Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Marian Apparitions in Medjugorje

In 1981 the Blessed Virgin Mary began appearing to four girls and two boys in Medjugorje, a small village located in former Yugoslavia. The children, who ranged from age ten to sixteen, were typical kids. They weren't overly religious and they were outwardly unremarkable. Mary's appearance initially frightened the children but they were also drawn to her and experienced a profound peace in her presence.
"When we came to about six feet of Our Lady, we felt as though we were being seized and pushed to our knees." (Vicka)
On the second day of the apparitions Ivanka, the youngest of the four girls, spoke to Mary. She asked Mary about her mother who had recently died. Mary responded that her mother was well and she shouldn't worry about her. The children asked Mary to send the villagers a sign so they would believe that the children were telling the truth about having seen her, but Mary's only response was a smile.

The children had good reason for asking Mary to send the villagers a sign, their story was spreading quickly and was received with criticism and suspicion. Eventually, the local authorities got involved and the children were interviewed and interrogated. They received opposition from the police, government and local Bishop. The early days of the apparitions were very trying for the children but they never wavered in their devotion. Well, I say they never wavered but I should add that the children, following the advice of others, once sprinkled Mary with holy water while Vicka said, “If you come from God stay, but if you do not come from God, please leave us.” Mary simply smiled and said, “I am the Queen of Peace.”

During her visits Mary encourages the visionaries and challenges them to deepen their commitment to Jesus. She sometimes has personal messages concerning their unique struggles and she often leads them in prayer, but she never recites the Hail Mary prayer herself -she simply listens and receives that prayer. Early on, Mary explained to the children that she has special messages for the world and that the children were to be instruments for sharing these messages. Initially Mary appeared to all the visionaries every day but now only three receive daily messages. Mary states that her purpose is to help convert the unbelievers and deepen the faith of believers.
"I have come to tell the world that God exists. He is the fullness of life, and to enjoy this fullness and peace, you must return to God." (Mary)
In her messages, Mary frequently shares the great importance of prayer, fasting, communion, confession and Bible reading. She reminds us to love our neighbours and care for the poor. But there is also a dark side to Mary's message: she states our world is entering into a time of great trial and we must prepare ourselves by reconciling ourselves to Jesus. Her call to conversion is urgent! She is revealing secrets to the visionaries about future events on earth and when the time is right these secrets will be shared with the world. The first 3 secrets are warnings for the world. Three days before each event an announcement will be made as to what is going to happen and where. The fourth secret, the only one that has been revealed so far, will be an indestructible, supernatural sign left at the place Mary first appeared to the children in 1981. The children have always de-emphasized the secrets and urge the public to focus instead on Mary's call for conversion.

I'm sure the whole "secrets" dimension to the Medjugorje story turns a lot of would-be believers off. Secret knowledge with apocalyptic overtones sends all kinds of crackpot cult alarms buzzing! Having said that, I'd challenge anyone to genuinely research the apparitions and come to the conclusion that these visionaries are "faking it" for fame or money or any kind of payoff. It would be one heck of a scam to be running for 30 years. If they were lying I'd expect at least one of the six to grow tired of the charade or develop a conscience or sell their story.

The children were often called liars, made fun of, harassed and interrogated -hardly the kind of feedback that would encourage a behavior. Their lives were subject to intense public scrutiny; their visions happened in public and their activities were very transparent: school, family, daily mass and prayer groups.

If they had been "making it up" why wouldn't they just say that Mary stopped appearing to them? Instead, their lives changed overnight; the years that followed would see the children in church every day for 2-3 hours praying and attending mass. Jakov, the youngest visionary who was just 10 years old when the apparitions began, was described as an active and lively child but he was able to spend long hours in daily prayer and meditation along with the others. He, like the others, had a much more mature and sober aspect to his personality after the visions began.

However, the visionaries also remain very childlike: trusting, joyous and seemingly unburdened by what many of us would consider serious trials such as physical suffering and the death of family members. In the video below you can watch Vicka being interviewed in February 2011 by a late night TV host. I was struck by just how sincere and somewhat oblivious Vicka was to the "game" that is supposed to play out in this sort of environment: her attention was on the audience not the host and she shared what she felt was important rather than being guided by the interviewer's agenda.

The visionaries never charge for their appearances and apart from Ivan who is married to an American and spends half the year in America, they all remain local. Rather than being served they joyfully serve others; their homes are generally filled with extended family and visitors. They frequently host prayer groups and healing prayer sessions. From what I can gather most of the visionaries (and many people in the area) make a living by renting out rooms in their homes to tourists.

The visionaries have also agreed to be the subjects of many tests over the years including lie detector tests. They have been assessed by psychiatrists, neurologists and scientists of all sorts. One brief summary that I found particularly interesting can be read here. Before reading that study I had watched the video posted below which shows the children during a 1984 apparition and I was impressed by the simultaneous movements they made (looking up) as the Blessed Virgin ascended when she left them. The movement I'm referring to occurs at 2:04 in the video clip.

Medjugorje Apparition from 1984 from steve shawl on Vimeo.

Something else I find quite inspiring is that some of the messages shared by Mary challenge us to rethink our traditional Christian belief system. For example, in 1981 when asked if all religions are the same Mary replied, "Members of all faiths are equal before God. God rules over each faith just like a sovereign over his kingdom. In the world, all religions are not the same because all people have not complied with the commandments of God. They reject and disparage them." Clergy and laymen alike were especially intrigued by the theology shared through a group of children uneducated in such matters.
I especially see the importance of the role of Medjugorje in the ecumenical work of the Church where Our Lady is bringing us closer, uniting us with our brothers from the Orthodox church, the Muslims, and even our brother Marxists. Our Lady is spreading only love. She is the mother of all and she is teaching us to love even at moments when we feel that our brothers to not understand us and interpret us falsely. One can conclude, according to what is happening here, and what the children say, that one universal love is being born here through the gospel, which is recommending that we love all men even when it seems they are our enemies. (Frane Franic, Archbishop of Split, 1984)
It's estimated that 30-40 million pilgrims have traveled to Medjugorje since 1981. Many claim to have witnessed inexplicable events and experiened physical healing but the most convincing of all miracles are the staggering number of conversions of heart taking place in this little village. Testimonies pour out of the visitors and the transformations aren't limited to those who have seen signs and wonders; spiritual healing seems to be commonplace. Criminals, addicts, agnostics and those who are poor in spirit have experienced life-changing soul surgery in Medjugorje. Is there something special about this place? Yes, but I believe these profound experiences have more to do with the power of the Spirit of God than the apparitions of Mary.  Mary's message has always been to reconcile yourself to Jesus wholeheartedly and in this community it's not unusual to see small groups huddled in prayer or  find the church filled to capacity 7 days a week. Hundreds of confessions are heard daily and more people have gathered for communion in Medjugorje than any other place in the world. God is alive and well in Medjugorje; not tucked away for Sunday morning services. This little village is filled with the presence of God.

Of course there are naysayer who believe that Medjugorje is a money-making scheme: they point to the flourishing economy in this unlikely tourist destination with shops lined up selling rosaries and statues of the Blessed Virgin; they criticize the visionaries for living in large homes and Ivan especially for marrying a former beauty queen; they point out that although they deny using their gifts for material gain the visionaries have indeed managed to live quite comfortably without maintaining regular jobs. These are considerations worth exploring but in their defense I must note that the four women visionaries have embraced the vocation of motherhood and are not unlike other Christian women who stay home to care for their families. Also, all six visionaries would receive donations not unlike any other priest or pastor who has devoted their lives to teaching and serving God. The real question, I believe, is concerning their motivation: do they appear to be motivated by the money or spending it excessively? That is something I cannot answer.

Another point I want to make is that the visionaries themselves do not promote the idea that they are without sin or have been chosen to receive the visions because they were especially devout. They, like every other human on the face of this earth, struggle with sin and temptation. They have shared that Mary will gently rebuke them when necessary but generally allows them to live their lives with the free-will God grants all His children. They will be accountable for how they have lived their lives and managed their gifts. To whom much is given much will be required. (Luke 12:48) This isn't to say they aren't exceptionally devout or mature in their Christian faith; that is not for us to judge, but from what we can observe they certainly appear to be strong, faithful followers of Christ.

Then there are those who believe the visionaries are sincerely misguided: that they are the false prophets we have been warned of and their visions are the work of the devil. They point out the messages that challenge our current theology (like the message about followers of all religions being equal before God) and argue that surely such teachings are heretical and ungodly. Personally, I don't believe any one group (including the Catholic Church) has a perfect understanding of the nature of God so theological issues don't surprise me. I do think, like the Bible says, we will know false prophets by their fruits and to date I have seen nothing but good fruit coming out of Medjugorje.

Those who believe the demonic hypothesis will tell you that Satan is willing to give a little to gain a lot therefore we shouldn't rule out satanic activity completely. However, if a powerful three decade long revival of the local church and millions of conversions worldwide is considered "giving a little" I tremble to think what "gaining a lot" would encompass. Our Lady has called us into a deeper relationship with Jesus, taught us to pray fervently and begged us to love our enemies. What deception could she be preparing us for if the origin of these messages is demonic? I have faith that those who listen to and heed the messages would be capable of identifying and discerning any changes to the central message or character of the Blessed Virgin.

Personally, I don't believe all the signs and wonders reported by Medjugorje visitors are supernatural in origin. There is probably an element of collective hysteria and confirmation bias at work here too -perhaps a strong one! People often see what they want to see and the energy of a large crowd has profound effects on individual behaviour and experiences. That is not to say miracles aren't happening; just that I remain skeptical about many of them.

As for the apparitions of Mary, those I believe wholeheartedly. Would my faith be shattered if I found out it was a hoax? No. But I would be very surprised and disappointed.


Brianmpei said...

I believe in signs and wonders and unusual and strange things. The little bit I've just read about messages given and the "secrets" has left me with big doubts about the origin of the experience these people are having. So for now I'd have to say I'm an unbeliever in these particular experiences or messages as coming from God but I'm willing to be convinced.

Michelle said...

The fact that there are "secrets" doesn't bother me -all the secrets are are prophecies that have not yet been made public and God has a long history of using visionaries and prophets to share His messages with the world.

What is bothersome to many (usually moreso those who are protestant in doctrine) is that some of the prophecies are described as chastisement for the sins of mankind. Many Christians believe that because of Jesus' death on the cross we are reconciled to God through him and there is no need for punishment.

Catholics believe that we are forgiven and will be reconciled to God through Jesus but we are still accountable for our sins. Kind of like a father who doesn't reject his children for being bad, but still expects them to endure a time-out or grounds them so they can reflect on their shortcomings and grow in maturity.

Many people say that enduring a traumatic experience or serious illness brought them closer to God. When we see horrible things happening... earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. we are also able to witness a global shift in consciousness... more people turned to prayer and charity and gratitude than ever before... turned to God!

Now, I'm not trying to pull a Pat Robertson here, but God does see things differently than we do of course... to us, life on earth is ESSENTIAL and God would NEVER make it hard for us... but from what I've heard from those who have had NDEs and the Bible our human death is more like a great awakening or rebirth and we are aware of just how much pain and suffering is in this earth and how death is a great gift and release... so much like a parent doesn't want to cause his children misery (say no, make them sad, give them treatments that hurt or medicine that tastes bad) we do it because we have the end in mind.

Maybe how we understand God's punishment and say "He'd NEVER do that" (which he DOES all the time in the Bible) is completely wrong.

Ok, this was typed really quickly and I'm all over the place and I'm not even sure if these issues were part of your doubts but maybe you'll get something out of what I'm trying to say here... :)

Pippi said...

Thankyou for posting this. These things fascinate me.

Anonymous said...

My Godmother was a great believer in Medjugorje. I have a rosary from there, blessed by the priest at the church. She made several trips there taking toys to the children of the village. I have no actual opinion on this, although I believe the Church has declared it not a visionary site. I certainly believe such things are possible.

Michelle said...

Actually, I think the Catholic Church's investigation is ongoing. These visions throw a wrench in my current theology because I believe they are true but they contradict many of my beliefs. That topic is for another post though!

john konnor said...