Medjugorje is back in the news. On October 23, 2020, it was announced that Tomislav Vlasic, former spiritual director to its seers, had been excommunicated. The sentence was incurred after Vlasic steadfastly refused to comply with the canonical sanctions imposed by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009, when he was defrocked. During the intervening decade, he persisted in presenting himself as a priest, simulating the sacraments, and generally carrying on scandalously.
For Vlasic, excommunication is only the latest blot on a heavily sullied record. In 1976, well before any alleged apparitions in Medjugorje, Vlasic was serving as a Franciscan priest in the nearby town of Capljina. Known as a charismatic, he would gather priests, nuns and laity together for what the diocese of Mostar called “dubious charismatic spiritual renewals.” During this time, Vlasic began a manipulative affair with a female religious. When she discovered she was expecting a child, he packed her hastily off to Germany. Anxious for his name to be kept secret, he assured her that she would be blessed if she accepted her fate as the unwed mother of an baby with an incognito father—even going so far as to blasphemously compare her situation with that of the Mother of God. She kept his secret for years.
In May 1981, Vlasic attended a charismatic gathering in Rome, where a nun had a vision of him seated in the midst of a large group of people, with rivers of water flowing away from the place where he sat. A Dominican priest present prophesied to him, “Do not be afraid, I will send you my Mother.”
Just a few weeks later, at the end of June, the first apparition in Medjugorje was reported. Vlasic became involved there immediately, beginning to compile a chronicle—later deemed not credible by an investigating commission—of the alleged apparitions on August 11, 1981. In September 1981, without notifying the bishop or requesting permission, he left Capljina altogether and took up residence in Medjugorje.
To understand the Medjugorje phenomenon, it’s important to note the longstanding feud between the local bishop and dissident Franciscans. The area had been for centuries considered mission territory entrusted to the Franciscan order. When dioceses were eventually established and bishops assigned, some Franciscans flatly refused to cede their parishes to newly appointed diocesan clergy, an ongoing standoff at the time of the first apparitions. A number of these Franciscans had ties to the Ustaša, a Croatian terrorist group.
It was these dissident Franciscans who nurtured and promoted the Medjugorje cult from the very beginning. Among them were Tomislav Vlasic, Jozo Zovko (the priest to whom the seers first brought their story, known to be a charismatic and an Ustaša sympathizer), Ivica Vego and Ivan Prusina. All four would be eventually suspended and laicized.
So it was more or less par for the course when Vlasic moved to Medjugorje without as much as a by-your-leave to the local ordinary. There he immediately became spiritual director, handler and chronicler to the seers—and consequently a key figure in shaping and disseminating the message and cult of Medjugorje throughout the world.
Critique of the local bishop (and explicit support for the dissident Franciscans) was a running theme in the messages supposedly relayed from Our Lady. In the Medjugorje narrative burnished by Vlasic and Co. for presentation to the world, the bishop figured as a weakling, a Communist collaborator with no interest in the truth about the apparitions. Nothing could be more unfair to Bishop Zanic, whose energetic statements on the topic make his sincerity and his concern for truth plain; he actually defended the young seers and those associated with them from the Communists at the outset of things, not wanting his judgement on the matter to be swayed by political pressure. Yet years later, the film Gospa (1995) would calumniously push this pro-Communist caricature of Zanic on church-goers and Medjugorje devotees across North America, showing how effective the dissident spin machine was.
In autumn of 1981, Vlasic’s fellow Franciscans Vego and Prusina led a mob in physically evicting the bishop-appointed clergy from a Mostar church (violence was standard behaviour for the dissident Franciscans, who would go on to kidnap Zanic’s successor, Bishop Peric, in 1995). Zanic suspended their faculties, and the friars ran to Medjugorje to ask the young seers for Our Lady’s support. Conveniently, the seers asserted that Our Lady took the dissidents’ side—“Our Lady said that the bishop is to blame for the disorder in Herzegovina”—and authorized the priests to ignore their suspension.
In vain did Zanic point out that the real Mother of God would be well aware of the canonical legitimacy of his decision. Over the coming months the seers relayed a number of messages in which Our Lady repeatedly declared Vego and Prusina were innocent and should continue to say Mass and hear confessions at Medjugorje, despite their lack of faculties. “The bishop has no real love of God in his heart,” the seers said she told them, and “They [Vego and Prusina] have no faults.”
But it became hard to maintain Vego’s spotless innocence when he was revealed to have—like Vlasic—seduced a nun and fathered a child. When he was forced to cease his ministry, he settled down near the shrine with his mistress; to the bishop’s disgust, his best-selling Medjugorje prayer book was not even removed from the bookstore. (He later got married and moved to Italy.) Their fellow dissident, Jozo Zovko, would also be removed from the shrine and defrocked for insubordination amid allegations that he had molested pilgrims.
In 1984, correspondence between Vlasic and the mother of his child fell into the hands of Cardinal Ratzinger, and Vlasic had to leave Medjugorje. His immoral behavior was perhaps not the greatest of his crimes there, however; a 2008 statement from Mostar’s diocesan chancellor indicates that Vlasic—spiritual director and handler to the seers, remember—had “conjured up evil spirits in Medjugorje.” Bishop Zanic referred to him as a “charismatic magician.”
His next move was consistent with an interest in the occult: starting a full-blown New Age organization. Vlasic took up with a woman named Agnes Heupel (who claimed to have experienced a miraculous cure at Medjugorje). They traveled to Italy, “like Clare and Francis,” as Vlasic piously put it, to found a new kind of religious order where both men and women would live and work in shared quarters: “Queen of Peace—Totally Yours—to Jesus through Mary.” In February 1988, Medjugorje seer Marija Pavlovic went to join Vlasic’s association. She wrote—at Vlasic’s urging—a formal attestation that Our Lady had endorsed the group: “This is God’s plan.” Strangely, only a few months later, Marija left the group and swore before the Blessed Sacrament in July 1988 that despite her previous statement, Our Lady had never approved Vlasic’s group.
Extreme weirdness was, and remains, the chief characteristic of the Queen of Peace group. It teaches a blend of New Age mysticism and Gnosticism, including belief in extraterrestrial life forms and interplanetary communication. Although the association is still based in Italy, it appears to operate a kind of spiritual hotel in Medjugorje, complete with pseudo-mystical architectural features such as a “Door of Light” through which the initiate passes, symbolically dying to himself.
Wildly heretical though all this was, Vlasic continued to present the association as Catholic and himself as a Catholic priest. It was only after Benedict XVI became pope—his intervention in the 80s had forced Vlasic to leave Medjugorje—that Vlasic was investigated and laicized in 2009 on grounds of “suspicion of heresy and schism, as well as scandalous acts contra sextum [against the Sixth Commandment], aggravated by mystical motivations.” His refusal to comply with canonical sanctions brought about his final excommunication this summer.
Sincere souls who are inclined to believe that Our Lady has appeared in Medjugorje may argue that Vlasic’s influence on events at Medjugorje was minimal, since he was only there for a few years, and that in any case recent Vatican approval of pilgrimages renders further analysis unnecessary.
But that’s not quite good enough. In 1981, Tomislav Vlasic was plainly already a corrupt and manipulative individual. He was closely involved with the other Franciscans in Medjugorje and with the seers as spiritual director, chronicler and frequent interviewer, and according to the diocese of Mostar, he was known to have trafficked in the occult during his time in Medjugorje. If Rome wants to approve pilgrimages to this place, should it not explain the precise nature and scope of Vlasic’s influence on the seers, not to mention the influence exerted by him and his fellow dissidents on the pro-Medjugorje messages broadcast throughout the Catholic world?
The fact that the Vatican has not yet bothered to do so reveals an unfortunate cynicism towards the value of apparitions in general: does it really matter if Our Lady appeared, so long as people are going to confession and praying the rosary?
The answer is yes, it matters very much. Good-hearted Catholics may have been made victims of an ingenious fraud, or worse, of an ongoing diabolic manifestation. If either ends up being the case, Our Lady will not have been honored in Medjugorje, but mocked—by both devils and men.
[Photo credit: Elvis Barukcic/AFP via Getty Images]