Devotees of the Medjugorje apparitions often quote Scripture in their defense: “By their fruits you shall know them.”
It’s now 38 years since the alleged apparitions began. Decades of disapproval from the local hierarchy have not sufficed to suppress enthusiasm about the so-called visionaries. Today, the Medjugorje issue seems to boil down to one question. Which matters more: the truth about the apparitions, or the spiritual fruits of a place that draws an estimated 3 million pilgrims annually?
The need to answer this question has become more urgent since Pope Francis decided this past May to lift the ban on diocesan pilgrimages… albeit with the perplexing caveat that this not be taken as “an authentication of the noted happenings.”
Medjugorje’s devotees have reason to believe the tide is turning in their favor. Earlier this month, 14 bishops (including several Vatican dignitaries) officially participated in the 30th annual Mladifest, the shrine’s international youth festival. An estimated 60,000 young people attended.
There’s a reason official visits were previously prohibited. The Yugoslavian bishops’ conference ruled against the alleged apparitions in 1991. They had the full support of the local diocesan bishop, Pavao Žanić of Mostar-Duvno. Traditionally, this would have closed the matter, and the Medjugorje apparitions would have been dismissed as a hoax. In 2010, however, a commission was appointed by Benedict XVI to study the apparitions, but the Vatican has yet to issue formal judgment.
The lifting of the ban marks a change in attitude even since 2013, when the Vatican warned American bishops that “clerics and the faithful are not permitted to participate in meetings, conferences or public celebrations during which the credibility of such ‘apparitions’ would be taken for granted.” Rome’s first instincts may well have been the right ones.
In August 1987, Bishop Žanić wrote: “I am sure that Our Lady does not appear. No miracles. The ‘Messages’ cannot be of our Virgin. They are the fruit of a fabrication, fraud, and disobedience to the Church. It is about big money and personal interest, too.”
The disobedience to which the Bishop refers is likely that of the local Franciscan friars, who were involved with the Medjugorje phenomenon from the very beginning. The “Herzegovinian Case” is a longstanding dispute in the Diocese of Mostar, where Medjugorje is located. For historical reasons, Franciscan priests oversaw the majority of parishes in that territory. They answered directly to their provincials rather than a diocesan ordinary. But as the regular hierarchy became more established, it sought to reassign parishes to the secular clergy. What ensued was a full-blown territory war.
In 1975, the Holy See ruled on the division of parishes and provided for the establishment of a new cathedral parish in Mostar, taking territory from several Franciscan parishes for this purpose. A number of Franciscans defied the ruling and did their utmost to derail it.
Then, in 1981, the first apparitions were reported at Medjugorje, with rebel Franciscans acting as spiritual guides to the seers. Bishop Žanić recounts how, a few days after the first alleged apparition, a Franciscan superior named Fr. Nikola Radić told him: “A friar from Široki Brijeg swept in and said that Our Lady has appeared in Medjugorje and… she said that the friars are right!”
Bishop Žanić took his time in examining the apparitions, even intervening to protect the seers from the anti-religious communist police. However, he became concerned about inconsistencies and falsehoods in the seers’ accounts, and was soon convinced that the messages from Our Lady could not possibly be genuine. For instance, there was Our Lady’s purported defense of Fr. Ivica Vego, OFM—who, with other rebel friars, had seized a number of chapels in the area belonging to the new cathedral parish.
“Our Lady said that Bishop Žanić is to blame for the entire mess regarding Fr. Ivica Vego,” seer Vicka wrote in her Agenda on December 19, 1981. This was the first of 13 instances in which Our Lady allegedly declared Fr. Vego innocent of wrongdoing. Not long after, Fr. Vego’s scandalous lifestyle became public and he was defrocked—a story to be repeated years later, sadly, with the seers’ spiritual director, Fr. Tomislav Vlašić.
And that’s only the beginning. “Gospa,” as Medjugorje devotees call Our Lady, has made some glaring theological errors—including her supposed claim that all religions are equal. Then there’s the odd behaviour on the part of the apparition, as when she allows herself to be physically handled. The seers seem to control where she appears, as when seer Marija Pavlovic obliged American Terry Colafrancesco, who asked her to have a vision of Our Lady under a pine tree in his field. (As it happens, Colafrancesco’s non-profit Caritas of Birmingham then developed the field into a successful pilgrimage site and promotional center, reporting annual revenue of $2.6 million in 2017.)
In 2008, the exorcist Bishop Andrea Gemma said: “At Medjugorje, everything happens for the sake of money: pilgrimages, overnight stays, the sales of trinkets.” It’s “a mixture between personal and diabolical interests: the false seers and their helpers are pocketing the money, and the Devil creates discord between the faithful and the Church.” Indeed, the seers’ street in Medjugorje, according to author Joachim Bouflet, is cynically known by locals as “Millionaire’s Row.”
One of the seers, Mirjana Dragičević, made headlines recently when someone illegally poured concrete to pave the beach at a luxury villa on the Croatian island of Hvar. Total Croatia News reported on July 31, 2019, that she and her husband are the registered owners on the land record. When asked about it, she responded, “What house? What beach? What concrete? This is the first time I’ve heard about all this. It’s not true, and I will not stoop down to that level and comment on it.”
When the ban on pilgrimages was lifted in May 2019, the Vatican said it was doing so in part because of the “particular pastoral attention that the Holy Father intended to give to this reality, aimed at favoring and promoting the fruits of good.” But whose “pastoral” needs are being fostered if the visions are a hoax, as all available evidence suggests they are?
Just ask Bishop Žanić. “The most common argument of the defenders of Medjugorje is that the fruits… prove that Our Lady is appearing there,” he wrote in his 1990 statement The Truth about Medjugorje. “Those who know a little more… say: The fruits of the staunchest defenders of Medjugorje show that they themselves do not believe in the apparitions.”
There are 50 confessionals, thousands of conversions, 700 vocations, 3 million pilgrims—all wonderful things. But do they take priority over the truth?
“I know that there will probably be many sincerely pious souls that will misunderstand me and consider me an enemy of Our Lady. I have been to Lourdes many times and to other shrines of apparitions that the Church has recognized Bishop Žanić wrote sadly. “What I am doing is defending the truth, defending the Church, and I pray to God that I be able to give up my life for this.”
By their priorities you shall know them—and Bishop Žanić’s seem impeccable.