I had an interesting Thursday evening last week. I learned from a friend that Marija Pavlovic-Lunetti, one of the “seers” of the alleged Marian apparitions taking place regularly for the last 31 years in Medjugorje, was coming to the Joyce Center at Notre Dame (our roughly 10,000-seat basketball arena) to have a Marian apparition, and the public was invited to pray with her and watch the apparition happen. And guess who was called in to be the special investigative reporter for one of the student newspapers. Yessiree bob. Yours truly.
Now, let’s get this out of the way. I think the apparitions at Madge (which I’m going to call it because typing Medjugorje a million times will be a huge pain in the butt) are totally fake. In fact, they anger me because I think a lot of it is motivated by getting money off of foreign devotees who are being deceived into believing in the apparitions. I think this for a number of reasons.
First, every single local bishop from the Diocese of Mostar, where Madge is located (Medjugorje is a small town in southern Bosnia-Herzegovina), agrees with my skepticism. Not one of them has given any sort of positive approval to the alleged apparitions, ever since they began in the early 80′s. The Church has given the apparitions no approbation whatsoever; in fact, some of the local bishops have argued that nothing supernatural whatsoever is taking place there.
Secondly, the “seers” all have financial stakes in the operation. All of them have made a good deal of money off of international speaking circuits wherein they talk about, promote, and actually receive the apparitions in front of audiences like this one. All of them have ownership stakes in hotels and hostels where pilgrims can stay during their visits to Madge. An entire travel and pilgrimage industry has been built up locally around the apparition sites, which has resulted in many people making a lot of money, including some unsavory types who one time kidnapped the local, disapproving-of-their-cash-cow bishop. Marija herself has a financial stake in the thing; in addition to her international talks, she owns a retreat center and residence in the back of her property for pilgrims to rent out. That’s kinda like how Lourdes’ St. Bernadette and Fatima’s Lucia acted after their apparitions, only the exact opposite. They both took vows of poverty as nuns.
Third, the whole thing has become a battlefront for some very weird, very local churchy politics in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Basically it boils down to a longstanding conflict that the local Franciscans (who have served the people in the region for a very long time, almost exclusively) have had with the imposition of a regular diocesan and secular-clergy structure. In 1975, the Holy Father issued a decree for how parishes in the region would be divided up between the bickering Franciscan and secular clergy. This document was (ahem) not well received by some of the Franciscans. Some of them felt they should have a larger role in this region where they had so long labored.
The supposed apparitions became a front for certain Franciscans to engage in rebellious activity against the local diocesan bishop. The “spiritual directors” for the seers were all Franciscan priests, and the churches and shrines around which most of the activity of the seers is focused are run by the Franciscans. In association with their promotion of the apparitions, some of these Franciscans have done insane stuff like hostile takeovers of parishes from the diocesan clergy. As a result, the Holy See stripped some of these Franciscans of their faculties and removed them from the clerical state, while their Franciscan superiors in Rome kicked them out of the order. These rebellious priests draped themselves in the apparitions as a cloak of legitimacy to justify their unwillingness to submit to lawful authority.
Fourth, the people in charge of these events are pretty disingenuous about the apparitions’ level of approval. They basically suck people into thinking the apparitions are “approved” by means of a few, not-well-substantiated, off-the-cuff, and highly unofficial quotes from Bl. John Paul II and/or Bl. Mother Theresa. On the program of this very event at Notre Dame, they had a whole page of such quotes, none of which carried any sort of official weight for the purposes of the Church’s approval. I would also note that Bl. John Paul and Bl. Mother Theresa are people who (in the Church’s estimation) displayed heroic virtue; this does not mean that they always displayed accurate judgment in evaluating whether something was a hoax or not (Exhibit A-Z: Marcial Maciel of the Legion of Christ, who duped JP2 for his entire life. Thankfully, he didn’t dupe Josef Ratzinger one bit.).
Fifth, and most importantly, there’s no way that Mary has said some of the things these people claim she has said. Apparently, Mary has encouraged disobedience to the local diocesan bishop some 13 times. Given that the most famous things Mary ever said were 1. silence, and 2. “Let it be done to me according to Thy will,” I’m guessing that disobedience to lawful authority isn’t generally her cup of tea. Also something Mary probably wouldn’t do: threaten a local bishop. Apparently she threatened that she and her Son would punish the local bishop if he didn’t approve the apparition. Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiight. The Medjugorje seers seemed to wise up after these “declarations” received bad press; they then began publishing messages from Our Lady that tread much safer ground: e.g., that Mass, the Rosary, the Eucharist, and Confession are Good Things. Wow, thanks Mr. Obvious!
I could go into other stuff. For example, during their ecstatic visions, the seers are allegedly unable to sense anything else going on around them. In one of these visions, someone waved a hand in front of one seer’s face, which caused her to be startled. She explained her jump by claiming that, in her ecstatic vision, Mary almost dropped the baby Jesus–that’s what she jumped at. This makes sense because–as we all know–Mary sure can be a real clumsy oaf sometimes when she, the IMMACULATE MOTHER OF GOD AND MOST HOLY QUEEN OF HEAVEN is holding THE SECOND PERSON OF THE MOST HOLY TRINITY in her arms.
Nevertheless (if that enormous heap of steamy BS wasn’t enough to convince you) the most simple argument against being involved with Medjugorje is simply that it (drumroll) IS. NOT. YET. APPROVED. BY. THE. CHURCH. So why bother with it? Why get so emotionally whipped up about it, only possibly to find out in a year or so that maybe it isn’t authentic (which may well happen, since the Vatican is investigating it currently)? There are plenty of approved Marian apparitions, including a lot of apparitions that people don’t really read a lot about. Here’s a whole list of them. Go (Our Lady of) Knock yourself out! (That started out as an inadvertent pun, and it became a lot more advertent in the second draft of this piece.)
“But Johnny, I know a priest who went over to Madge and he said he found his vocation there and it changed his life forever and there are so many good fruits! How can you just dismiss the devotion these people have?! You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Ya irreverent little smartass.”
Well, look, I’m not unaware of the fact that a lot of good has come out of Madge. It has changed lots of people for the better. I’m pretty skeptical about the reports of miracles out there (lots of unsubstantiated talk about people’s rosaries turning to gold isn’t going to sway me), but it’s clear that good things happened and are happening there.
How to explain it? Well, first of all, Christ’s expression that “[b]y your fruits you shall know them” is not, nor was it intended to be, a universally true statement in each and every scenario in each and every time everywhere. Yes, it tends to be true. St. Ignatius of Loyola was a good guy; he produced a lot of good fruits. His order also produced a lot of not-so-great fruits, IF ya know what I mean (thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all week). We’ve seen a number of times where bad fruits came out of well-intentioned efforts (e.g., the Crusades where the good motive of keeping the Holy Land free from Muslim conquest resulted in killing innocent civilians in Jerusalem and Constantinople), and where good fruits came from rotten efforts (e.g., the Legion of Christ, which produced a lot of holy priests and helped a lot of laity grow in holiness, but also were led by a corrupt, power-hungry child molester). Basically, you’re going to have good fruits whenever well-intentioned people are going to Mass a lot, adoring the Blessed Sacrament a lot, going to Confession a lot, and praying the Rosary a lot. Hence, the conversions, the spiritual fruits, etc.
I don’t wish to demean the people who believe in Madge. Almost all of them are well-meaning, devout Catholics; as I walked into this event at the Joyce Center, I saw a lot of people I knew, some of them there with their large, Humanae vitae-following families. I even saw a few people who are devoted to the Traditional Latin Mass–odd, since trads generally view Madge with outright disdain. I have nothing but respect for people who have found something inspiring and beautiful from Medjugorje; nevertheless, their sincerity does not make them immune to deception.
Anyway, I walked into the Joyce Center at about 5:55pm with a friend of mine, whose identity I will protect by calling her LaSaundruh. LaSaundruh and I walked to some seats, surrounded by about three or four thousand faithful–the Joyce Center was somewhere between 1/3 and 1/4 full. Although the event was held at a college campus, I did not see a ton of college kids or single young adults. Most of the crowd seemed to be younger married people, their children, and a large number of senior citizens. Near the middle of the basketball court a dais was set up; on the right side was a crucifix, on the left side was a podium, and in the middle was a large statue of Our Lady. To the left side of the dais was a piano which someone played in order to lead the people in singing hymns. In front of the dais, in the center, was a prie-dieu set up for Marija to kneel during her vision.
The organizer of the event greeted us by letting us know that we would pray a rosary, and then Marija would talk a bit, lead us in a few prayers, and then go into her vision. He also noted that there was going to be another event in the Joyce Center around 8 or so, and that they had promised the Joyce Center people that the crowd would depart by 7:45.
This small scheduling bit actually seemed like the most significant part of the night, to me. Exactly how, I pondered, is this seer able to schedule when Mary will appear around the availability of the Joyce Center? I’ve never heard of this concept of Mary “appearing” to someone via an extraordinary, ecstatic vision at the seer’s very whim and command. I cannot comprehend how anyone would think that the very Mother of God, the Theotokos herself, the Queen of Heaven and Earth, would give a flying rip about another event occurring in the Joyce Center at 8pm. I’d imagine that, generally, with authentic apparitions, the apparition-er is dictating the whens and wheres of the apparition to the apparition-ee. Apparently, this is not the case with Our Lady of Madge, who can appear at the seers’ command, and can appear at essentially any public event that they schedule.
Anyway, there was nothing else particularly noteworthy about the event itself. We prayed a rosary, with Marija (a modestly dressed, middle-aged woman with bleached blonde hair and a thick European accent) leading two decades of the rosary in Italian and her native Croatian. We then all knelt down in anticipation of Marija receiving the apparition; in Croatian, she led the crowd in a series of Our Father’s, Hail Mary’s, and Glory Be’s, until she suddenly stopped in the middle of one of them. This was the big moment. The apparition had begun.
Everyone knelt silently for about five minutes. Eventually, she made the sign of the cross and stood up to address the people. Apparition over. The whole thing felt almost like a liturgy, very well-scripted, with Marija acting as though she had done all this a thousand times before.
Well, I’m not sure if I’m just ascribing my own disappointment to everyone else’s expectations, but…she didn’t talk about what happened in the apparition. She didn’t say what Mary had told her. She did not mention the apparition at all, in fact. She thanked everyone for inviting her, she talked about how so many wonderful Catholic things had been going on at Notre Dame, and…yep, that was about it. I mean, I was miffed, and I don’t even think she was having an apparition. I’d have to imagine everyone else was at least slightly disappointed. Anyway, after that, the event was effectively over.
Well, almost. It was then noted that the organizers were wondering if people would be willing to “donate” money to Marija to cover the costs of her flight out. Not for any of the churches over in Medjugorje, not for some charitable organization, but to cover her flight. A couple hundred check books came out. Ah ha. No wonder she was able to build that big retreat center.
At any rate, I think I’ve had my fill of Marian apparitions for now. I hope the Holy See can finally give some clarity to this mess, which stewed for almost the entirety of Bl. John Paul’s pontificate without resolution.
I just pray that the people attached to Medjugorje have more faith in the Church than in these apparitions. You don’t need Medjugorje, or even Lourdes or Fatima, to be an authentic, believing Catholic. You do need the Church. The Holy See established a commission to investigate the Medjugorje question, and this commission (led by Cardinal Camillo Ruini, a longtime friend and confidant of Ratzinger) will soon issue a ruling on the matter. I fear that a negative ruling from the commission could be a cause of scandal and possibly even loss of faith for people who have become devoted to these apparitions. I pray that the supporters of the Medjugorje movement will respond with humility and submission of their wills to Holy Mother Church, no matter what she decides.