the messages to deepen their personal prayer lives and their commitment to Christ and His Church. The alleged messages emphasize personal conversion, prayer, fasting, and penance for world peace, which is consistent with the content of approved messages from Our Lady in Lourdes, Fatima, and elsewhere. Furthermore, most if not all of the alleged Medjugorje visionaries have demonstrated humility resulting in obedience to their superiors, i.e., their spiritual directors and their local bishop; for example, when the U.S. bishops forbade Ivan Dragicevic to speak at several events in the U.S. at which he claimed the Blessed Mother would appear to him, he cancelled his appearances at those events. All of these things would seem to augur in favor of the authenticity of the alleged apparitions at Medjugorje, and the Church has undoubtedly taken these things into account in its investigation of the private revelations claimed at Medjugorge.
But on the other hand, there has not been a lack of reports and rumors that would seem to detract from the authenticity of these revelations. One of the alleged seers, for instance, is apparently a millionaire, married to a fashion model and residing in a palatial mansion, supposedly having profited immensely from the sale of religious items at Medjugorje. If this scandal is fabricated, it could be a lie spread by someone determined to discredit the apparitions. But if it is true, it would present a serious obstacle for the Church in the path of recognizing the apparitions as authentic and would lend credence to the theory that the apparitions at Medjugorje are nothing more than a hoax and a scam concocted to generate revenue for the alleged visionaries.
In deciding whether a given series of private revelations is authentic, the Church (the local bishop) must carefully examine the personal character, integrity, truthfulness, and holiness of each of the alleged visionaries involved as well as their mental and psychological health. If they have a clean slate in all of these areas, then the Church has to examine the alleged messages themselves for doctrinal error or theological problems. If the messages are determined to be free from such, then the path is clear for the bishop to proceed toward canonical recognition, and thus approval, of such alleged apparitions. If one of the Medjugorje visionaries has grown wealthy by taking advantage of the pious faith of millions of Catholic pilgrims, this could deal a death blow to Medjugorje from the Church's perspective. A genuine visionary would never turn the apparitions to his or her personal profit. And yet it would still be possible that one or more of the other visionaries has been, and is still, receiving authentic apparitions and messages from the Blessed Virgin Mary.
So what will the Church ultimately decide with regard to the alleged apparitions of Medjugorje? A possible indirect critique has already come from Pope Francis, who remarked a few weeks ago that "Mary is our Mother, not a postmaster who sends us messages every day." However, Pope Francis is also greatly devoted to Our Blessed Mother and thus a champion of authentic Marian devotion. Regardless of whether the alleged apparitions and messages of Medjugorje are authentic or not, and regardless of whether any of the alleged visionaries have engaged in deliberate hoodwinkery, it's clear that Medjugorje has functioned for the past three decades as a place of authentic Marian devotion. Therefore, I anticipate a mixed ruling on Medjugorje, perhaps declaring that no genuine apparitions have taken place there, perhaps stating that the messages are free from doctrinal or moral error but are not of supernatural origin, and perhaps allowing the faithful to continue coming there on pilgrimage as to any other Marian shrine. Whatever decision Pope Francis makes will certainly be for the good of the Church, and even as a longtime devotee of Our Lady of Medjugorje myself, I am prepared to accept his judgment without question, even if the decision is more negative than I anticipate.
Since we are not privy to the details of the Vatican's official report on Medjugorje, it is possible that we may be completely surprised by the final verdict. But regardless of what that decision includes, it will be a relief to finally know the Church's definitive position on the matter after more than thirty years of claims, doubt, and controversy.
Copyright © 2014 Justin D. Soutar. All rights reserved.