A review of Donal Anthony Foleys Understanding Medjugorje: Heavenly Visions or Religious Illusion? Theotokos Books, 2006.
By Frank M. Rega, S.F.O.
As published in the July 31, 2006 issue of "The Remnant."
Update: 5/19/2008. Although I still no longer believe that the apparition is of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I will accept the final, authorative judgement of the Catholic Church on Medjugorje. The primary reasons for no longer believing continue to be the mixed bag of fruits - consisting primarily of disobedience to the local Bishop, materialism (see below), emphasis on signs and wonders, lack of authentic medical and Church confirmation of the alleged healing miracles, cult-like adhesion to the phenomenon, believers who appear to be almost under a spell, and obsessive attachment to Medjugorje. As two of the visionaries have said, they "see something," and I agree, they see something, but if not the Virgin Mary, then who or what?
What happens when someone has believed in Medjugorje for many years, has read and digested most of the books that support it, made pilgrimages there, and then suddenly sees the apparitions in a new light and begins to doubt the entire phenomenon? Little by little he realizes that he is no longer as certain as he once was that the apparition itself is really the Blessed Virgin Mary. The monthly messages that he once eagerly awaited are no longer absorbed as if they were truly of heavenly origin. He begins to worry about hurting the feelings of the people he knew and met on pilgrimage, true believers as he once was, if he makes known his doubts.
But how could such a change occur? In the case of this reviewer, it took only one sentence from an online preview of a chapter in Donal Foleys new book Understanding Medjugorje: Heavenly Visions or Religious Illusion? The sentence reads: "Similarly, the loss of a sense of the sacred which followed the changes in the liturgy has left many Catholics looking for spiritual solace elsewhere" (p. 257). Medjugorje had been an opportune outlet for expressing a Marian devotion that, especially in the 1980s and early 1990s, had been almost completely abandoned by the Church. A de-emphasis on piety, personal prayer, confession, Eucharistic devotion, and basically the lack of a sense of the sacred, created a spiritual hunger that looked for fulfillment. It was Medjugorje: the place, the messages, the visionaries, the apparitions the entire movement that it had become which seemed to satisfy a deep spiritual hunger that the late twentieth-century Catholic Church seemed unable to nourish.
In one of the few books available today offering a critical look at Medjugorje, Donal Foley performs an excellent service in unraveling the many threads that comprise the genesis and history of the phenomenon. He discusses the significant role of the charismatic movement and tourism industry in propagating the visions, and shows how Medjugorje compares unfavorably to approved apparitions, especially Fatima. He presents an excellent overview of the complex historical backdrop preceding the apparitions to the six visionaries, three of whom still experience daily visions. He shows that the event actually has roots extending well before its onset twenty-five years ago, on a remote hilltop in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina. Medjugorje was a hamlet in Communist Yugoslavia, when the Gospa, as she is called in Croatian, first appeared on June 24, 1981, only a few miles from a World War II atrocity in which hundreds of Serbs were massacred by Croat militia. The region has a long history of periodical clan bloodshed and vendettas. It has also been involved in a long-standing dispute between the local Church hierarchy and the Franciscan Order, in which the Franciscans have refused to turn over local parishes to diocese control, even after the Vatican ordered their obedience in 1975.
Foley analyzes the effect of these events, as well as the Communist milieu, the presence of Islam, and the remnants of ancient religious practices, ancestor veneration, and local superstition, on the mind-set of the inhabitants. "We are not dealing with a normal Catholic culture here, but one . . . comprised of heretical sects, pagan religion, seemingly endless violence, and a long running dispute between official Church authority and local Franciscans." (p. 24).
Foley proceeds to discuss the psychosocial background of the visionaries, who, with one exception, were worldly teenagers and not "children" as they have been commonly described, when the events began. He points out that in approved apparitions, the seers are almost invariably very young (average age 11) and innocent. The six Medjugorje seers came from generally difficult family circumstances, and often did not enjoy a strong parental presence. They were not part of the charismatic prayer group meetings that the parish priest, Fr. Jozo Zovko, had been holding. In a sense they were outsiders and not particularly religious. "These are indications that the visionaries were to a greater or lesser extent emotionally vulnerable in some way " (p. 38). In fact, on the first evening of the apparitions, two of the seers were present only because they had gone out to listen to rock music on the hillside while smoking cigarettes pilfered from their fathers.
Foley then looks at what he terms the "primary source material" of the visions. This consists of a series of seventeen tape recordings that were made in the very first week of the apparitions. He points out that most standard accounts supporting Medjugorje begin by citing interviews made over a year later, completely ignoring the existence of the tapes. This is understandable, since they reveal very disturbing facts. For example, sixteen-year-old seer Ivan Dragicevic said that the hands of the vision were "trembling," not a characteristic of the calm and serene Virgin Mary. Another visionary, Marija Pavlovic, also sixteen at the time, is recorded as saying, " . . . when I saw her for the first time my hands were cold like ice." Three of the visionaries say on tape that they saw the Gospa with "something like a baby," but she then covered it. Foley remarks that it is hard to imagine that the Blessed Virgin would want to hide the Baby Jesus.
Part of the Medjugorje mythos is that during the first week, seer Vicka Ivankovic sprinkled holy water on the apparition to insure it was not the devil. However, the tapes reveal that it was actually a mixture of ordinary tap water with blessed salt, and that at the moment of the sprinkling, three of the visionaries temporarily lost consciousness. During these first days, the vision was not saying anything particularly significant, and by the fourth day the parish priest, Fr. Jozo Zovko, became concerned about this. By the fifth day, he was asking the visionaries why there was no definite message, and why she did not appear in the Church. On the next day he again acknowledged that there was no public message. The tapes present quite clear evidence that, according to the visionaries, the "Lady" indicated that the last apparition would occur on Friday, July 3, 1981. Instead, the vision soon began delivering messages with regularity, which have persisted for the past twenty-five years, magically resolving Fr. Jozos concern about the lack of public messages.
Following is an example of how Medjugorje supporters attempt to smooth out the uncomfortable wrinkles. At one point a lady doctor asked if she could touch the vision, and the Gospa replied, "There are always unbelieving Judases. Let her come near." Fr. Jozo was puzzled why it was Judas who was accused of having no faith. Later, the visions statement was conveniently altered in Medjugorje promoter Fr. Rene Laurentins chronology of the messages to: "There have always been doubting Thomases. Let her come."
What has been presented above is just a small sampling of the facts presented by the author that relate to the beginning of the apparitions. Facts which lead him to question the authenticity of the visions. He develops the thesis in the book that a major "fruit" of Medjugorje is that it draws Catholics away from approved apparition sites, and most especially draws attention away from Fatima, which he considers the most critical appearance of the Virgin Mary for our time. The authors tone is too gentlemanly and positive for him to come out and openly state that Medjugorje is Satans counterfeit of Fatima, complete with sun miracles and special secrets, but one can clearly read this possibility between the lines.
Foley points out that legitimate visionaries generally shun the limelight and lead quiet lives. On the other hand, the six Medjugorje seers engage in "apostolic journeys," and in one eight year period in the nineties, made an incredible 102 international speaking tours among them! However, he is actually quite benevolent in his treatment of the visionaries. For example, he provides a link to a web page for visionary Ivan Dragicevics speaking schedule (www.medjugorje.org/ivanse.htm) and mentions in passing that visitors to the web site are invited to "Click for details." The details, unreported by Foley, reveal that Mr. Dragicevic has built enough extra rooms on his house in Medjugorje to accommodate twenty-eight pilgrims! "Air Conditioned Accommodations (double & triple occupancy, Private baths)." They are invited to spend a week there, which includes visits to his home chapel as well as private meetings with the visionary. Prices including air fare from New York range from $1600 to $1900 depending on the season. Nowhere is it mentioned (as of this writing) that the proceeds will be donated to charity. This certainly gives the appearance that the seer is financially exploiting the apparitions by renting out rooms to the pilgrims! It is unheard of in approved apparitions that seers would ever attempt to make money from the Virgin Marys appearances.
There is so much valuable information packed into this 310-page book that this review would have to be ten times longer to even summarize it. Other main issues covered include the strong official opposition to the visions by successive bishops who oversee the Medjugorje parish, serious doctrinal problems with the content of some of the messages themselves, evidence that the vision encouraged disobedience to the local bishop, and the secret messages that have yet to be revealed or fulfilled. The book is extremely well written, employing a clear, captivating, and engaging style. It contains neither rancor nor bitter accusations, but rather presents an unrelenting examination of the vast set of problems that encompass Medjugorje. Well researched, it contains 450 footnotes, a comprehensive index, and a very detailed table of contents. This is required reading for anyone who wants to understand the profound difference between Medjugorje and Church-approved apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
UK and International readers may order the book directly from the Theotokos web site using the link below.
Donal Anthony Foley, Understanding Medjugorje: Heavenly Visions or Religious Illusion? Nottingham, England, Theotokos Books, 2006. www.theotokos.org.uk
This public domain book review may be re-produced entirely or in part.
Frank M. Rega is the author of Padre
Pio and America,
and of St. Francis of Assisi and the Conversion of the Muslims, both from TAN Books.
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