Weighing Medjugorje

Father Tomislav Vlasic, the spiritual director to the six controversial visionaries at Medjugorje, has left the priesthood and been laicized by the Vatican. The charismatic Franciscan was under formal investigation for “dubious doctrine, the manipulation of consciences, suspect mysticism, and disobedience towards legitimately issued orders” (and seems to have had a sexual relationship with a nun). For the past year he was banished to an Italian monastery where he was under orders not to speak to anyone including his lawyer.

This is just the latest in the remarkable story of six young people who have claimed to see and hear the Virgin Mary some 40,000 times since 1981. Their claims have turned a tiny village in Bosnia and Herzegovina‎ into a spiritual Mecca that has attracted upwards of 30-million pilgrims over its twenty-eight years.

The visions of Medjugorje have been controversial from the start and have never been approved by the local bishop. In fact, there has been ongoing conflict between successive local bishops and the Franciscans who have cared for and promoted the visionaries and their cause. Proponents have claimed the visions have been caught up in the politics of the region, which has been torn apart over the years by vicious warfare.

I visited Medjugorje for seven days, ten years ago. I went with the view to writing a story debunking the visions and the visionaries. Because I went on a French-speaking pilgrimage out of Paris, I was mostly on my own.

Even the drive through Croatia to get there is stunning. Thousand-foot cliffs overlook the Adriatic Sea. Little fishing villages dot the coastline. Roadside shrines and crosses follow the hilltops. You come over the lip of the cliff and drive through a moon-like landscape. Gnarled and pitted rocks, scrub brush, pastures fenced not with wood but with stones that have been there for – how long? Decades? Centuries? It’s bleak but beautiful.

Medjugorje itself is a homely little place. They have those ugly Eastern European B&B’s everywhere, the kind that look like they were thrown up in an afternoon. The main drag is a short strip lined with tacky religious knick-knack shops. Not a good introduction to Medjugorje.

Outside the cathedral, built by the Franciscans, confessional huts line the main square. One feature of the Medjugorje phenomenon is that people who visit are moved to confess. People come and stand in line sometimes for hours to confess for the first time in years. Between confessions and Masses, the cathedral gets an all-day work out and is generally packed. Unusual phenomena happen. Rosaries are said to turn gold. Unexplained crosses appear in photographs.

In Medjugorje, you get announcements that one of the visionaries will make an appearance. With dozens of other pilgrims, I stood outside one of their houses – a fancy-gated one – and waited for him to appear. He spoke at the gate. I don’t remember what he said. When he spoke later in a pavilion near the cathedral, every seat was taken. He wore a tracksuit and sprinted away to his car – a Mercedes? – when he finished.

You also get announcements that the Blessed Mother will appear. There was an announcement one day that she would be on Apparition Hill at 8PM. Hundreds of people clamored up the dangerous hill. I saw old ladies climbing up boulders and into crevices. We sang songs in our various languages. Electricity went through the crowd. The seer was here, somewhere, I couldn’t see him or her. Someone translated the message. We were told to continue praying. Then we all clamored down the dangerous hill in the pitch dark.

In the end I came away a skeptic of the visions. Would the Blessed Mother really want old ladies climbing over boulders in the pitch black? Would she really announce that she is appearing at a given time, 8 p.m. Friday night like a lounge act in Vegas? Would she really appear 40,000 times?

It is hard to ignore the fact that the local Church and the Vatican have never approved these visions and messages. In fact, the Church has told people not to come.

And then there are the visionaries. None of them seem like St. Bernadette of Lourdes or St. Lucy of Fatima. This group lives behind gates in fancy houses, makes speaking tours, and drives fancy cars. Not all of them, but a few. None of them has joined a religious order, though one of them supposedly tried it out.

Though I am a skeptic of the visions, I am a believer in the place. That is the thing about Medjugorje. It is quiet and prayerful. In fact, it is the most prayerful place I have ever visited. Where ever you go there, you are drawn to prayer. It is almost involuntary. Your mind and heart are raised to God constantly, almost against your will.

What most people don’t know is that this place was a pilgrim site long before the phenomenon. People have tramped up and down Cross Hill for at least a century. Though the Blessed Mother may not be appearing there, what is happening there is prayer. Millions and millions of prayers cannot be ignored. This is the wonder of the place.

I took a lot of pictures but did not get them developed until five years later. I finally got the pictures home and leafed through them. There is the cathedral, the village, the pathways, and the pilgrims. Then came a picture of Cross Hill. The light was fading. I caught the final rays of light from the setting sun. And there in the dying of the light was a cascade of crosses. I swear they were not there when I took the picture.

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.