"Don't let the devotees fall into the void"
The Medjugorje phenomenon and the discernment of spirits: a conversation with dogmatic theologian Manfred Hauke
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Content of the article
Conversation with dogmatic theologian Manfred Hauke
(Translated from the German-language Catholic newspaper Die Tagespost.)
For years there has been discussion of the phenomenon of the alleged "Marian apparitions" that took their origin in Medjugorje: Does the Mother of God really appear to the seers who originated in Medjugorje? Or are the experiences parapsychological fruits of the seers' unconscious? Are they a deceptive manipulation or even a trick of evil forces? According to reports, there are plans at the Vatican to have the Medjugorje phenomenon conclusively investigated by a commission. Regina Einig asked the chairman of the German Society for Mariology, professor of dogmatics and patristics at Lugano, Manfred Hauke, about the subject.
Wherein can we find the theological meaning of Marian apparitions?
Appearances of the Mother of God belong to the charism of prophecy, in which the mysterious working of the Spirit of God comes to expression. St. Paul emphasizes: "Do not quench the Spirit! Do not despise prophetic utterances!" (1 Thess. 5:19-20). The book of Proverbs already emphasizes: "Without prophecy, the people become demoralized" (Prov. 29:18). According to Thomas Aquinas, prophetic revelations after the Apostolic era are not given in order to spread a new teaching of faith, but serve to guide human action. Theology speaks here of "private revelations", inasmuch as the content conveyed does not belong to general and public revelation, which closed with the Apostolic era. "Private", then, means a reference to an individual person, a group or even the whole Church in a particular historical situation. "Private revelations", or (better) prophetic revelations help us to recognize the "signs of the times" (Lk. 12:56) and act accordingly. Following Pope Benedict XIV, the recognition of a private revelation by the responsible bishop is not the basis of any duty to believe, in the strict sense (fides divina), but it states that one can approach the apparitions with a purely human faith (fides humana) based on reasoning. So no Catholic is obliged to believe that the Mother of God appeared in Lourdes and Fatima; but the Church states that the reports of the apparitions are worthy of belief and a Catholic may believe in them and cultivate a corresponding spirituality. Yes, the Church has even set several memorial days in the liturgical calendar and issued corresponding Mass formulas. Prophetic revelations are not the normal case of Christian life, but an exception: "Blessed are they who do not see and yet believe" (Jn. 20:29). The Catechism of the Catholic Church stresses with St. John of the Cross: In Jesus Christ, the eternal divine Word, God the Father has shared everything with us (cf. Hebr. 1:1-12). "Any person questioning God or desiring some vision or revelation would be guilty not only of foolish behavior but also of offending him, by not fixing his eyes entirely upon Christ and by living with the desire for some other novelty" (CCC 65).
Is there really a possibility of apparitions that convey to a person something that does not originate in his own psyche?
According to one widespread theory, which goes back to Karl Rahner most prominently, all apparitions are "imaginative visions". According to that theory, the content of the "apparition" has a psychogenic origin, even if it can be made possible by a divine impulse. That is, God does not work in this world immediately, but only through created secondary causes (especially through the human psyche). In other words: whether someone experiences a vision of a "ship's goblin", or of his own stepmother, or of the Virgin Mary depends on the subjective psychological disposition, perhaps on unconscious mental processes, and not on objective circumstances that encounter the person from outside himself. In such a theory the question of authenticity or inauthenticity of Marian apparitions is no longer germane, in the last analysis. Against this, I would stress that to exclude the unmediated intervention of God in this world is intellectually not tenable, because then the original creation out of nothing, which goes back to God alone, would be impossible. Besides this, there are unequivocally witnessed phenomena, in which the content of what was seen comes from an extra-mental experience: for example, in the Marian apparitions at Knock in Ireland in 1879, 15 people saw Mary with other saints, and an altar, in pouring rain; the place where the saints stood remained dry despite the pouring rain. Such an event is not explicable by Rahner's subjectivistic proposal. We must always consider the subjective factor: even in genuine revelations errors can intrude, when human imagination adds something or when a statement is interpreted wrongly. And there is naturally the phenomenon of fantasies of a morbid origin, or the possibility of deception. If both are excluded, standing in the center of the interpretation of apparitions is the evaluation of its extra-mental origin: the intervention of God and heavenly personages, or instead evil forces.
What forms of visions or apparitions can be distinguished?
"Apparition" means, in its theological definition, the intervention of a heavenly being, experienced by the external senses or by the faculty of imagination. The concept "vision", in contrast, places emphasis on the subjective components, and therefore on the perception of an event which is by nature not visible. Among them, there can be "bodily visions", if the approaching object is perceived with the visual sense; "imaginative" visions (which only manifest themselves in the faculty of imagination), or "intellectual" visions (which show themselves in thought without conveying a sensory impression).
Does the Medjugorje phenomenon fit, in your view, in the line of the great Marian apparition sites such as Lourdes, Fatima, or Guadalupe?
Medjugorje has, in common with the apparition sites you mentioned, which have been recognized by the Church, a formidable stream of pilgrims, who pray there, seek conversion, or renew their faith. I myself was impressed on a visit to Medjugorje in 1985 with the numerous confessions; in one of them, someone told me: "My last confession was before the Second World War." Also a fair number of religious vocations is connected with the pilgrimage, the believing community, and the life of prayer that can be experienced in those places.
On the other side, there are obvious differences. Among those are the number of visionary phenomena and the miracles recognized by the Church as worthy of belief. In Guadalupe there were four appearances of Mary (December 9-12, 1531), which were made credible by one of the greatest miracles in Church history, namely the impression of the image of Mary on the mantel of the seer. In the following ten years eight million Indios converted. The authenticity of the apparitions was recognized in 1566 after a canonical process and the seer was canonized in 2002. In Lourdes eighteen Marian appearances were counted, which took place within a half year (Feb. 11 - July 16, 1858). The messages connected with them concentrated on prayer and penance. They were made credible from the beginning by miracles, which stood up to a thoroughly critical medical and ecclesiastical examination. The bishop's recognition (1862) is connected with the personal credibility of the seer, Bernadette Soubirous, who entered a convent after her encounter with the Mother of God and was canonized in 1933. The events of Fatima comprise six appearances of Mary (May to October 1917), which were preceded by three apparitions of angels (1916) and were extended through apparitions to the seer Lucia in Pontevedra (1925-26) and Tuy (1929-30). The miracle of the sun in Fatima (October 13, 1917) happened in front of about 50,000 people. The Marian apparitions of 1917 were recognized as worthy of belief in 1930, and the messages to Lucia at Pontevedra and Tuy in 1939. Two of the seers of 1917 (Francisco and Jacinta, who died as children) were beatified in 2000, while the inaugural process for the recently deceased Sister Lucia began in 2008. So Guadalupe, Lourdes, and Fatima are distinguished by a very limited number of Marian appearances, by a clearly outlined message, through the holiness, recognized by the Church, of the seers. and by the impressive confirmation on the grounds of obvious miracles.
In contrast to those, the Medjugorje phenomenon presents itself differently: the number of alleged appearances must reach over 40,000; the messages connected with them are especially numerous and raise some critical questions; regarding the credibility of the seers, there is a shadow in a few cases from the phenomenon of a provable lie; a miracle recognized by the Church does not exist; the miraculous signs predicted by the seers as confirmations of Medjugorje, have not been observed yet. The Portuguese Cardinal Saraiva-Martins, for years prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, was recently asked about the parallels between Medjugorje and Fatima. He gave the opinion: While the shepherd children of Fatima showed themselves to be humble and chose silence, these virtues are not obvious in Medjugorje; while Sister Lucia entered the cloister, no one in Medjugorje has chosen consecrated life [one of the seers instead married an American beauty queen; this is of course no sin, but it is also no especial sign of a supernatural influence through Marian apparitions]; Sister Lucia put down the secrets entrusted to her by Mary in writing, while the visionaries of Medjugorje keep them for themselves. "No, I see nothing in common between Fatima and Medjugorje" (www.papanews.it, January 15, 2010).
Many people regard Medjugorje as the beginning of their conversion. Is there a theological logic of "good fruits", which allows for conclusions of an experience of grace or the authenticity of the phenomenon?
Good fruits alone are still no confirmation for the supernatural origin of a visionary phenomenon. In medicine placebo therapy also sometimes brings good results, but they aren't to be credited to the medicine as such. And even at a place, at which trickery happens or even the devil acts, it is possible that divine grace acts and people convert and find God. In the criteria for the supernatural credibility of Marian apparitions the fruits are to be connected with the examination of the phenomenon itself and its confirmation through miracles. In Medjugorje there are, in addition, not only good fruits, but also a whole number of negative consequences that are connected with the phenomenon of the apparitions. One of those is the encouragement given to two Franciscan friars, who were urged by the seer Vicka in the name of the "Gospa" to set themselves against the canonically legitimate directives of the local bishop regarding their pastoral activity. At the repeated exhortations of the "Gospa" to disobedience (13 times), the ordinary at the time, Bishop Zanic, who had been originally inclined favorably to the Medjugorje phenomenon, reacted with very understandable rejection.
In his reaction to Cardinal Schönborn's visit Bishop Peric draws attention to further fruits that are connected with the same exhortation to disobedience: at present there are in the Mostar-Duvno diocese nine ex-Franciscans who were suspended from ministry, but are carrying on in usurped parishes as legal priests; certain Franciscans invited an Old-Catholic deacon in 2001, who presented himself as an "Archbishop" and "confirmed" over 700 young people in the usurped parishes, which a deacon can never validly do; two of the recalcitrant friars invited an Old-Catholic bishop from Switzerland with the request to consecrate them as bishops, which the Old-Catholic bishop, however, declined. Two friars, who were closely connected with the beginning of the Medjugorje phenomenon, were disciplined by the Church: Jozo Zovko (the pastor during the first months of the apparition, June-August 1981) was forbidden by his superiors to have any contact with Medjugorje; Tomislav Vlasic, who worked in Medjugorje from 1981-1988, was released from his priestly duties by the Holy See in 2008. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gave the reason, among other things, of offenses against the sixth commandment, exacerbated by alleged "mystical motivations". The friar had in fact, at the direction of the "Gospa" and the seer Marija Pavlovic, conducted a "mystical marriage" with a lady from Germany in the framework of a mixed religious community. This unusual connection between personal tendencies and mysticism has a longer back-story: in 1976, and therefore before his involvement in Medjugorje, the friar impregnated a religious sister in a mixed "Franciscan community", sent her with pious exhortations to Germany and denied his paternity. This case became known to Bishop Zanic and Cardinal Ratzinger in 1984. Vlasic himself brought the "word of wisdom" spoken to him at a charismatic conference in Rome (May 6, 1981) with him to Medjugorje: "Fear not, I will send you my Mother." An Irish Charismatic woman asserted that from Vlasic streams of living water would flow. The influence of such a figure on the beginning period of the Medjugorje phenomenon poses a great number of critical questions. Grave moral accusations are also placed against Zovko, the pastor in the early months, and long-time spiritual confidant of the group of seers (E.M. Jones, The Medjugorje Deception, 2001).
Medjugorje is often cited as an "oasis of peace" during the civil war at the beginning of the '90s. Yet there are also uncomfortable facts that disturb the harmonious view. When revenue from the pilgrimage industry went down in 1992, there were press reports in the wake of a violent conflict among three family clans that served pilgrimage businesses. In a "cleansing action" about 140 inhabitants of Medjugorje were killed, while 600 others had to flee. "This was all kept secret from the the outside world, since it naturally could not be brought into accord with belief in the Queen of Peace" (R. Franken, "A Journey to Medjugorje", 2000, p, 45). Thus there are not only good fruits to the Medjugorje phenomenon.
Do you see the grace of God at work in Medjugorje?
When people convert, pray rightly, receive the sacraments, and renew their Christian life, without a doubt the grace of God is at work. This is valid for every place in the world and certainly also for Medjugorje.
Which criteria play a decisive role from the Church's point of view for the recognition of the supernatural character of apparitions?
An apparition can only be evaluated as supernatural, when it is ruled out securely that natural influences or the interference of the devil are responsible for it. These things must be investigated: (1) The seers: are they mentally healthy? Are illusion, suggestion, and hallucination ruled out? Are the seers upright and morally straightforward? Do they show a greater zeal in their life of faith than before the visionary event? Are they obedient and humble with respect to the competent representatives of the Church? Mental illness, lying, immoral acts in connection with the visions and lack of humility are extremely negative criteria. Other questions pose themselves: (2) about the content of the phenomena: do they correspond to the Catholic faith? Are any of the utterances ridiculous or unworthy of God? Prophecies must, in order to be proven supernatural, refer to future events that depend on human freedom, or respectively, on the mysterious workings of God. Another positive criterion is the disclosure of secrets of the human heart. Also important are (3) the fruits of the events, in which the goodness of their origin unfolds (cf. Mt. 7: 15-20). Genuine apparitions strengthen the seer in virtue, above all in humility and patience, while false revelations produce pride and disobedience. The decisive criterion (4) is the miracle, which must have an unequivocal connection with the apparition.
Can the devil also work miracles?
A miracle, understood as the unmediated intervention of God in the empirical world, is provable as such, when it surpasses the powers of creatures. Among the clearest examples of these is the resurrection of the dead. It is not simple to distinguish them from the "miracles" of evil spirits, whose power surpasses human ability. As created beings, it is simply impossible for them to bring about a creation out of nothing (which pertains to an infinite power). They also cannot make predictions that depend on the inner freedom of man, because the devil has no power over the innermost part of man. This is made clear in cases of possession: the demons can overpower the body of the possessed person, but when they speak out of him during the crisis invoked by exorcism, the consciousness of the human being is normally "turned off". God, in contrast, knows how to draw the human will toward Himself from the inside, without forcing it.
For the devil there is no problem, for example, in making statues cry, calling forth ecstasies and stigmata, to manipulate cameras, to make people speak in tongues, or produce marvelous scents. Because of his surpassing knowledge of the natural world he can also, to a limited degree, make assertions about the future, in cases when the influences of the already recognizable factors is extrapolated. He can also reveal hidden things that are unknown to a person (with the exception of secrets of the innermost part of man). A known example for the working of the devil in pseudo-mystical phenomena is, say, in Spain in the 16th century, the life of the religious sister Magdalena of the Cross (1487-1560). From the age of five she had plenty of ecstasies and visions. She tells the story that Saints Dominic and Francis had prepared her for receiving her first Communion. Three months before being granted permission to receive the Eucharist, she is receiving Communion daily "in a mystical manner", in which every time she emits a scream. At the age of 17 she enters a convent of the Poor Clares in Cordoba. She receives stigmata and clairvoyantly knows how to find hidden objects. At her perpetual profession the nuns are surprised at the lengthy presence of a dove, which is taken to be a sign of the Holy Spirit. Karl I, the king of Spain, has Magdalena bless, among other things, the royal standard and the clothing of his son Philip. Cardinal Cisneros and numerous other princes of the Church are also impressed. Even the Holy Father personally asked the Spanish Poor Clare for her intercession. Only a few reflective contemporaries such as St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. John of Avila remain skeptical. Their doubts are confirmed when the Poor Clares start to wonder about the lax leadership of their superior and elect a successor. The "miracle nun" was then visited with convulsions. When the exorcism undertaken thereafter exposes a demonic presence, the Inquisition undertakes a trial against Magdalena. In it she testifies that in the year 1504 she made a forty-year pact with the devil, which had reached its end in 1544. Her paranormal abilities ceased. After she abjured her errors, she does penance for several years, she can no longer be elected to any offices in the Order, and lives an exemplary life until her death. In other words: the devil can succeed to make fools of the highest princes of the Church for decades long. Such an example warns us to caution in the face of present-day happenings.
How do you evaluate the "messages" of the "Gospa"?
According to the study of a Croatian psychologist and theologian the published "messages" are "mostly... simple texts, exhortations to peace, prayer, penance, and conversion, in which the mind and the environment of the seers are clearly reflected" (I. Zeljko, Marian apparitions..., 2004, p. 315). Among the so-called ten secrets, of which the seers only give hints, they specify as confirmation for the Marian apparitions a permanent and visible sign on the hill of the first apparition. The fulfillment of this sign, announced in 1981, is still outstanding after nearly thirty years, quite in contrast to Guadalupe and Fatima, where an obvious sign appeared in the year of the apparitions itself (the image of the Mother of God on the "tilma", or respectively, the miracle of the sun). From that penetrating research, the filtering of the "messages" by the seers or by the priests connected with them was named as a problem. The problematic assertions are often only known to critical source research through obscure publications (in part only in Croatian, English, and French), and are withheld from the broader public.
Particularly in the early period of the phenomenon there were several very unusual messages. According to a tape-recording transcript from June 30, 1981, the seers reported, according to the assertion of the "Gospa", the end of the appearances would be in three days (on July 3), but they then went on. At the sixth apparition (June 29, 1981), the "Gospa" announced the healing of a four-year-old boy, but it never happened. Furthermore, the "Gospa" informed them (May 25, 1984) that her two-thousandth birthday would fall on August 5, 1984. Would the real Mother of God propagate a birthday celebration for herself, that sets itself apart from the date of the liturgical feast (September 8)? If the given date were to be correct historically, then Mary would have been born in the year 16 B.C. Since, because of the historical data known to us (census, astronomical conjunction), the birth of Christ is to be set at 7 B.C., then Mary would be about 9 years old at the birth of Christ. Besides untruths and ridiculous things, some erroneous teachings are also presented alongside them: Fr. Vlasic wrote on May 8, 1982, in the Chronicle he authored, that according to the utterance of the "Gospa" the Saints in Heaven are present there not only with the soul, but also with the body. Here on display is the erroneous teaching, widely spread today, but condemned by the Church, of "resurrection in death", in which awaiting the future resurrection at the Second Coming of Christ is rendered nugatory. In other words: alongside plenty of catechetical platitudes that are found with notably more substance in the Bible and the Catechism, the messages contain elements that speak clearly against a supernatural origin of the phenomenon.
Devotees and critics of Medjugorje both claim the duration of the phenomenon as an argument for their position. With reason?
The duration of the phenomenon, considered by itself, speaks neither for nor against the authenticity of the apparitions. In 2008 the bishop of Gap and Embrun recognized the supernatural character of the Marian apparitions of Notre-Dame du Laus (southeastern France), which took place from 1664 to 1718, and thus comprised a time-span of 54 years. The seer, 17 years old at the beginning of the events, saw the apparitions daily for four months. Later she had mystical encounters with Christ or with the Mother of God only from time to time. In any case, apart from the four months in 1664, there was no regularity of the visionary phenomenon as at Medjugorje. Where the extraordinary event of visions becomes regular, even a daily normal case, and "monthly messages" of the Mother of God are announced in advance on radio programs, that brings on skepticism. A plethora of messages is typical of spiritistic phenomena, as, for example, the thirteen volumes of the Canadian seer Marie-Paule Giguere, which the French theologian Rene Laurentin, a great promoter of Medjugorje, well-meaningly found worthy (in them the seer, who drew her insights from a crystal ball, presents herself as the reincarnation of the Mother of God, who crushes the Serpent's head and would be canonized in her own lifetime; one of her sons would become Pope, and another "Teacher of the Nations"; the movement founded by Marie-Paule, in the meantime, was condemned by the Church; cf. J. Boufflet, Faussaires de Dieu, 2000, pp. 562-570). In this earthly pilgrimage, the believer does not live by seeing, but by hearing the Word of God. Only in the joy of Heaven will faith be replaced by sight.
In evaluating a phenomenon so multifaceted as Medjugorje, does the Church balance pastoral aspects and issues of Church law against one another? Or is there in the end a dogmatic resolution above all else?
As long as it is not unambiguously determined from the aspect of Church law, that the "Marian apparitions" connected with Medjugorje are not of a supernatural character (constat de non supernaturalitate), pilgrimage activity is tolerated on the private level. Only public pilgrimages conducted by Church institutions are forbidden. At present the verdict of the Yugoslav bishops' conference from 1991 is still valid, according to which a supernatural origin is not established (non constat de supernaturalitate). This means that the "proofs" advanced by many devotees of Medjugorje for its credibility (light phenomena, healings, conversions) were not considered convincing. Besides that, Bishop Ratko Peric stated on September 1, 2007: "The Church, from the local level to the highest, from the beginnings to the present day, has repeated clearly and consistently: Non constat de supernaturalitate! This means in practice: no pilgrimages are allowed, because they would presume the supernatural origin of the apparitions; there is no shrine of the Madonna and there are no authentic messages, revelations, or true visions! This is the state of things today. What will be tomorrow? We will leave that in the hands of God and under the protection of our dear Lady." Thus the bishop. Purely theoretically judgment is open for a future recognition (constat de supernaturalitate) or a final rejection (constat de non supernaturalitate). But until then, what the bishop said in a sermon in Medjugorje on June 6, 2009, and which he has documented on his internet site, remains valid: "The Church has not recognized the "apparitions of Medjugorje" (http://cbismo.com/index.php?mod=vijest&vijest=416; Il fenomeno di Medjugorje, 3a parte, Službeni vjesnik, 2/2009, pp. 190-194).
For pastoral care it is important, to lead the renewal of faith created by the stream of pilgrims to Medjugorje into the roads of the Church, and not let the devotees of the phenomenon fall into the void. Marian devotees would be well advised to concentrate on trustworthy prophetic revelations, approved and well accepted by the whole Church, so that they would deal with, say, Guadalupe, Lourdes, or Fatima. Questionable and unequivocally false phenomena should be presented as such. Therefore it is not sufficient, in my estimation, to pragmatically recognize Medjugorje as a "place of prayer", without reaching a judgment on the events that lie at its basis. German bishops also reacted against this approach: non-recognition of alleged "apparitions" along with simultaneous recognition of the place as an official "shrine" (for example, with respect to Heroldsbach and Marienfried). If a new investigative commission reaches a recognition that certain characteristics indissolubly connected with the phenomenon of the apparitions speak against their authenticity, then the love of truth demands that this be made known with all clarity and that Catholic Christians be warned expressly against "pilgrimages". The principle is valid here: "bonum ex integra causa; malum ex quovis defectu" ("Good comes from an undamaged cause; bad from some kind of defect"). If a drink is mixed with rat poison, it's not sufficient to point out that it contains only two percent strychnine with 98 percent water: the whole drink has to be poured out. If the Church does not, herself, finally lance the boil that is connected with Medjugorje, then anti-Catholic groups will do the job and with pleasure. And then the patience extended to the enthusiasm of Medjugorje could become a boomerang that attacks the Church from inside, if the groups previously connected with the Bosnian "place of pilgrimage", finally disillusioned, should turn against the Faith and the Church. And that could also explain that the devil takes "good fruits" as part of doing his business in Medjugorje: if he can bring forth a vastly greater harm to the Church in the end. Pastoral love must not be separated from the love of truth.
Translation from the German original to English: Richard Chonac, Catholic Light
Prof. Dr. Manfred Hauke - Curriculum vitae