Interview: Prof. Dr. Mark Miravalle
professor of Theology and Mariology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville (USA)
Date: January 12, 2008
Content of the article
Prof. Dr. Mark Miravalle, professor of Theology and Mariology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville (USA) is a permanent deacon, a married man and a father of 8 children. Shortly after the beginning of the apparitions, while he was writing his doctorate in Rome, he came to Medjugorje to investigate the events.
First contact with Medjugorje and consequences
Tell us about your first contact with Medjugorje, and about the consequences?
It was in September 1984. I was a doctor student at the Angelicum, the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas in Rome. At that time, the first two books about Medjugorje have been published; one by Fr. Laurentin and Fr. Rupčić, and the other by Fr. Robert Faricy. As I read these books in a Roman bookstore, and I felt a burning in my heart that I should come and investigate. My wife and I at that time had two children, and we made a decision that we should pray and fast for the four days that I would be gone: so, in the case if it was not Our Lady, it would still be for the holiness of our children, and if it was really Our Lady, there would be a double blessing!
So I came for the first time on December 7th, and I spent the night in the church of Saint James, without the heat, with ten other pilgrims from this area, and the next day I was allotted to a family to stay. As I made my first prayer pilgrimage up to Krizevac, I was praying about my dissertation, which had for the subject Holiness of the Laity, using Doctors of the Church, Saint Catherine of Sienna, Saint Francis of Sales, Saint Alphonsus Liguori, and the more I prayed about, the more I realized that it would be presumptuous for me to think that I could come up with a better structure of the holiness for the laity as the Blessed Mother herself. It was at that point that I decided to write my doctor dissertation on the message of Medjugorje.
I returned to Rome, and after having the first title rejected, because it was on a private revelation, I had a second title accepted. In that, the subject would be the message of Medjugorje in light of the Scripture, the fathers of the Church, the Second Vatican Council, and its relation to Lourdes and Fatima. On May 31st, 1985, I successfully defended my dissertation on the Message of Medjugorje.
At that point, I considered spending my whole life speaking exclusively on Medjugorje, but I was advised by a Jesuit priest that I would do more for Medjugorje by being a professor on a known university. I took his advice and began teaching at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, where I have taught Theology and Mariology for the last 21 years.
That was my introduction to Medjugorje. I have spoken throughout the US on the Message of Medjugorje, I wrote the entry on Medjugorje for the New Catholic Encyclopedia, as well as a book on the Introduction to Medjugorje based on its messages, and also a text called “Medjugorje and the family”. I wrote the second text because there were many families that said: “We tried to live Medjugorje for one day, and we gave up. We have prayed, we have fasted, we have never fasted before, we have tried to pray the Rosary, and at the end of that one Medjugorje-Day, we fought more as a family than ever before. So, we could not do it, so we gave up.” This is how I decided to write a book. Actually, I gave a series of lectures at the Franciscan University of Steubenville on Our Lady’s messages specific to the family, and the need to incorporate them with true commitment, gradually, according to the needs and proper sensitivity of children and family life.
The Medjugorje message in the family
Many are opposed to Medjugorje precisely because they think that what is asked here is simply too much…
It is not too much! My testimony to the ability to live the message of Medjugorje came from seeing people here do it. But they did it with wisdom, with pastoral sensitivity. The families were praying in the evenings together, there was always the first concern for one’s first vocation, and that is the education of the children, and the appropriateness of the spousal love. Practically what that means is that some children would have no meat and no sweets on Wednesdays and Fridays, the older children could do more fasting, but like a good shepherd, a good pastor, Our Lady gradually incorporated the call. For example, at first, there was fasting just on Friday. There was first a call for just one Rosary a day. Later, there was the call to three Rosaries. People in the town during harvest times said: “We cannot fast just on bread and water”. Our Lady said: “You may add fruit”. So, Our Lady gradually built up this message, which started just with the Creed and seven Our Fathers, Hail Mary’s and Glory be’s. It is not fair to blame Medjugorje if a person begins now, after there has been 26 years of gradual pastoral motherly built-up to live a more generous love for prayer and fasting.
You are living the messages in your family?
We try. First of all, we go to daily Mass. We do believe that Mass is the gift of the day for the faithful, as Our Lady said. We believe that if nothing else in the day is accomplished at all, we have done the greatest thing, because we have been at the sacrifice of the Mass, and we and our older children have received the Bread of Life. If there is no school, if there is no work, if nothing else is accomplished, we believe that we have done the greatest thing for holiness, the greatest thing for our children.
Secondly, we try to pray the Rosary in the morning, but we certainly pray the Rosary every evening. We try to pray two Rosaries a day, God wiling, and the Chaplet of Mercy during the day, at 3 o’clock. We also try to go to confession every Saturday; we feel that confession together is very important, because family reconciliation demands cooperation of all the members. If many members go for confession, but one is not, one can bring adversity to the family. We fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, at least a meatless and sweetless fast for the family.
I remember, when I was in Rome, it was about 7 at night, and I said to my wife: “You take the children, I am getting too cranky, but I don’t want to break the fast”. And I went to bed. And I realized how wrong I was! I was putting fasting over the family, instead the fasting as a means to holiness for the family. Typically, we have an evening meal, I try to fast until then on bread and water, and we try to be responsible to the particular needs of our children. So, we are far from living the message in a radical way.
The Medjugorje message in a secularized world
Do you think that you are a “normal” family? Do you think that other people who may not be working in such a protected context as you are at Steubenville, are called or able to live the messages?
I will answer the second question first. Our Lady gave one message for 6 billion people. When you give one message for 6 billion people, first of all, you give the grace for everyone to be able to live it to their capacity. For example, if someone says: “I cannot fast on Wednesdays and Fridays because I am a diabetic”, you are called to a different form of fasting: you are called to fast from television, from gossip, which is far harder for many then fasting from food. And you are called certainly to fast from sweets and similar things. If you are a pregnant mother, you fast differently then a healthy young man. But, there is no aspect of the message that prevents to be incorporated by everyone. Fr. Jozo said in a recent talk that Our Lady has the prescription. We go to the doctor and we want medicine, and we take the medicine religiously. But Our Lady has given us the medicine for our needs today! If we don’t take the medicine, we can’t blame the doctor! The message of Medjugorje is the medicine for everyone. If it is incorporated with prudence and with a sincere heart, then everyone can live the message.
Are we a “normal” family? I think it depends on what we consider normal. The question now is, “should we be a normal family”, if “normal” means being a secular family, being a family that is dominated by television or video games? I think the family has never been under more attack then presently, and John Paul II agrees with that in his document on the Rosary. The crisis of the world today is the crisis of peace and of the family. So, I think, Jesus calls us to be different. We should not be afraid to be different, realizing how important is for our children to see us live the message. Our children were aged 2 years and 5 months when we first came to Medjugorje in 1984. But the children have grown up with Wednesday and Friday fasting. They consider it to be automatic now. And even when they go away, they consider it odd not to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. It is co-natural.
Do they have any problems with their friends, when they meet people who do not live in this way?
It is difficult; it is especially difficult for the adolescents. The younger children have fewer problems. They speak about it with a heroic honesty. “It’s Friday, I cannot have sweets today!” Why? “Because Our Lady said we have to give it up!” For adolescents it is difficult. I have a son who went to a catholic home school, where even on Fridays in Lent the boys were not fasting. He had some difficulties. He called home and said: “I am so disappointed, in a catholic school, on Fridays in Lent, they do not fast because they say they are only 13, and they don’t have to fast!” With the adolescents, we have to be especially patient and firm. But it is a true grace for them, even if they don’t understand. Our Lady calls us to be faithful to the great graces of protection of the Family, which is under attack. Jesus said that nothing like prayer and fasting protects us from Satan.
The message is rooted in the deepest traditions of our Catholic faith
After the Council, in the famous Aggiornamento, the Church has given up many old traditions. Some had the impression that “everything” was lost. Medjugorje has provoked a movement of zealous people who want to live their faith in a radical way. Some say that Medjugorje is a model that can be applied to every parish of the world, others say the opposite. Is Medjugorje a renewal of the family and of the parish, or a call for some to “do more” then the others?
In my doctor dissertation, I broke Medjugorje into the categories. The first are the foundational themes: faith, prayer, fasting, penance, peace. I found the message of Medjugorje in these foundational themes truly present in both the Scripture and the Fathers of the Church.
The second part of Dissertation dealt with what I called developmental themes, for example ecumenism, and I found those themes very much in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. I would say that the message of Medjugorje is a contemporary call to holiness, and at the same time it is a call of return to the deepest traditions of our Catholic faith. What Our Lady is saying in Medjugorje is the return to the deepest ascetical practices of the earliest believers! In the early Church, there was zeal, even until martyrdom! Our Lady is calling us to have the same zeal today. Her message is the basics of the faith, entirely under the Magistery, in a contemporary expression. It is a new message for holiness and a radicality of the Gospel, but rooted to the deepest traditional of what means to be a Catholic.
Why are so many bishops so reluctant if everything is so good?
There is a bit of a fear regarding the whole domain of the private revelation, sometimes also a lack of understanding of the position of the Church regarding private revelation. I am reading now the writings of the Pope Benedict XVI regarding prophecy and private revelation. You find a beautiful bond between a proper caution regarding a reported message, and also openness to the Holy Spirit, and to prophecy and miraculous intervention. For example, at Fatima, the local clergy were prohibited from visiting Fatima from 1917 until it was approved in 1930. During that time, two visionaries died, 10 years before Fatima was approved, and yet, John Paul II beatified the only two children in the history that were not martyrs, for living a reported private revelation before it was approved by the Church! That tells us that the true position of the Church is caution, yes, but also openness to the Holy Spirit.
Do the visionaries have to be saints?
What would you say about holiness of the visionaries? We often read about different visionaries in the past, but we do not really know much about them. Information about them is very much “filtered”. In our times, the visionaries of Medjugorje are extremely exposed to the eyes of the whole world… what about their holiness?
Examining the visionaries, we again have to return to what the Church considers to be true criteria of authenticity. The Church does not require sanctity of a visionary. The Church requires basic integrity from the time the apparitions began. There are cases of visionaries and saints who have a very secular past. There are cases where both saints and visionaries before the time of the apparitions had lives that were not a witness of the Gospel.
Certainly, and many others, Mary Magdalene and Matthew! So it is not fair to hold the visionaries of Medjugorje to a higher standard that Jesus had for his apostles! At the same time, there should be a basic authenticity and a basic integrity to the lifestyle of the visionaries, but exceptional holiness of the visionaries is not required for the authenticity. For example, one of the visionaries at Knock in Ireland left the Church some time after the apparitions, because he got into a fight with a parish priest! On his deathbed, he said, “Those apparitions were true”, and “I am still mad about this priest”! It is also well known that Saint John Vianney said about the visionary of La Salette, “This cannot be authentic, because the visionary does not radiate holiness to me”. As soon as the Church did approve La Salette, Saint John Vianney changed his position and said: “I accept what the Church says”. So, the ultimate criteria about the authenticity, as the Church examines this, is not based on the holiness of the visionary, but on the integrity and straightforwardness. Having said that, I personally would find the visionaries of Medjugorje to be exceptionally generous in terms of the offering of their private lives for Our Lady. I think there is a genuineness about them that bespeaks authenticity. There are no errors; there is a clear down to earth tone that they take. They do not try to impress anybody, and that is the most impressive in the cases of the visionaries. Being authentic.
Many pilgrims, and Catholics in general, would like to have the visionaries as their own little idols. In Medjugorje, the visionaries are clearly refusing this.
There is always the danger of visionary worship that can enter into authentic apparitions. But the responsibility for that should not fall first on the visionaries, unless the visionaries are doing something to augment this. I do not see that here. If the people inappropriately put the visionaries on a pedestal, I think they have to examine are the visionaries pointing to themselves, or to Jesus, the Eucharist and Our Lady. Padre Pio had a woman who once came and said: “I have to confess that I maybe love you too much”. He said: “Be at peace, it is not me that you love, it is Jesus that you love”. Ultimately it becomes a matter of the heart. The visionary is a tool of God. As saint Benedict said, “I am a tool of God, when you are done with me, put me in the corner”. That should be the attitude of the visionaries, and also of the people who accept the message.
Medjugorje has changed, but the Mother is the same
You have been here several times…How do you see development of Medjugorje in these 26 years?
I have been here four times. In 1984 I came twice, and then again in 1992, and this time. In 15 years, it is a big difference. There is always the objection about the shops. “The shops have surrounded Medjugorje”. As you enter Fatima and as you enter Lourdes, it is surrounded by shops! Once again, it is not the shops that should be examined; it is our hearts that should be examined! There is nothing wrong with bringing home a Rosary that was blessed by Our Lady, but if we are spending more times in the shops than on the Apparition Hill, then our heart is disordered! In 1984, when there was no distraction possible, it was the time of holy simplicity, but the Mother that came then is the same Mother that comes now. We have to be a little more custodious of our hearts. We should remind ourselves or the priests should remind us that we are not on a shopping tour but on pilgrimage. I see the development as a positive development, I see the 35 million pilgrims as a testimony to the fruits, and even the controversy will always be where Our Lady comes. I think the spiritual fruits stand on its own, and that is the ultimate criteria that Cardinal Ratzinger said should be examined when you are looking at a reported message.
The Church criteria of discernment
What about the Church’s criteria of discernment?
When the Church examines the apparitions, it examines three areas:
1. The message contents. Is the message in conformity to the faith and teachings of the Catholic Church? It was the object of my doctorate dissertation to prove that there is not one single message of Medjugorje that in any way conflicts with the official teaching of the Church’s Magisterium. Look at the message and you will see the three words that are used more than any others: Peace, Love and Pray. The message is a sound, orthodox, catholic message with openness to all peoples.
2. The second criteria the Church examines is what is called “Phenomena”. This would include things like the reported ecstasy of the visionaries. The Medjugorje visionaries have been tested by two medical teams: one from the University of Montpellier, France, and one from Milan, Italy. The conclusions of those teams were that the visionaries are communicating with a being outside their own time-space limitations, and the commissions ruled out any concept of hallucination.
3. The Church examines the spiritual fruits based on the words of Jesus, “You know the tree by its fruits”. The Church looks for lasting spiritual fruits, not an occasional conversion, but a return to the Church after 40 or 50 years being outside of the Church. Look at the confessions lines! How many bishops and priests and religious have pilgrimaged to this place! A convicted return to the prayer and sacramental life of the Church, and this, like no other apparition in the present era, has been manifested in Medjugorje. The confession lines, Mass attendance, Rosaries are ubiquities. That is a rock solid Scripture based testimony to the fact that indeed it is Jesus who sends his Mother to Medjugorje. As one author said, “If Satan is behind Medjugorje, he has made the greatest mistake of his existence”.
So, as the Church examines a reported message, and these criteria came out in 1978, Medjugorje scores the highest conceivable scores on all these three levels from a theological and scientific perspective.
How long do we have to wait for the Church approval?
The purpose of the private revelation is to renew our commitment to Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. As we look at the Church in the world today, we see endless signs of the need to be renewed. Why the world needs a message of spiritual peace, leading to family peace, leading to global peace? We have only to read the newspapers to see the lack of peace. The terrorism in the world and the terrorism in the womb. As long as there are those terrorisms, we do not have peace in this world. We should be grateful, Our Lady is continuing to come. And how long do we have to wait? I always think of sister Lucia of Fatima. She waited 70 years for the Consecration to take place. We have to be patient and do our part to make it sooner. That’s the only thing we have certain: the more we pray and fast, the sooner will be the response to the sacrifice of Medjugorje, and the sooner will be the universal approval of Medjugorje.