Francis takes pastoral approach to Medjugorje
On May 12, it was announced that Pope Francis had approved pilgrimages to Medjugorje, a town in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where there have been alleged apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary since 1981. The announcement was made by Archbishop Henryk Hoser, the papally appointed apostolic visitor to Medjugorje, along with Archbishop Luigi Pezzuto, the papal nuncio to Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Alessandro Gisotti, the interim director of the Holy See Press Office.
The decision allows for parishes and dioceses to organize pilgrimages to Medjugorje. Previously, only private pilgrimages were allowed with permission for priests to accompany those going to Medjugorje to attend to their spiritual and sacramental needs. In response to questions about this decision, Gisotti made it clear that the authorization of pilgrimages to Medjugorje must not be interpreted as an authentication of the alleged apparitions. Care, therefore, must be taken to avoid creating “confusion or ambiguity from the doctrinal point of view regarding such pilgrimages.”
Origins of the apparitions
The reported apparitions at Medjugorje began in June 1981 when the Blessed Mother is said to have appeared to six young visionaries — four girls and two boys — ranging in age from 10 to 16. The basic message of the apparitions is a call to prayer, penance and peace. There also have been 10 secrets confided to some of the visionaries, which have never been disclosed. Three of the visionaries claim to receive daily apparitions of the Blessed Mother. One claims to receive a monthly message, and the other two report receiving apparitions from Mary once a year. The visionaries are all now married with children. Four of them still live in or near Medjugorje; one lives in the United States and another in Italy.
There is much controversy regarding the alleged apparitions of Medjugorje. Critics of the events cite inconsistencies in some of the testimonies, as well as ambiguous statements from a doctrinal perspective. Critics also believe the visionaries have been manipulated by some of the local Franciscan priests who have had a long-standing quarrel with the local bishop of Mostar-Duvno. There is also the scandal of Father Tomislav Vlasic, one of the Franciscans involved with the visionaries, who fathered a child with a religious sister and eventually was laicized.
Defenders and skeptics
Defenders of the apparitions point to the many spiritual fruits of the pilgrimages to Medjugorje. There are reports of numerous conversions, long confessional lines, Eucharistic adoration and special favors received. The sheer number of pilgrims going to Medjugorje is impressive. This, no doubt, is why Pope Francis in 2018 appointed Archbishop Hoser, the archbishop emeritus of Warszawa-Prague, Poland, as a special apostolic visitor to Medjugorje to observe and coordinate the pastoral needs of the pilgrims going to Medjugorje.
The local bishops of the Diocese of Mostar-Duvno — Bishop Pavao Zanic (1980-93) and Bishop Ratko Perić (1993-present) — have both taken a negative view of the alleged apparitions. The former Yugoslav Episcopal Conference on April 10, 1991, determined that, based on investigations, it could not be affirmed that one is dealing with the supernatural. In March 1996, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, then secretary of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), told a French Bishop that parishes and dioceses may not organize pilgrimages because they might give the impression of canonical endorsement of the apparitions. On Oct. 2, 1997, Bishop Perić stated that, in his judgment, the events of Medjugorje are not supernatural. In May 1998, Archbishop Bertone wrote to Bishop Gilbert Aubry of the French Reunion Island that Bishop Perić’s judgment should be understood as the bishop’s own personal view; the 1991 judgment of the Yugoslav Episcopal Conference, though, would have precedence.
‘There is grace’
Because of the ongoing private pilgrimages to Medjugorje, Pope Benedict XVI, in 2010, formed a commission of experts under the leadership of Cardinal Camillo Ruini to study the events of Medjugorje and submit their report to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The commission submitted its report in January 2014, but neither the CDF not Pope Francis have rendered an official judgment based on this report.
In the May 2017 news conference on the flight returning from Fátima, Pope Francis was asked about Medjugorje, and he praised the work of the commission. He indicated that the commission believed the initial apparitions of 1981 required further study. The ongoing apparitions, however, were looked upon with greater skepticism. Pope Francis said his own personal view was more severe. He said that he prefers “Our Lady to be a Mother, our Mother, and not a telegraph operator who sends a message every day at a certain time.” The Holy Father, however, also said, “The real core of the Ruini report is the spiritual fact — the pastoral fact — the people go there and are converted, the people who meet God, who change their lives.”
These last comments of Pope Francis harmonize with some comments he made about Medjugorje in a 2013 interview with the Mariologist Father Alexandre Awi Melo, who is now the secretary of the Dicastery of Laity, Family and Life. In this interview, which has since been published, Pope Francis said: “I believe that in Medjugorje there is grace.” In other words, the Holy Father recognizes the grace that moves the pilgrims in Medjugorje to go to confession and to change their lives.
Of course, the conversions that place at Medjugorje do not, in themselves, validate the reported apparitions. These conversions can be understood as the response of God to the good faith of the people who make the pilgrimage to Medjugorje in search of guidance and healing. The recognition of these conversions taking place at Medjugorje is, no doubt, a major reason for allowing parishes and dioceses to organize pilgrimages to the site of the alleged apparitions.
A pastoral approach
Another reason for the approval of the pilgrimages is Pope Francis’ great respect for Marian piety of the faithful. In a May 13 editorial published in Vatican News, Andrea Tornielli, the editorial director of Holy See’s Dicastery for Communications, noted that Francis’ permission for more formal pilgrimages to Medjugorje is a sign of his profound respect for the Marian piety of the people of God. In other writings, Pope Francis has noted the importance of popular piety, especially Marian, in leading the faithful to conversion and an encounter with God.
The decision to allow parish and diocesan sponsored pilgrimages to Medjugorje is pastoral in nature. In no way should it be understood as an indirect approval of the supernatural character of the alleged apparitions. In a letter of Oct. 21, 2013, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganó, then the papal nuncio to the United States, communicated to the U.S. bishops a directive of the CDF that the faithful are not allowed to participate in meetings, conferences or public celebrations during which the credibility of the reported apparitions of Medjugorje are taken for granted. In the same way, the pilgrimages organized by parishes and dioceses to Medjugorje should not assume that the apparitions are supernatural. Permitting official pilgrimages to Medjugorje will allow for better pastoral oversight of the faithful who make these journeys in search of God’s love through the intercession of Mary.
Robert Fastiggi, Ph.D., is a professor of systematic theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.