Medjugorje, which has grown into one of the most popular pilgrimages for Catholics around the world in recent decades, lies in the southern Herzegovina region of the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in which Catholics make up a mere 14% of the population.
For many centuries, this area of Eastern Europe was under Ottoman rule, and the region has long been an area in which Islam, Orthodoxy and Catholicism – and more lately Communism and religious indifference – have struggled with each other. The Balkan wars of the 1990s was no real surprise to students of history.
This long history of division and conflict and cultural and regional discord has to be borne in mind by all visitors to the town. They are not in a country where norms they are used to exist. Here it is different.
Here even the word ‘peace’ carries different meanings in the various communities. For some it might mean living in harmony with your neighbours, whoever they are. For others peace is only to be ensured by getting rid of those neighbours, by one means or another.
Under the Ottomans there were no secular parishes as we are familiar with in the West. It was the Franciscans who oversaw the local churches. The Austrians attempted to change this after one of the Balkan wars, and the Franciscans were ordered to hand over their parishes, a move they strongly resisted.
This long standing conflict between the Franciscans and the Bishop of Mostar has had its effect on the events at Medjugorje.
Medjugorje is not so far either from Sarajevo, where the Crown Prince of Austria was murdered by agents of Serbia, acting as local patriots. This led to the intended conflict with Austria, but also to Russia siding with Serbia in the conflict with, throwing the whole continent in the Great War.
In this anniversary year of the end of the Great War we have to reflect that it still casts its shadow over Europe.
These facts are part of the deep background to Medjugorje; they are not immaterial to trying to understand local attitudes and the Balkan approach to truth. Truth is what ‘our side’ wants to believe.
Those interested in studying the Balkans as a whole in this light cannot do better still than read Black Lamb and Grey Falcon , by Rebecca West (Penguin Classics, $30). This is still relevant to understanding anything about Medjugorje.
The events that have been occurring in the town since 1981 have become so involved in claim and counter-claim that an ordinary reader is often left totally perplexed. But Catholics have only to realise that the final pronouncement has not been made on these events by Rome. They are quite free to believe what they want, but sound judgement is a difficult process.
Here are examples of conflicting views from which a careful reader will derive some close idea of what has been said.
Medjugorje Unfolds: In Peace and in War (Gracewing, available on line), by Robert Faricy SJ, represents the views of an eminent Marianologist, who has made a lifelong study of the subject and whose careful books have enlightened many readers. In support of this are the works of René Laurentin, such as Is the Virgin Mary Appearing at Medjugorje? or Apparitions de Marie a Medjugorie: Oú est la verité? (Giubert, €16.50), and others, based on his study of the visionaries.
He, too, was a much respected figure and his personal conclusion was clear: “In Medjugorje the raptures are not pathological and there is no trickery. Not any scientific denomination seems to us capable of describing these phenomena, we will define them willingly as an active, intense state of prayer disconnected partially from the external world which we will call, a state of contemplation and communication, objective or subjective depending on whether the person with whom they are in communicating is external or not.”
In contrast to this were the stark views of Bishop Andrea Gemma in May 2008, expressed to the influential Italian Catholic journalist Gianluca Barile, were stark: “It is an absolutely diabolical event, around which numerous underworld interests revolve. The Holy Church, which alone can make a pronouncement, through the words of the Bishop of Mostar, has already said publicly and officially that the Madonna never appeared in Medjugorje and that this whole production is the work of the Devil.”
He went on to speak of “underworld interests” being involved, and of the personal financial interests of the visionaries in the multitude of businesses that had sprung up there: “At Medjugorje everything happens for the sake of money: pilgrimages, overnight stays, the sales of trinkets.
“In this way, abusing the good faith of the poor people who go there with the idea of meeting the Madonna, the false seers have set themselves up financially; they have married and live a wealthy life, to say the least.”
This may seem to be overheated language. But his strong words give one a feel for how the sides are now drawn up.
This is no simple matter of ‘modern-minded secularists’ automatically opposing the seemingly miraculous. John Anthony Foley is a recognised expert of traditional outlook who writes mainly about Fatima, which with Lourdes retains its status as a major pilgrimage. His book is called Medjugorje Revisited: 30 Years of Visions or Religious Fraud? (Thetokos, £13.95). This 438-page critique met with a very hostile reviews from devotees of Medjugorie.
There are, as other pages of this issue will demonstrate, many other books which might be read. But might I suggest as an initial step, one which many cradle- Catholics would have taken perhaps automatically in the past, to see what the Catholic Truth Society says.
David Baldwin’s Medjugorje: What is happening there, and what the Church has said about it (CTS, Kindle edition available, £2.62) providers a basic guide and a clear account of the official position of the Church.
With Baldwin in hand a reader could begin to explore, with very great care, the mountain of materials that are already in print and online, with more to come every year.