Understanding Medjugorje Heavenly Visions or Religious Illusion?
by Donal Anthony Foley (Theotokos Books, ISBN 0955074606, £12.95)
Reviewed by Jackie Parkes (http://catholicmomof10.blogspot.com)
Mrs Jackie Parkes is a former Medjugorje supporter who has taken groups there in the past, but who now encourages people to adopt a more sceptical attitude towards the alleged visionaries and their claims. She was familiar with some of the visionaries and the Franciscan priests involved with Medjugorje, and so her testimony is particularly valuable.
The war in Bosnia-Herzogovina in the early 90s dramatically cut the number of pilgrims to Medjugorje. However, I took a party of 30 including 2 Priests during the war. It was such an outrageous venture that ‘The Independent’ newspaper sent a correspondent with us. I have that article still and can see with hindsight that he thought we were a little mad! The party included members of my family - my mother, sister, brother, uncle, 2 aunts, and cousin. Looking back, I think we were very foolish, though thankfully we remained safe.
I would like to look at Medjugorje initially under a number of aspects, before giving my own thoughts and feelings about both the book and my own experiences.
Historical Aspects: the following brief details under the various headings are fundamental to an understanding of Medjugorje. They are extremely condensed and by no means contain all the facts, just some I found pertinent. One would need to read the whole book for all the relevant information.
These points include the fact that when the Habsburg Empire fell in 1918, the kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was founded, and following a coup in 1929, the Serb king enforced policies favouring his kinsmen, using Chetnik militants while the kingdom was renamed Yugoslavia ‘the land of the South Slavs’.
This meant that in Medjugorje the Serb Community was able to confiscate land from Croats and individual Serbs became very influential facilitating the rise of the Croat Ustasha. Interestingly, one of our ‘guides’ for one of our pilgrimages was a Milona von Hapsburg. She often acted as interpreter for one of the Priests.
Some Franciscan Aspects: the Franciscans were supposed to hand their parishes over to the jurisdiction of the Bishop, but they refused to do so. (A detailed history of this is provided by Foley). By 1975, the situation was so serious that the Holy See issued a special decree: ‘Romanis Pontificibus’ demanding obedience on the matter but the Franciscans continued their disobedience. I agree with Foley’s comparison between this and St Pio’s obedience when his Priestly faculties were withdrawn. What we did to legitimise our Pilgrimages (I made 5 trips) was to talk of Archbishop Franic’s support - he was favourable to the phenomenon.
Some Historical aspects: by September 1980, Bishop Zanic decided to create a new parish in Mostar. This led to further unrest. In 1980 Tito died, leading to further upheaval. In 1981, it became known in June that teenagers in Medjugorje were claiming to have seen the Blessed Mother.
The influence of the Charismatic renewal: Two priests Jozo Zovko and Tomislav Vlasic, were leading Charismatic prayer groups. During these, people wandered about with their eyes closed, speaking in tongues and resting (being slain) in the Spirit. Fr Rene Laurentin, the well-known mariologist and author, wrote numerous books favourable to Medjugorje. Frs George Kosiki and Farrell - after reading Fr Gobbi’s ‘Our Lady Speaks to Her beloved Priests’ - wrote that the Charismatic movement was becoming too ecumenical and losing its Catholic identity. These authors concluded what was needed was an injection of his (Gobbi’s) type of Marian apocalypticism.
I am very familiar with all those authors and all those practices within the Charismatic movement. We spent a lot of time reading their literature and attending healing and charismatic prayer sessions and Masses. Looking back, (over the 80’s and 90’s) there was a lot of hype and there were a lot of damaged individuals who were naturally attracted to these services. I think Foley is wise to indicate these important influences and to try and track down who was leading who.
One other topic of major importance is that of ‘communism’ in ex-Yugoslavia. Foley insightfully refers to the enormous psychological and emotional damage (p. 31) caused by this. He also refers to the fact that alongside this, historically, the people had a desire for the miraculous. Examining all this evidence from Foley’s book one can clearly see the stage was set for something “supernatural” to occur.
Regarding the seers, the following had a vision allegedly at the foot of the small mountain of Podbrdo. Vicka Ivankovic aged nearly 17 years old; Mirjana Dragicevic (18.03.65); Maria Pavlovic (1.04.65); Ivan Dragicevic (25.05.65); Jacov Colo (6.05.71); and Ivanka Ivankovic (21.6.66). Early reports suggest that they had possibly been listening to ‘rock’ music and smoking on the hill. The question is posed, ‘what were they smoking?’ Young people in other countries often smoke cannabis, although this has not been proved regarding the Medjugorje seers. Although they were taken to hospital for tests, no tests for drugs were done. The young people began to receive regular visions and monthly messages. At the present time, only a few of them have regular visions, most have received 10 secrets, and the others, 9. These visions are said to be Our Lady’s last on earth.
In July 2000, Bishop Peric gave his indictment regarding Medjugorje (p. 237). He makes clear he does not support the visions. Obedience to the Bishop is crucial in such instances. However, as I mentioned before, the Franciscans - and many pilgrims - have ignored this. Foley makes this disobedience clear. Meanwhile, the death of Fr Slavko Barbaric was reported in Dec 2000. Foley writes, ‘as might be expected, some of the Medjugorje visionaries claimed that the blessed Virgin had appeared to them saying that Fr Barbaric was in heaven.’
Indeed prayer cards were printed with this message on, with a photo of Fr Slavko and Our Lord in the Monstrance. It is a particularly beautiful picture, but we should have had a prayer encouraging us to pray for the repose of the soul of Fr Slavko. Because of the strange message, many of the faithful will just presume he’s already in heaven and not pray for him.
Having met both Fr Slavko and Fr Jozo on quite a few occasions, my opinion is on the one hand they are/were very devout. They spent hours in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and their prayers were particularly moving. They celebrated Holy Mass devoutly, and arranged continual confessions and the praying of the rosary. Their approach I suppose was charismatic but entirely Catholic. Both men had ‘charisma’- a presence about them but was this holiness or the ‘cult of personality/ego?’ Foley is at a disadvantage in relying on other people’s impressions rather than his own. I don’t know which is true. I do know Fr Slavko was a lovely person, very approachable and I have fond memories of him kneeling in front of the Blessed Sacrament.
Books published by them, i.e. Fr Slavko’s ‘Pray with the Heart’ and others seem to help the wounded individual. I think both priests had psychological qualifications.
Foley is remiss in failing to interview individuals to learn about the many profound psychological changes, and those regarding faith, brought about from contact with these 2 priests in particular, although he recognises there has undeniably been some “good fruit” from Medjugorje for whatever reason.
Coming back to the visionaries, I think I met all of them on at least one occasion. My small children played with Mirjana’s at her rather large house. She came out to talk to us - I presumed her husband was able to provide the house for her family but hear Jacov has one too. The other strange thing mentioned in Foley’s book regarding earthly possessions concerned Ivan: apparently he drives a BMW and has a large house. His wife is a former Miss America. Vicka was always smiling and available. We heard latterly that she had some form of brain tumour, but I wonder about possible depressive illness as apparently there was a family history of this. Despite all originally professing their intention to enter the religious life, all have now married.
Foley does not mention, as far as I’m aware, 2 locutionists whose names I’ve forgotten but were quite important as ‘back-up’ to the visionaries.
Foley seemingly lacks one thing I’ve alluded to before - personal experience. Has he actually visited Medjugorje? Having said that, I will reveal a couple of highly personal things which concur exactly with his insights.
On p. 228, he says: ‘There is also the danger of people becoming ‘addicted’ to the spiritual experiences generated by a visit to Medjugorje. This is particularly the case if the person who has been converted at Medjugorje was previously a lukewarm or non-practicing Catholic…one hears of people whose whole spiritual life revolves around the messages from various alleged visionaries, and who travel from one place to another to satisfy a ‘craving’ for these phenomena.’
Just to mention at this point that many pilgrims were attracted by tales of the sun spinning and rosaries turning gold and the like. Indeed most of these phenomena can be explained naturally, and sadly a lot of people damaged their eyes from staring at the noonday sun.
Interestingly, we were practicing Catholics who undoubtedly had a ‘religious awakening if you like’ at Medjugorje. But coming from a family with many alcoholics and addictive types of personalities, it comes as no surprise to read what Foley has observed. We too were carried along on the visionary trail. One of our close Priest friends is most definitely addicted to Marian apparitions and seers, including Vassula Ryden and Garabandal, both mentioned by Foley. Indeed Garabandal must be still ‘doing the rounds’ as we were visiting a church in London a few weeks back and some strange women were handing out literature about it outside one of the churches.
Another Priest friend is particularly into the Charismatic renewal and speaking in tongues etc. This rather brings us back to the beginning of Foley’s book regarding Laurentin and other the authors.
Personally, I travelled to Medjugorje five times often organising large groups. More recently, many of our family members have suffered severe depressions, myself being diagnosed with bi-polar affective disorder (manic-depression). One of the symptoms of this type of mental illness can be increased religiosity, which I do recognise to some degree in myself. Sadly one man who came with us once had to be taken off the plane and sedated as he had stopped taking his medication in Medjugorje and literally ‘gone mad’. I believe he suffered from schizophrenia.
I feel personally responsible for all my friends and relatives who I encouraged ‘into Medjugorje.’ Now I’m ‘leading them out!’ One thought which consoled me from the book, (p. 229), runs as follows: ‘Medjugorje, taken as an overall phenomenon, can thus at best be regarded as a sort of porch or vestibule of the Church proper, a sort of halfway house; but it is not a place where one should remain, spiritually, for any length of time.’
I agree with that totally. For myself, I feel I’ve re-integrated into authentic Catholic spirituality. I personally will only now look at approved apparitions such as Fatima and Lourdes. I have joined the lay institute Miles Jesu, which is very sound in its outlook.
Regarding the alleged visions at Medjugorje, Foley seems to come down on the side of seeing them as diabolic in origin. I am more of the opinion that there is some kind of hoax going on. I feel it is more likely that there is some form of human orchestration by one of the personalities involved. Of course this could give rise to unhealthy speculation as to who, which would not necessarily be good.
In conclusion, I like Foley’s statement that (p. 231), ‘Believing in visions which have not been approved by the Church - and which all the available evidence indicates are false - cannot be good for one’s spiritual health in the long-term.’
This book by Donal Foley is the only one I know which gives such a comprehensive overview of the Medjugorje phenomenon. I feel it is fair and accurate and allows for a charitable growth in faith for those devotees who are examining more closely their association with Medjugorje. As such, I feel that the book will be a force for good in the Catholic Church.
Do order your copy today from Theotokos Books www.thetotoks.org.uk, or from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk, or from any good bookshop.
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Understanding Medjugorje is Demy Octavo size (8.5 in. x 5.5 in.). It has 23 chapters, 310 pages, and a comprehensive index.
It costs £12.95 / $19.95 / €19.95
Extracts from the proposed book in PDF format, including the table of contents, introduction, sample chapters and the bibliography, can be seen here ...
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