Francis vs. Francis? The Medjugorje Decision

As Americans were celebrating Mother’s Day last weekend, news came from the Holy See that Pope Francis has authorized pilgrimages to the controversial shrine of Medjugorje, a town in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the Balkans. What does this mean – or better, what will pilgrims do now that they have not done before? According to the official announcement, pilgrimages “can now be organized by dioceses and parishes and will no longer take place only in a private capacity which has so far been the case.”

In the same announcement, Alessandro Gisotti, interim director of the Holy See’s Press Office, cautioned that the latest approval from Pope Francis should not be interpreted “as an authentication of known events, which still require examination by the Church. Therefore, care must be taken to avoid creating confusion or ambiguity from the doctrinal point of view regarding such pilgrimages.”

Gisotti drew a distinction between doctrinal and pastoral – between the Church’s doctrine on the Blessed Mary Mother of God and a private revelation of Mary, which still needs the Church’s approval.

Thirty-eight years have passed since June 24, 1981, when the Blessed Virgin Mary first appeared to six children in Medjugorje. Mary had a peaceful message for the world, asking for conversion, prayer and fasting. Additionally, since 1981 these apparitions have continued daily, which has caused Church authorities to question their authenticity. Consequently, the Church has cautioned the faithful who were flocking to Medjugorje to experience the “secret” apparitions.

On October 21, 2013, the Apostolic Nuncio, Carlo Maria Viganò, wrote to the Bishops of the United States on special request from Cardinal Gerhard Müller, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, announcing that the CDF was investigating “certain doctrinal and disciplinary aspects of the phenomenon of Medjugorje.”

Additionally, according to Viganò’s letter, Müller confirmed that people should accept the 1991 declaration by the bishops of the former Yugoslavia who, after investigation and research, could not affirm the supernatural nature of the revelations – or even that they were apparitions. Viganò’s letter warned: “the clerics and the faithful are not permitted to participate in meetings, conferences or public celebrations during which the credibility of such ‘apparitions’ would be taken for granted.”

Pope Francis has had reservations about Medjugorje. In 2017, during a flight from Fatima (Portugal) to Rome, he expressed skepticism and caution to journalists who asked about Medjugorje. He drew an important distinction between the original 1981 Medjugorje private revelations, which were under investigation by the Church, and what he called the continuous apparitions, saying:

I personally am more suspicious, I prefer the Madonna as Mother, our Mother, and not a woman who’s the head of an office, who every day sends a message at a certain hour. This is not the Mother of Jesus. And these presumed apparitions don’t have a lot of value.

The Holy Father specified that this was only his personal opinion, not a judgment by the Magisterium, but added that it is not the modus operandi of the Madonna to say: “Come tomorrow at this time, and I will give a message to those people.”

Why has he now authorized these pilgrimages? What has changed?

Francis has now officially cleared organized pilgrimages to Medjugorje – pilgrimages organized by bishops and dioceses. Additionally, cardinals, bishops, and priests are now allowed to visit Medjugorje. Francis softened the rules in 2017, with the Albanian Cardinal Ernest Simoni, who had asked Francis’s special permission to visit Medjugorje for the International Youth Festival.

Seven years earlier, in 2010 during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn privately visited Medjugorje, spending New Year there, and received a double scolding by the local bishop and the pope. On January 2, 2010, Bishop Ratko Perić of Mostar-Duvno, the diocese in Bosnia-Herzegovina that includes the town of Medjugorje, wrote an open letter to Schönborn, saying that the visit by a cardinal of the Roman Curia cannot be considered private.

Schönborn had a private audience with Pope Benedict XVI on January 15, and shortly thereafter, the cardinal faxed a handwritten letter of apology to Bishop Perić. Earlier still, following Holy See policy, John Paul II and Mother Teresa refrained from visiting Medjugorje, although they would have very much liked to do so – in private.

With the recent decision cardinals and bishops may visit Medjugorje – and here there is a change, a pastoral change: the pope has officially “unblocked” organized pilgrimages and visits by the Church’s dignitaries and cardinals. More time, however, is needed to authenticate the apparitions of Medjugorje, or not. The authentication is complicated, and delayed because the Medjugorje phenomenon and apparitions are ongoing.

In sum, according to the announcement, Medjugorje is now open to organized veneration of the Blessed Virgin Mary, to organized pilgrimages of prayer to Mary, and to church dignitaries. Medjugorje is a place of prayer, confession, conversion and forgiveness, and for all these good reasons the pope has officially “unblocked” such activities.

If Mother Teresa were alive now, she would have been the first in line to visit Medjugorje and Pope John Paul II would have undoubtedly joined her. As he said to one of the visionaries of Medjugorje, Mirjana Dragicevic: “If I weren’t pope, I would be in Medjugorje to confess.”

Is this pastoral change Francis’s way of signaling that, after the approval of organized pilgrimage for pastoral benefits “aimed at encouraging and promoting the fruits of good,” as the announcement specified, and the good of the faithful, the approval of the private Medjugorje revelations will follow? Probably.

Pope Francis is using the argument of “pastoral benefit,” pastoral having more weight than doctrinal in Francis’s pontificate, to give credence to Medjugorje’s private revelation. Through the latest announcement, the Medjugorje phenomenon is, therefore, gaining some degree of authentication.

Ines Angeli Murzaku is Professor of Church History at Seton Hall University. Her extensive research on the history of Christianity, Catholicism, Religious Orders, and Ecumenism has been published in multiple scholarly articles and five books. She edited and translated with Raymond L. Capra and Douglas J. Milewski, The Life of Saint Neilos of Rossano, part of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library. Dr. Murzaku has been featured frequently in national and international media, newspapers, radio and TV interviews, and blogs. Her latest book is Mother Teresa: Saint of the Peripheries.