Is Medjugorje a Spiritual Movement in the Church?
Date: July 26, 2005 , Originally published November 10, 2001
Author: Dirk Grothues
Category: Theology reports , Medjugorje in the Catholic Church
Content of the article
'Medjugorje' means more than just the town in Herzegovina that carries this name. It stands for the movement that this name has triggered ever since several youths testified that on the 24th of June 1981 the Gospa, the Mother of God, the Mother of Jesus, appeared to them and is still appearing to them today. The most important aspects of this movement can be described as follows: First, it is a MOVEMENT OF PILGRIMAGE. To this day, many millions have come to this place of pilgrimage from all parts of the world. Further, Medjugorje represents a MOVEMENT OF PEACE, that emanates from within. There, people experience the gift of peace in their hearts and are ready to pass it on to others, where they live: in their marriage and family, in their neighbourhood and their community, their working place and in politics. They are being motivated not only by their own experience of reconciliation and peace but also by the name, with which the Gospa introduced Herself to the visionaries: I am the Queen of Peace. Third, one can call Medjugorje a MOVEMENT OF RENEWAL, which permanently renews the spiritual life of individuals, groups and communities. A great number of people have had deep spiritual experiences: physical and spiritual healing, conversions, renewal of prayer and faith, impulses for fasting, liberation from addictions. The most obvious sign of these renewals are the prayer groups, which have been founded by the pilgrims in their communities upon their return from Medjugorje. There they meet regularly, usually once a week, for prayer and adoration, to pray the rosary, to read the Sacred Scripture and to discuss the gospel and Christian life. And finally, Medjugorje has become the symbol for a MOVEMENT OF HUMANITARIAN AID, which in itself is unique. This was particularly evident when the Balkan war began and extended into Bosnia-Herzegovina. Millions of pilgrims, who had received spiritual gifts in Medjugorje, were now showing their gratitude by helping materially: with food, clothing, medicines and other goods, with money and by sponsoring orphans and war victims. This short outline shows what is meant when one talks about Medjugorje as being a movement. It should also be mentioned that this movement is being fed with the messages, which the Gospa has given to Marija Pavlovic from March 1, 1984 to January 8, 1987, on a weekly basis, and since then on the 25th of each month. These messages consist generally only of several sentences and are impulses to make the five original basic messages more concrete: faith and conversion, prayer and fasting, as well as peace.
There are two questions, with which we are going to be dealing with and they are: Is this movement, which comes from Medjugorje, a spiritual movement? Is it within the Church? In order to understand these questions, it is necessary to further point out several things.
Looking at the above-mentioned outline of the Medjugorje movement one could say: it is obvious that this is a spiritual movement- since to go on pilgrimage, to fast, to serve peace and to help the needy - all this speaks for itself. Still, this is not enough to be able to decide if a movement deserves to be called 'spiritual'. Because 'spiritual' in the exact sense of the word means that God's holy Spirit is the main motivating power of a movement. But one cannot assume this beyond question. Some people go on pilgrimage to places, where there is more superstition than faith. One can also pray and fast like the Pharisees, without being moved by the spirit of God. Peace initiatives also exist among people, who are just plainly fed up with war. And one also finds charity among philanthropists, who do not always believe in God. The second question - is Medjugorje a movement within the Church? - is similar. At first glance, also here everything speaks for it: the liturgy is being celebrated, according to the guidelines of the church renewal, the sacraments are being given, according to regulations, the homilies are inspired by the Sacred Scriptures and the faith of the Church. During the past years more than 20 million faithful Catholics, thousands of priests and more than 200 bishops have visited Medjugorje and commented on it approvingly. Some have come with the express blessing of the Pope. Although now and then the suspicion is brought up that Medjugorje could be sectarian. The Bishop of Mostar accuses the Franciscans, who are connected with Medjugorje, of manipulation and disobedience. Up to the present, there has been no approval by the Church of the authenticity of the apparitions and the messages. The official declarations almost seem to maintain the contrary. So Cardinal Kuharic said in an interview on September 14, 1996, "The Bishops' Conference still adheres to the verdict it has made about Medjugorje before the war. Based on the three-year investigations, one came to the conclusion that no supernatural apparitions are taking place in Medjugorje."
These few remarks should suffice to underscore the seriousness and importance of our two questions, regarding the spirituality of Medjugorje and whether or not it is a movement within the Church.
I. Is Medjugorje a Spiritual Movement?
In order to find a well-founded answer, we have to go back to the beginning. Without any doubt, the Medjugorje Movement began on June 24, 1981, when several youngsters had the first apparition of Our Lady on Podbrdo, a hill next to Crnica, which was followed by more apparitions the following days at the same place. During the second apparition, on June 25th, the first speaking contact was made between the apparition and the group of six visionaries: Vicka Ivankovic (16), Mirjana Dragicevic (16), Marija Pavlovic (16), Ivanka Ivankovic (15), Ivan Dragicevic (16) and Jakov Colo (10). The news about the apparitions spread like a fire, causing the coming of masses of people and thus brought the local church authorities and the then still communist authorities into the picture.
In order to prove if this origin of the Medjugorje Movement is spiritual - that is, brought about by the Spirit of God - one must investigate if there are any natural explanations for this phenomenon. Should this not be the case, one must investigate if the positive aspects that the Church considers decisive in the teaching on discernment of spirits can be proven.
Natural explanations for the phenomenon of apparitions and messages of this type include mainly: mental illnesses, imagination through suggestion, hallucination through drugs and, finally, manipulation. All these possibilities have been taken into consideration and have been thoroughly discussed. I recall Father Jozo Zovko, who had only returned on June 27th from a retreat, and Father Zrinko Cuvalo first thought that drug consumption could be involved. Immediately upon his return, Father Jozo began to question the youths individually. There are tape recordings of this. The suspicion, that the youths had taken drugs, proved untenable. Instead, Father Jozo thought it could be a communist manipulation in order to harm and ridicule him. On the same day, the visionaries were taken to Citluk by officials of the MUP (Ministry of Internal Affairs) and were interrogated and examined medically. The result: the youngsters are healthy and no traces of drugs are to be found. I also recall the examination made by a team of French doctors from Montpellier during an apparition. Here too there were no indications of physical or mental illnesses. Instead, the doctors found signs of true ecstasies, during which the visionaries are unaffected by sense-impressions and are completely engrossed "in another world". Finally, I would like to recall the thorough medical examination made by various specialists, which had been requested by the Commission of Inquiry of the Church. Also here no indications suggesting any illnesses were found. All these examinations were documented and published. Also manipulation - that is fraud and lies - can be excluded as the source for the Medjugorje Movement. The youngsters had not played a trick. Also neither did the Communists manipulate the youngsters in order to ridicule Father Jozo nor did the Franciscans manipulate, in order, let us say, to "pull heaven on their side" in their conflict with the Bishop of Mostar. Regarding the continuation of the apparitions and messages, we will, of course, have to deal with this subject specifically because it had been raised by a prominent person, Bishop Pavao Zanic, and has so far not been taken back by his successor, Bishop Ratko Peric. I will come back to this point in Part II, when we talk about Medjugorje's position in the Church. First, let us ask ourselves if the positive aspects, which the Church requires in its teaching on discernment of spirits and authentic prophetic apparitions can be proven.
According to the word of Jesus in Mt 7,20, true and false prophets can be recognized by their fruits. The same criterion plays an important role in the judgement of apparitions and messages. Regarding this, I myself, vividly recall a statement by Cardinal Kuharic from 1983. At that time, I had the opportunity to ask him in a private audience about his opinion on Medjugorje. Without hesitation, he answered, "If I use the biblical criterion of the fruits, then Medjugorje is authentic". The Archbishop of Split, Dr. Frane Franic, also once said similarly, "The spiritual renewal that is coming from Medjugorje has done more in three years than what we have been able to accomplish within the last 40 years in our pastoral service". These opinions have been confirmed and strengthened by developments in the ensuing years. Medjugorje carries fruits into the entire world. There are numerous spiritual vocations because of Medjugorje, 14 of which have been published in the book, Thank You Mary, by Jörg Müller. New religious communities, like the "Oasis of Peace" and "Kraljica Mira", have been founded in Medjugorje. Other communities have received and are receiving spiritual impulses in Medjugorje for their life and their work. One of them is the therapeutic community "Cenacolo" of Sister Elvira, where former drug and alcohol addicts are being healed. Another community is the "Beatitudes". Many other religious communities, older as well as younger ones, have inquired at the parish office in Medjugorje if they could acquire a piece of land there to start a branch of their community. This is very interesting and important for our question at hand, because religious communities are particularly sensitive in matters concerning spirituality. Aside from innumerable conversions, there exist hundreds of testimonies regarding inexplicable healings. Charisms have blossomed in the parish of Medjugorje. Prayer groups have been formed there, which meet regularly. The number of worshipers, taking part in holy mass on Sundays and weekdays, is far above the average of other Catholic communities. The pilgrims always praise the hospitality of the local people. Many parishioners unobtrusively give testimony of their faith. This is particularly true of the life and testimony of the visionaries. Already during my visit in 1983 I asked myself how they can cope with the steady stream of pilgrims, who often intrude into their private sphere. Since then they have been at the centre of public attention for more than 16 years, they are being invited to faraway countries, giving account - and have still remained simple and natural. They are not interested in using their prominence and service for material gains. Rather, they consider themselves witnesses of the Gospa, according to whose messages they are trying to live.
This brings us to the messages! In addition to the approximately 150 messages of each Thursday, there are now for more than 11 years also the monthly messages - that is almost the same in numbers. These nearly 300 messages are being spread all over the world in many different languages. In judging the messages, it is important for the Church if they concur with the Sacred Scriptures and with the teachings of the Church. Furthermore, the way the faithful live these messages and their spiritual experiences with them are the determining instance for the spiritual character of the messages. A dissertation at the University of Vienna came up with a very interesting result. According to the pastoral theologian, Paul Zulehner, the messages are completely in line with biblical tradition. I am convinced that the testimonies of the faithful, as well as a thorough theological examination, will come to the same conclusion - that is, that the messages are an authentic prophecy. In other words: they are of spiritual origin and of the Church. With this, I mean that adherence to the messages does not lead away from the Church but rather leads more deeply into it.
It would go beyond the scope of this talk to state all the reasons for this conviction. Instead, I would like to point out an observation, which you can verify yourselves: the messages of the Gospa do not make any comments on anything that is happening within the realm of politics or the Church. There are no messages, concerning the Gulf War or the war in the Balkans, which said that one side or the other was right or wrong. There exists no message, in which movements or groups within the Church are being judged, condemned or favoured. The Gospa does not favour any position regarding Holy Communion on the tongue or in the hand. Also in the official messages, we find no comment on the conflict between the Franciscans of Herzegovina and the Bishops of Mostar, which has been going on for centuries. I will come back to the few private messages in regard to this subject in Part II. Many faithful, who believe in the messages of Our Lady in Medjugorje, have wondered about this lack of reference to current events in the messages. And some believe that Our Lady should make a clear statement at least once on such a topic. I, myself, believe this abstinence to be a clear sign of authenticity! I believe that this shows the Gospa's respect for secular and Church authorities, appointed by God. For example, would She comment on and take sides between competing Church groups, one could easily suspect that the messages were being influenced by an interested party. But Our Lady has introduced Herself as the Queen of Peace and Her concern is reconciliation. This is why the central biblical themes of prayer, faith, conversation and fasting suffice. In contrast to taking sides and making accusations, they serve rather as a way to peace and reconciliation with God and mankind. But most of all, I consider this reservedness of the Gospa to be respect for the dignity and freedom of men, which, for example, is expressed in the message of November 25, 1987: " ... Dear children, you know that I love you immeasurably and that I desire each of you for myself, but God has given to all a freedom, which I lovingly respect and humbly submit to.... " I have not yet found a psychologist, who could explain to me how such a word can be said by a young woman, who was brought up in the traditional conception of Marian devotion: Our Lady bows humbly before our freedom and respects it in love, even if it closes itself to Her invitations. For me, it is clear: these words only She, Herself, can say! I summarize from what we have said so far: The Medjugorje movement is, in its origin and development up to the present, a spiritual movement. It is more than a creation of man. It comes from heaven. Its decisive impulse is the spiritual work of God, who lets the Mother of Jesus appear and speak to the world as the Queen of Peace.