Inquiry Into Bosnian Apparition of Mary May Pit Pope Against Shrine


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Roman Catholic pilgrims on the hill above the small Bosnian town of Medjugorje, where in 1981 a group of six children said the Virgin Mary appeared to them. Half of the three say they still  see her daily.

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Ziyah Gafic for The New York Times

MEDJUGORJE, Bosnia-Herzegovina — At exactly 6:40 p.m. one sultry day this month, the peal of church bells rang though the main square of this town, bringing countless pilgrims instantly to their knees.

The ringing marked the moment, 34 years ago, when a group of six youths say the Virgin Mary appeared to them. Three of them say she has continued to do so, usually at the same time, every day since.

Over that period, the scheduled apparitions have drawn millions of believers to this small town, and a good dose of suspicion from skeptics, including, perhaps, Pope Francis. In what was interpreted as a thinly veiled jab at the claims, he recently joked during a morning homily about “visionaries who can tell us exactly what message Our Lady will be sending at 4 o’clock this afternoon.”

Soon the Vatican is expected to make public the findings of its own investigation into the reported apparitions, which was concluded 18 months ago. Though the inquiry was started by Francis’ predecessor, Benedict, if the conclusions are doubtful, as some speculate, they could pit a populist pope against a popular shrine.

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A souvenir shop in Medjugorje, one of the most visited religious sites in the world. The claims of apparitions have transformed this once-poor village of rustic stone houses into a beehive of  hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops for more than a million visitors a year.

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Ziyah Gafic for The New York Times

At the very least, many here fear, the Vatican’s ruling could upend what has become a thriving local industry around the claims. They have made Medjugorje (pronounced mehd-JOO-gor-ee-yeh) an enormously popular religious destination, transforming this once-poor village of rustic stone houses into a beehive of hotels, prix fixe menus and souvenir shops catering to more than a million visitors a year.

Already, since the pope announced in June that a decision was imminent, the numbers of Italians — once the bulk of the pilgrims here — have fallen by half.

“Whatever the verdict turns out to be, this wait is creating a state of uncertainty for the pilgrims, and that affects the season,” said Sante Frigo, an Italian married to a pilgrim guide in Medjugorje.

“From the point of view of the pilgrimage supply chain,” he added, “it’s been a catastrophe.”

Faith aside, for the residents of a town that once barely survived on tobacco plantations and vineyards, the claims of apparitions have been an irrefutable blessing.

Millions of believers have found spiritual solace in Medjugorje, with dozens of reports of miraculous healings, conversions and religious callings, as pilgrims are drawn here by the promise of the immediacy of the divine.

“All Christians know that God can appear at any time,” said Antonio Socci, a journalist and author who covers the Roman Catholic Church. But he added, “experiencing a supernatural event that’s ongoing and in the here and the now” is what has lured so many.

“Medjugorje is a huge mass phenomenon,” Mr. Socci said.

Even so, the reported apparitions have also fueled controversy, in large part because of their duration, and clockwork regularity. Though the church has recognized many dozens of apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the course of its history, rarely have such claims lasted as long.

The longest apparitions are those said to have occurred in Laus, France, from 1664 to 1718, when Mary appeared to the Dominican sister Benedicta Rencurel. The church did not approve them until 2008, 290 years after Sister Benedicta’s death.

The six youths who first reported seeing Mary, in 1981, when they ranged in age from 10 to 17, are know as the visionaries. Three of the six say that since then, they have had only periodic visits. Skeptics raise eyebrows not least because, at times, the visionaries have promised apparitions during public appearances in advance.

Doubters accuse the visionaries of blurring the line between the spiritual and the material by capitalizing on the apparitions through global speaking tours and investments in the local tourism industry.

“You have to bear in mind that the visionaries have built economic interests here,” said one skeptic, Marco Corvaglia, a high school teacher who chronicled what he claims are the visionaries’ conflicts of interest on his blog.

He started his blog, he said, out of concern that millions were being duped by the collective power of suggestion. The Medjugorje apparitions, he and other skeptics believe, are nothing other than an “instrument of mass manipulation.”

Nearly all of the six who claimed to have seen the Virgin still live in or near Medjugorje, at least during the summer, the pilgrimage high season. Residents say that they have stopped speaking to the news media, and have kept a relatively low profile since Francis appeared to dismiss their claims during the morning homily at his residence on June 9.

“They barely have a life; here it’s worse than being a V.I.P.,” said Vesna Ivankovic, an official guide here, who said that they lived like recluses because of overly enthusiastic pilgrims who at times inadvertently hurt them. “They can hardly leave the house.”

But they do. On a recent afternoon, one of the three who still claims to see the Virgin daily, Ivan Dragicevic, 50, took to a stage built behind the parish church — with outdoor seating for about 9,000 — to share his experiences with pilgrims braving the heat.

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Millions of believers have found spiritual solace in Medjugorje, with dozens of reports of miraculous healings, conversions and religious callings.

Credit
Ziyah Gafic for The New York Times

Mr. Dragicevic, who lives in Boston and in Medjugorje, spoke of his conversations with the Virgin, as pilgrims from around the world listened to a simultaneous translation broadcast on various radio frequencies. A group of Frenchwomen took copious notes.

Once he had finished, he quickly left, brusquely declining requests for an interview.

At Magnificat, a guesthouse built three years ago by one of the daily seers, Marija Pavlovic, also 50, graciously greeted pilgrims, offering words of comfort and blessings.

The hotel itself has been a source of controversy. While Ms. Pavlovic describes it as a “center of spirituality,” it is actually a “luxury hotel,” Mr. Corvaglia and other critics say.

Ms. Pavlovic, who divides her time between Italy and here, also declined to be interviewed. “We don’t want to throw fuel on the fire,” she said. “We want to wait until the waters calm down.”

They have been stirred since June, when Francis told reporters on the papal plane returning from Sarajevo that the Vatican was “close to coming to a decision” on its investigation into the claims at Medjugorje.

“For the moment,” the pope said, “all that is being done is to give guidelines to the bishops, but along the lines that will be taken” by the church.

Until now, the Vatican has not taken an official position on the apparitions.

But two years ago, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is now reviewing the internal Vatican investigation, told bishops in the United States that Catholics should not take part in meetings at which “the credibility of such apparitions would be taken for granted,” until they are definitively authenticated.

Those guidelines have been interpreted by some Vatican experts as a possible blueprint for what is to come.

The Vatican has said that dioceses should not organize official pilgrimages to Medjugorje. But it has also not stopped Catholics from praying there, and some Vatican watchers suspect that the results of the investigation may continue to finesse that distinction, skirting the apparitions themselves.

Some church experts say the Vatican could make a Medjugorje shrine, and appoint a pontifical delegate to oversee it.

“The church always acts with prudence and patience, and in particular with apparitions it has always treaded lightly,” said Angela Ambrogetti, the director of the Rome bureau of EWTN, the global Catholic broadcaster. “It can wait another 50 years if it has to. The church is in no hurry.”

Pilgrims, like the Rev. Jack O’Kane, currently a parochial vicar in Hillsborough, New Jersey, said that should the Vatican come down hard, many people would be “shaken, and confused.”

“You come here and see all this goodness,” he said, “and if it isn’t approved, people will ask why.”

Marinko Sakota, the Franciscan friar who is the parish priest of the local church, St. James the Apostle, said that Medjugorje was a profound experience that went beyond the visionaries.

“Medjugorje is a call to conversion, to prayer to Our Lady, nothing else,” he said. “I don’t ask why the apparitions have lasted for so long, I ask what has happened to me. Have I changed or not?”

The commerce and tourism that grew up around the site “is just a consequence; it was never the aim,” he said. Simply put, pilgrims had to be fed and housed and looked after.

“I’d like things to be more simple,” he added, “but there is always human nature.”



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