What Happened at Medjugorje?

by Stephen Schwartz

In 1981, a year after the death of ex-Yugoslavia’s communist dictator, Josip Broz Tito, events in Medjugorje, a small town in Bosnia-Hercegovina, began to stir the Christian world. Six Croatian Catholic children-four girls and two boys, then aged from ten to sixteen-claimed to have experienced visions of the Virgin Mary.

Even now, after twenty-eight years, three of the Medjugorje seers still report nightly visitations, usually around 6:40 local time, according to their official website. One of them, Ivan Dragicevic, who was sixteen years old when the apparitions commenced, holds prayer sessions on Mondays and Fridays, at 10:00, with additional communications from the Virgin. When the visionaries travel, they say, the Virgin increases the number of her messages to accommodate their itineraries.

As a result, Medjugorje is said to have drawn some 30 million pilgrims. But the visions were always controversial, especially within the Catholic Church. Bishop Pavao Žanic of Mostar-the nearest major city-who officiated in 1981, refused to support the authenticity of the children’s revelations. Bishop Žanic died in 2000 and was succeeded by Bishop Ratko Peric in 1993, who also repudiated Medjugorje. Rumor circulated in Bosnia over the past year that Benedict XVI shared their incredulity.

And this summer, at the end of July 2009, Benedict acted on his doubts. He has removed from the clergy one of two local priests most active in supporting the visions, Tomislav Vlašic, and threatened him with excommunication. (The suspension of the other, Jozo Zovko, from pastoral duties was confirmed in 2004.) Vlašic is also prohibited from residing in Franciscan facilities. The story has received little coverage in the United States, but has excited widespread comment in Ireland, from where millions of people had gone to Medjugorje, and Britain, which also contributed a significant contingent.

Simon Caldwell of the Catholic News Service recently wrote that Vlašic was moved last year to a Franciscan monastery in the Italian city of L’Aquila, “after he refused to cooperate in a Vatican investigation of his activities for suspected heresy and schism. He also was being investigated for ‘the diffusion of dubious doctrine, manipulation of consciences, suspected mysticism, disobedience towards legitimately issued orders and charges contra sextum (against the Sixth Commandment not to commit adultery).”

These harsh phrases appeared over the signature of Cardinal Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. But Vlašic had already moved from Bosnia to the Italian city of Parma in the mid-1980s. And Franciscan minister general Fr. José Rodríguez Carballo has said that Vlašic requested his own laicization.

So what happened at Medjugorje? The visionaries, now approaching middle age, claim they were visited by the Virgin on tens of thousands of occasions. When Bishop Žanic was reluctant to support them, the children’s proponents accused him of submitting to Communist government pressure. Still, even after Croatia became independent in 1991, the Catholic hierarchy rejected the supernatural character of the incidents at Medjugorje.

While it is difficult and tragic to cast doubt on a religious occurrence that brings comfort to ordinary people, the Croatian and Bosnian Catholic bishops were aware that Medjugorje had questionable aspects in its local, political, and secular background.

Members of the Franciscan Province of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, located in Hercegovina, took up the children’s cause. What had once been an obscure hamlet “between hills” (the meaning of the name Medjugorje) was transformed. New facilities were added to the local church of St. James; guest houses proliferated, along with souvenir shops. During my first visit to ex-Yugoslavia in 1990, I went to Dubrovnik-where the international airport served flights filled with passengers to and from Medjugorje-but knew nothing about them, aside from observing their fervor.

The location itself is remarkable, in that it sits at the western point of a triangle formed with two of the most important Islamic and Jewish spiritual sites in the Balkans, both of which have also drawn many wayfarers. Northeast of Medjugorje is the Sufi shrine of Blagaj. In its appearance, Blagaj could not be more different. While Medjugorje sits in a dusty basin, Blagaj stands at the source of a river, under steep limestone cliffs. Blagaj was built in the sixteenth century and survives as a rather modest complex, including a guesthouse and a tekija or Sufi meditation lodge. The river has been seeded with trout and a fish restaurant accommodates visitors-but in nothing like the numbers who go to Medjugorje.

Directly east of Medjugorje is the old Ottoman town of Stolac, outside of which one finds another hamlet, Krajsina, and the tomb of the “wonder-working rabbi,” Moshe Danon of Sarajevo, who died there in 1830 while on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Until the Holocaust, the grave of Rav Danon was visited by large groups of Bosnian Jews, who composed songs and devotional tracts about the virtue of making the journey.

On the road to Stolac sits Radimlja, a large aboveground necropolis of centuries-old stone sarcophagi, decorated with human and natural motifs, as well as crosses and other religious symbols. Although not considered a spiritual site, Radimlja is nonetheless a significant Bosnian cultural asset. The stone memorials are, more than any other feature in the landscape, the object of cultural rivalries, claimed by Croats, Muslim Bosnians, and Orthodox Christians.

I have visited all these places, some of them repeatedly. Blagaj is admirable for its simplicity. The grave of Rav Danon is saddening, because photographs and pamphlets demonstrate that it was once crowded with Jewish visitors, who were slain in the Holocaust. Radimlja is mysterious, rather than spiritual, but fascinating in revealing the premodern culture of the region. There are also reports of Serbian Orthodox shrines nearby, but since the Balkan wars of the 1990s they are not easily found.

I have also been to Medjugorje. In 1999 I copublished an article with a then-colleague, Laura Peterson, in a Californian Catholic monthly describing the hubbub at the town. But Peterson and I also heard the voices of discord. At Medjugorje, we listened to a Canadian woman who had been there twenty-five times. She told us, “It’s the peace. . . . There’s nothing like this in the West. If I didn’t have a family, I’d sell my home and move here. [The West] just doesn’t have the strength of faith they have here.”

Such a comment was counterintuitive, to say the least, given that the surrounding area had been devastated during the Croatian and Bosnian wars. Muslims and Serbs had been driven from the district; Serbs in Trebinje, a city further east, had expelled Muslims and Croats, destroying many old mosques; Ottoman monuments in Stolac were demolished by Croats, and the surviving Sarajevo Jews were afraid to visit the grave of Rav Danon. And that seemed to justify the question put forward by a Franciscan critic of the Medjugorje story, Fr. Ivo Sivric, who was born in the village. With exquisite understatement, he commented, “The lack of reconciliation and division in Herzegovina contraindicate the presence of the Queen of Peace and the apparitions.” Others asked why the messages from the Virgin were apocalyptic and punitive, filled with end-times rhetoric.

Some have even alleged that at Medjugorje, Mary had replaced Jesus at the center of worship. For most Bosnians, the most significant elements in the Medjugorje narrative are precedents from church and local history. The Franciscans in Bosnia have two provinces: one based in Hercegovina and the other, the Province of Srebrena Bosna, headquartered in Sarajevo. The Bosnian Franciscans had been granted special privileges to tend to the religious needs of Catholics, after the Muslim conquest of the land in 1463. This was a break from the Ottoman custom of recognizing the Orthodox churches as Christian representatives. But the Hercegovinians have a reputation as hard-headed nationalists, while the Franciscans in central Bosnia are considered by Muslims as well as Christians as dedicated to interreligious civility and local patriotism.

At Medjugorje, for almost thirty years, many have seen a demonstration of Hercegovinian militancy, and even of heresy. Once the local bishop rejected the visionaries, priests sent to the area by the regular ecclesiastical authorities were beaten up, prayer was held in local churches without the presence of clergy, and, some allege, the Medjugorje group was on the road to schism from the Roman church.

Serbs have loudly denounced Medjugorje as a Croatian conspiracy, while Bosnian Muslims have tended to remain subdued about it, at least in public. Local Muslims are mostly silent, especially after a war that took so many lives. But many admit they perceived in Medjugorje a Croatian ultranationalist production.

More could be said about the matter, but Benedict XVI appears to have made up his mind about Medjugorje. And many Croats, as well as Muslims and other Bosnians, are likely to quietly welcome his action.

Stephen Schwartz is a widely published journalist and author of The Two Faces of Islam.

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13 Responses to What Happened at Medjugorje?

  1. Frere Rabit says:

    This is clearly a rather old article. Was there a point in re-posting it now? Just curious, as I cannot see any relevance in it.


  2. JabbaPapa says:

    I have serious doubts about everything concerning Medjugorje.


  3. Frere Rabit says:

    Quite right. The whole thing was an entire scam. Is there no up-to-date material out there about the nasty Balkan politics and Franciscan manipulation that produced the money spinner of Medjugorge? The abuse case involving one of the key Franciscans – and his subsequent dismissal from the OFMs – has been well documented.

    My question remains unanswered. Why is this old article of any current interest please?


  4. Toad says:

    “Why is this old article of any current interest, please?”

    Simply because we love The Spooky Stuff, Rabit.
    Apparitions, mysterious messages, prophecies, affreets, demons, cartwheeling suns, hobgoblins. Can’t get enough of it. Demand exceeds supply.
    Have to recycle. To meet the demand.


  5. God Bless The World says:

    Read This all of it
    medjugorje is a place for prayer and has helped convert many people in my opinion I think medjugorje is the real deal I don’t think it is part of the evil ones plan as it brings so many pilgrams together for prayer the evil one aka satan does not like prayer my aunt has been there and has seen a miracle and so have allot of other people

    just think about how the jewish high priest and Pharisees denied jesus they even put him to DEATH

    with all do respect to the former pope benedict (May god bless him and keep him strong in faith) there is no proof to deny medjugorje the proof shows more that medjugorje is authentic then a scam just like the jewish high priest and Pharisees denied jesus my lord and savior who is one one with the father and holy spirit I feel like Medjugorje is the real deal I don’t think god would allow it to become this big if it was not

    P.S there has been scientific studies done on Medjugorje please see below

    Five alleged visionaries tested were found to simultaneously look at precisely the same spot (even though no reference point was visible) within one-fifth of a second of each other when the Blessed Virgin Mary allegedly appears. Such synchronization can only be explained by some external “object” holding their gaze — but one which those around them could not see.

    During the same one-fifth of a second, there are simultaneous kneeling and the cessation of eye movements. There is no eye movement during the entire apparition (from 3 to 45 minutes). There is also the simultaneous raising of their heads and gazing upwards while remaining fixated on a spot moving upwards when the apparition is finishing.

    Two of the alleged visionaries do not blink at all during the apparition. The eyeball normally dries when there is no regular blinking (15-20 times a minute) to moisten the cornea, but lacrimal secretion does not seem necessary during the apparition. The other alleged visionaries blink about half the normal rate

    and another study I seen on tv was that Medjugorje had above normal energy while the pilgrams where in prayer

    do not dismiss something with out proof what if it is authentic that would make satan very happy to dismiss it just like it made him happy about what the jewish high priest did to jesus

    guys I hate to burst your bubble but satan is very active in the world that is why in the bible he is referd to as the prince of the world

    May God Bless all of you in JESUS Name AMEN And AMEN


  6. God Bless The World says:

    P.S have you guys ever heard of the saying innocent until proven guilty there is NO PROOF that medjugorje is not AUTHENTIC

    common really think about it can all the visionaries be this good at acting if so they should be staring in a Hollywood flick I think after all these years if they where lying they would get caught (GOD please forgive me if I am wrong )
    good always wins against evil

    Gabriele Amorth (born 1 May 1925) is an Italian Roman Catholic priest and an exorcist of the Diocese of Rome and he also thinks that medjugorje is AUTHENTIC

    God Bless you all


  7. Toad says:

    “…have you guys ever heard of the saying innocent until proven guilty…?”

    The trouble is, GodBlessTheWorld, that courts in reality cannot, and do not, “prove” anyone guilty. They examine the evidence and then decide if someone’s guilty or not.
    Quite often they decide wrongly.

    All we can actually “prove” is some Math and a bit of formal logic.
    There is no way, as Wittgenstein once famously said, of proving that there was not a rhinoceros loose in Bertrand Russell’s Cambridge study in 1911. (I can explain, if anyone cares.)

    We can’t prove that 9/11 was not a CIA plot. Nor can we prove it was.
    All each of us can do is weigh the available evidence and decide.
    And that applies to virtually everything in life. Or so I think.
    But we should remember that things happen on a daily basis nowadays that would have been thought witchcraft, or certainly impossible, only 100 years ago.

    And I’m not sure that CP&S is really the logical place to discuss empiricism, anyway.


  8. JabbaPapa says:

    GodBlessTheWorld, the Devil is possessed of angelic powers, which is a major source of his ability to deceive.


  9. Roger says:

    The most important two Apparations are La Salette and Fatima
    Medjugorje has never had an appeal to me but what is definately wrong are the following!

    “In God there are no divisions or religions. You in the world have created these divisions!”
    ” we must respect every man in his faith. A man should never be despised because of the beliefs that nature him on the path of life”
    “Because respect for religious freedom is an integral part of our faith”
    “You do not believe if you do not respect other religions: Muslim and Serbian”

    This is this weird post-conciliar theology that is pure masonic and has been condemned again and again. The Church of darkness seen by Emmerich where everything was permitted”


  10. kathleen says:

    the Devil is possessed of angelic powers, which is a major source of his ability to deceive.”

    Yes Jabba, but how far would the Devil be able to deceive men? This is the big question many are asking. “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walks about, seeking whom he may devour.” (1 Peter 5:8) (Although we should not forget that on the other hand we have the good angels to help protect us from his wiles and tricks.)

    What the devil really desires is to take as many souls as possible away from God, and inner fighting and disobedience is a way to start the ball rolling for this end. At Medjugorje, after a gentle commencement of the visions, where many people believed the Virgin Mary was appearing to the children, arguing, blatant disobedience and much dissension from Church authority has been what has followed up to this day. That surely is enough to make one suspicious of the apparitions being of Divine origin!
    If “by their fruits thou shalt know them”, another ‘clue’ can be the way the visionaries live their lives after receiving the apparitions. From what we hear about the life of some of the visionaries of Medjurgorje, like the affluence of their life-styles, this is not very encouraging I would say.

    Have literally millions of well-meaning Catholics been duped into believing Our Blessed Mother (the Gospa) has been appearing here? It is a very worrying situation, that could produce an enormous disappointment to many believers, and the consequent loss of faith of many, if the whole thing is revealed to be a trick of the devil’s. Is it any wonder the Vatican is taking things methodically and slowly?

    (One of the differences between Medjurgorje and Garabandal – both places where the Catholic Church has not pronounced for or against the veracity of the apparitions so far – is in the latter’s total obedience to the relevant Church authorities who have been looking into the apparitions there. Also, the lives of the seers at Garabandal is totally without reproach.)


  11. Toad says:

    Which is the apparition when The Virgin Mary told a child that she would be in Purgatory, “..until the end of the world.”?

    “…Also, the lives of the seers at Garabandal is totally without reproach.”
    Miraculous to imagine any human life, “totally without reproach.”
    But possible, I must suppose.


  12. Roger says:

    The Devil is chained and condemned. Angelic Powers are beyond Mans comprehension. We have however Free Will and we live by Faith. Of what value would Free Will be without choices?
    Father Malachy Martin as an Exorcist spoke often on this matter of souls in this world (in high places) who sold their souls to the Devil for gain. This also means that there is an Equilibrium between Heaven and Hell maintained by Heaven
    Think of St Peter and his being sifted by Satan.
    The 20th century we know was a period of sifting (Leo XIII). Notice how the huge advances in technology flowed from the Wars. If Satan was permitted to sift then we have great Saints such as St Padre Pio and others as counter to Satan’s efforts.
    Kathleen points out the difference., especially with Garabandal.
    I should avoid this place.


  13. Justin says:

    Please be do not link to medjugorje . com website, by “A Friend of Medjugorje” and his organization “Caritas of Birmingham”. It is NOT the official website of Medjugorje, the official is http://www.medjugorje.hr. Please correct the link in the article.

    The problem with this organization and their website is that it is widely considered by many in the Medjugorje movement as a cult (see articles at http://www.medjugorje.ws/en/articles/caritas-of-birmingham/ , which is exploiting Medjugorje movement and luring very large amounts of money (currently $3-4 millions each year) from it’s people.

    In particular please read this: http://www.medjugorje.ws/en/articles/a-friend-of-medjugorje-terry-colafrancesco-cult-leader-caritas-of-birmingham/


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