By Fr. Tomislav Pervan, OFM
Former Pastor of Medjugorje (1982-1988), former Provincial of the Franciscans (OFM) in Hercegovina (1994-2001).
For the past twenty-five years, Medjugorje has been an actuality on the world scene. Today, it has its zealous advocates; however, it also has its fierce opponents. Opposing front lines in the battle are not likely to sue for peace any time soon. Advocates are tireless in their visits to Medjugorje all the while believing the authentic voice of Heaven is the starting point, namely, the appearance of the Gospa – Our Lady. Meanwhile, the opponents are fierce in their opposition and seek out elements of contention surrounding the entire set of events.
In the meantime, the ever-increasing daily flow of pilgrims to this place does not allow us to be indifferent. Facts and numbers speak for themselves. The number of pilgrims is ever increasing. They come from all corners of the earth, are of all colours of skin, and from all nations and nationalities. While other places of pilgrimage mark a decrease in pilgrims and pilgrimages despite being advertised widely, the number of pilgrims and faithful of all languages and locales constantly increases. As a phenomenon, Medjugorje does not have an active propaganda machine: individuals spread its fame by word-of-mouth, witness, and personal experience.
On the one hand, the priests who work in Medjugorje feel they are over-burdened in their daily work and that they are stretched to their physical limits. They are faced with innumerable calls for personal counseling, endless confessions, and constant evangelization. On the other hand, they are also faced with the suspicion that they are teetering at the edge of heterodoxy. The constant criticism is hurled at them that they are fostering something that is contrary to the Church, namely, the non-existent apparitions and the like. We, on the other hand, cannot fail to speak, fail to give witness about that which we have heard or seen, or that which we experience daily by way of our senses. (Cf. Acts 4:20) Hence, we invite all to come and see. So many bishops and priests had their doubts; however, after many hours of hearing confessions, they changed their minds and the doubts vanished.
The voice of conscience forces upon us the obligation to be of assistance to those who are in misery and who come here. We wish to be in harmony with the Church to the very end, and not to sin against the Church’s teachings or practice. Meanwhile, the accusations and reproaches hurt. Quite frequently, questions are raised that ask: What need did we have of all of this? Were we not able to be as every other parish, that is, carry out the well-entrenched pastoral patterns within the usual norms of the Church and Gospels? Who was it that cooked this stew, such that, to this very day, the river of pilgrims has not dried up, but, to the contrary, continues to grow greater and more dynamic?
For this reason, and as a friend and participant of these events from their beginnings in 1981, I give consideration to what must be done to change the present situations to escape the entrenched position of persistent denial, constant disputation, or, in fact, indifference and silence on the part of the Church’s media all of this while the flow of thousands of pilgrims to this place continues. It is obvious that all the denials, disputations, and silence find no acceptance on the part of the faithful. Meanwhile, Church circles continue to be deaf, and the prohibition against this activity on the part the faithful persists on the part of the media.
It is the inner voice of conscience and the experience of faith that motivate the faithful. I am convinced that the Holy Spirit Himself is the initiator of all these events. I am further convinced that, after twenty-five years have passed, the principle of the locus theologicus (the theological position), according to the notion of the sensus fidelium (understanding on the part of the faithful) and the consensus fidelium (unanimity of the faithful), applies as offered for acceptance by the documents of Vatican II and post-Vatican II, and by statements of Popes following the Council. Things we read about in the Acts of the Apostles are happening here. I am convinced that the Church is being gathered in this place from the four winds and every corner of the earth into the one Kingdom as what took place in Jerusalem at Pentecost. In this place, we find mirrored the universal – “Catholic” Church in miniature.
It is in this sense that I believe the instruction of the Congregation for the Faith entitled, The Criteria for Judging and Differentiating Revelations and Apparitions, dated the 27th of February, 1978, and signed by the then Prefect, Francis Cardinal Seper, should serve as the vade mecum (that is, the constant companion, the manual) when considering, passing judgment upon, and making decisions about Medjugorje and the Medjugorje phenomenon. The text has lost nothing of its immediacy and value to this very day. It can be fully applied to the events of Medjugorje with all its implications. It can examine the events of Medjugorje from the positive or negative side with all the arguments presented pro and con.
The Congregation for the Faith in its instructions reduces to three levels, or degrees, the norms that relate to reactions to alleged apparitions.
The seers must be examined to determine if, perhaps, it is a question of self-styled visions. Then, all the messages must be gathered and examined and viewed from the point of view of the degree of education of the seers. The mental and physical state of the seers must be examined thoroughly, as well as their moral integrity. All that is explainable from the purely human point of view must be taken into consideration; however, by the same token, all that cannot be explained in purely human terms and with the aid of the most contemporary psychological or physical sciences, and which, in the end, has no cause within human power, must also be taken into consideration.
Following the first phase, if the matter has not died on its own, has not come to a halt or fallen into oblivion, the principle ad experimentum (for the purpose of experiment) comes into play. At the same time, of course, it must be emphasized that the employment of this principle in no way suggests or recognizes the authenticity of the alleged apparitions. It simply channels events to proper and healthy Church routine: practices regarding prayer, devotions, the sacraments, constant spiritual growth and holiness.
When an appropriate period of the ad experimentum phase has elapsed, and in the light of experiences, especially after a close examination of the spiritual fruits occasioned by the alleged apparitions, and of the devotional practices surrounding them, a competent judgment of the events must be given if circumstances demand it.
As regards the first point, everything can be reduced to a simple conclusion: To the present day, in the entire history of the Church, no Marian apparitions were so intensively and extensively investigated (from 1984 – 2005) on the part of numerous and independent qualified, international experts in the fields of medicine and psychology, or whose investigations and their results were found to correspond to and compliment each other. All of the experts concluded that the subjects investigated were found to be spiritually, psychologically, and physically healthy individuals. They were found not to be hallucinating, subject to confabulation, (auto) suggestion, hysteria, hypnotic or other loss of consciousness, deceit, suggestion or exterior inducement of any sort. Hence, it is irresponsible to publicly proclaim them to be liars or inventors of false visions and messages.
Many experts from the fields of medicine, psychology, and parapsychology have occupied themselves with the Medjugorje seers. They failed to uncover any sort of pathological deviation from the norm in their lives. The scientific experts are capable of reaching the full limit of their tests. However, once they have arrived at that limit, their ability to explain ceases. They are able to discern what does or does not pertain to medicine and pathology and what must be excluded from a medico-psychological perspective. The experts have done so and have left behind a record of their findings. Because of that, and because of intellectual honesty, we, who have regard for the truth, must take their investigations and judgments as to the phenomena of Medjugorje into serious account.
The convergent proofs in favour of the authenticity of the Medjugorje phenomenon are perceptible when one takes into consideration the theological, sociological and scientific experiments carried out upon the seers by French, Italian, and Austrian teams of experts from 1984 through 2005. According to the theologian and Mariologist, R. Laurentin, who has published works of capital value (17 books) on Lourdes, and has thoroughly investigated the apparitions in Medjugorje, the latter give evidence of being more powerful as regards the proof of their authenticity than those in Lourdes, to which the Church gave its formal approval.
According to the teaching of St. Ignatius on discernment of spirits, the causes of those or similar manifestations can be determined to be purely human, divine, or demonic. Effects must always be judged by their cause. In all that took place in Medjugorje, one must ask what the cause was, or where the causal beginnings had their roots. If we take into consideration the first days of the events that took place in Bijakovici in June and July of 1981, the experts who thoroughly examined the seers concluded that the seers had some sort of fundamental and key experience, some initial encounter that put them into the center of something that they could not begin to imagine or foresee, something against their will or inclinations, something they were scarcely able to predict.
Science as such can neither confirm nor deny whether the Gospa is, or is not, appearing, (just as it would not have been able to utilize scientific instruments to register the resurrection of Christ were they to have been present alongside the Roman guards at the tomb of Jesus). All that science can say after twenty-five years is that the seers are physically and psychologically healthy, and that the seers had a deep-seated and far-reaching experience which continues to affect them to this very day, one that it is impossible to deduce from their biographies. All of that is, for the visionaries, a holy treasure. For that reason one must exclude a purely human cause, and, by the same token, one that is demonic, inasmuch as the Devil is unable to yield good fruit that is constant and so long lasting.
Since twenty-five years have elapsed, a review sine ira et studio (without rancor and diligent attention) would be expedient, both in the local Church and the Church at large, as to the fruits which have been given and continue to be given through Mary’s apparitions beyond all ideological suppositions and prejudices. When observed from the purely statistical point of view as a whole, close to some fifty thousand priest have passed through Medjugorje, hundreds of bishops, cardinals, and millions upon millions of the faithful. The Una Sancta et Catholica (the One Holy and Catholic [Church]) in miniature comes to pass here every day. Were there something to be found heretical, schismatic, or contrary to Church teaching, the Church would be obliged to undertake measures against such abuse. That has not resulted up to the present. Therefore, a fifteen-year ad experimentum period since the Zadar Pronouncement in 1991 is a sufficient amount of time so as to allow to conclude that no straying from official Church teaching and practice is taking place in Medjugorje. The Liturgy and devotions celebrated there are fully Christological, Marian, Eucharistic, sacramental, and in full harmony with Church regulations.
It cannot be asserted that the particular fruits of Medjugorje are those of intensive prayer and administration of the sacraments. To do so would be to create a circulus vitiosus (vicious circle): there are other places in the world where prayer and the sacraments are a fixed practice; however, what is lacking there are the efficacious effects that we note as attributable to Medjugorje. It is clear that prayer and the sacraments bear copious fruits for the entire Church throughout the world; however, from where and why do so many people come precisely to Medjugorje? Why do they come to this remote place where they have a concrete experience of God and grace, are converted, learn to pray, and subsequently carry the fruits of Medjugorje to their homes, give witness to what they have experienced, and become missionaries? It simply is not possible to separate the assertions of the seers regarding the apparitions from the fruits of the apparitions which we see in the Church.
The consensus fidei et fidelium can be seen by the fact that all levels of God’s people, all classes in society and the Church, all peoples, and all races are represented in Medjugorje, and by the fact that Church life is sustained by all of this in the form of witness, divine worship, sincere service, charity, (martyria, liturgia, et diakonia), and, by the fact that all grow in holiness. Medjugorje is a world-wide phenomenon. Its fruits can be seen in all parts of the world. In essence, Medjugorje is a laymen’s movement, a movement of faithful laymen, laden with spirituality, devotion, and sincerity toward the Lord and our Lady. The seers themselves are ordinary lay people and, as such, are able more readily to touch the hearts of plain folks who easily identify with them.
Medjugorje is a peace and pilgrimage movement inasmuch as people come here for the sake of inner peace. It is also a renewal movement within the Church – Ecclesia semper reformanda (the Church ever to be renewed), as well as a humanitarian movement, inasmuch as it has accomplished tremendous charitable and Samaritan works throughout the world (a point made by the present Pope in his encyclical on the God of Love). Lumen Gentium (The Vatican II Document: Light of the Nations) clearly states: “Be they most illustrious, be they simple and more widespread, Charisms are useful and are especially suited to the needs of the Church and must be received with gratitude and consolidation.” (LG 12:2) Meanwhile, Apostolicam Actuositatem (Apostolic Activity) states even more explicitly: “The receipt of Charisms, even those that are humble, give rise to the right and duty for each of the faithful to make use of them in the Church and in the world and for the good of mankind and the growth of the Church in the freedom of the Holy Ghost.” (AA 3:3).
After the past quarter of a century, it can be asserted that Medjugorje is about a prophetic Charism – a prophetic revelation that calls for repentance. These Charisms are able to be found in all similar phenomena within the Church. Prophetic revelations and apparitions are about an imperative under the impetus of the Holy Spirit as to how one is to behave here and now, and what it is that the People of God must do in a specific situation. Accordingly, the Church must not relate to such phenomena indifferently. She is duty-bound to investigate such an imperative with openness and, congruently, to act if she recognizes the Will of God in the said phenomenon. It is obvious that the Ecclesia orans (the praying Church) has recognized God’s Will and Mary’s presence in this instance, of which our dearly departed Pope John Paul II spoke in his homily in Zadar (!) three years prior, on the feast of Mary, the Mother of the Church (Pentecost Monday, 2003). On that occasion, the Pope specifically mentioned the above cited sensus fidei fidelium (the understanding of faith of the faithful).
If, as is the case with ordinary beatifications and canonizations, the process begins with the local Church, and, after an appropriate interval of time, investigation, and conclusions based on the materials offered in favor of beatification or canonization, the matter is transferred to Rome, I think that would be appropriate in this case. After all has been investigated at the local level, the entire case of the Medjugorje phenomenon should be transferred to the appropriate Roman dicastery, especially in light of the fact that it has outgrown the local Church’s boundaries and has become widespread so as to encompass the entire Church. The countless prayer groups throughout the entire world have come into existence because of the events in Medjugorje. They carry the mark of authenticity and veracity. The entire phenomenon is caught-up in the very being of the Church and, as such, carries more weight than does a beatification of one of God’s chosen ones. If, as is the case for beatification, the People of God are asked their approval, why shouldn’t we do so in this case as well, especially in light of Mary’s efficacious presence in specific places (John Paul II, in Zadar!), and in light of the personal experiences and miracles that individuals experienced precisely here in Medjugorje?
Throughout the entire history of Salvation, God has established communication with his creatures through apparitions. This form of communication is especially suitable for man’s physico-spiritual structure: it immerses man’s senses, especially his sight and hearing. The Medjugorje phenomenon can be explained in this manner or that manner; however, intellectual honesty demands that the entire affair engage us in light of revelation, mysticism, supernatural experiences and so many other similar experiences in other cases, and, for that matter, in other faiths.
If God has truly spoken throughout history, why should we be exempted from such a manner of communication wherein the Holy Ghost makes use of apparitions for the sake of the many needs of the contemporary world? The greater the misery in the world, so much the greater is the need for God’s voice and communication. Hence, we might well conclude as did Paul: Do not extinguish the spirit. Do not disdain prophetic communications. Investigate all and hold on to what is good! (1 Thess. 5:19-21).
Medjugorje, July 13, 2006