Understanding Medjugorje Book
Review which appeared in
the Brandsma Review (Issue 84)

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Understanding Medjugorje review - ISBN 0955074606

CLEARING THE MEDJUGORJE MINEFIELD By NICK LOWRY, a review of UNDERSTANDING MEDJUGORJE: Heavenly Visions or Religious Illusion?, by Donal Anthony Foley

Many religious and people in the world have made progress in the spiritual life without much prayer, but without obedience they have never made a single step. (St Francis de Sales)

He who follows his own ideas in opposition to the direction of his superiors needs no devil to tempt him for he is a devil to himself. (St Joseph Climacus)

God is never the cause of things that are useless, futile, frivolous or impertinent. When His Spirit moves a soul it is always for something serious and beneficial. (Fr Jordan Aumann OP, Spiritual Theology)

AS Professor Arpad Szakolczai of the Sociology Department in University College, Cork says in his preface to this book: "Whether one agrees or not with the conclusions of Donal Foley, one thing cannot be doubted: this book is the product of a serious, genuine search for the truth." I would challenge any fair-minded proponent of Medjugorje to disagree.

Foley's previous work, Marian Apparitions and the Modern World (Gracewing, 2002) examined the major Marian apparitions of the past five centuries, showing how each apparition is connected with the scriptural types of Mary found in the Bible. This earlier book-as Fr Aidan Nichols OP pointed out in the foreword-avoided the opposing extremes of scepticism and credulity. Foley is well qualified to enter the Medjugorje minefield. He is no lightweight, having degrees in Humanities and Theology, and his work has appeared in the orthodox American publication The Homiletic and Pastoral Review.

The most notable aspect of Foley's work is the gentle tone he maintains throughout. Without fudging or playing down manifest absurdities, he never puts the boot in, as Michael Davies and E. Michael Jones were inclined to do in their respective accounts of the alleged apparitions. Understanding Medjugorje is all the more devastating for his charitable forbearance.

Probably the worst thing about Medjugorje, believes Foley, is the way it has obscured the message of Fatima, which is still absolutely crucial for our times. "It [Fatima] represents an unprecedented intervention on the part of the Blessed Virgin in order to bring back to Christ a world which is increasingly denying and rejecting the Gospel of eternal salvation..."

As Foley pointed out in his earlier work, the devotion to Mary proposed at Fatima is both a guarantee of individual salvation and a necessity for the world if there is to be true peace. The main problem with Medjugorje is that it is diverting the faithful away from Fatima, and risking their estrangement from the true life of the Church.

Chequered history

Foley begins by setting the historical background of Medjugorje. I had never fully appreciated just what a cocktail of powerful competing forces went to make up present-day Bosnia-Herzegovina-the point at which Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Islam collided. Here is the briefest possible summary: first you had the Bogomils, the curious medieval heretics (allied to the Cathars of southern France) whose religion was mixed with a form of paganism which survived at least until the 1920s; then the Franciscans who made many converts in the area; then the Ottoman Turks, who at first persecuted the Church with great cruelty but after numerous rebellions eventually allowed the Franciscans to remain with their people, for the sake of peace. The Turks were expelled in the 19th century.

After World War I the victorious allies invented Yugoslavia, of which Bosnia-Herzegovina was a part. Around Medjugorje the Serbs who dominated Yugoslavia stole land from the Croats, which led to a series of massacres, carried out with unbelievable savagery by both sides. These only ended in the late 1940s with the imposition of Communism under the dictator Marshal Tito. Communism, here as everywhere, brought its own moral and intellectual degradation.

In the 1920s the Franciscans, who had heroically stayed with their people during the centuries-long Turkish occupation, refused to hand over their parishes to the local Ordinary, even when ordered by Rome. They were still in a state of active disobedience by the time the visions began in the early 1980s. The revolt culminated in 1995 with a physical attack on the local Ordinary, Bishop Ratko Peric by a mob sympathetic to the Franciscans.

So, as Foley says, this is not a normal Catholic culture, "but one with a strange and chequered history, comprising heretical sects, pagan religion, seemingly endless violence, and a long-running dispute between the official Church and the Franciscans".

In his third chapter, Foley tackles the question whether the visions are genuine or not. Most testimonies are based on interviews which took place about 18 months after the first alleged visits of the Blessed Virgin, when memories could well be at fault. He goes to the little-known primary source material, taped during the first few days of the apparitions. As he points out, they are a severe embarrassment to proponents of Medjugorje; it emerges that the apparitions, which have now been going on for a quarter of a century, were supposed to end after three more days-on July 3rd, 1981.

So what did happen? Foley believes the visionaries certainly saw something on that bleak hillside outside Medjugorje-at least in the earliest days-but not the Blessed Virgin. The whole thing is so bizarre, indeed "tacky", that one would have to agree that it cannot have been Our Lady. First, there is evidence that some of the visionaries may have been on drugs. They had certainly been smoking. The testimonies of Ivan Dragicevic and Vicka Ivancovic are particularly strange. Ivan said the hands of the vision were "trembling", while Vicka reported: "We kept touching her and kissing her, and she kept laughing." But at that stage she didn't speak. As Foley says:

None of this accords with the supreme, calm presence of the Blessed Virgin, speaking words of reassurance to those who have been favoured with her presence, that one finds in her recently recognised apparitions. But conversely, it does seem that some people did see strange lights, and so we do not appear to be dealing with hallucinations. It appeared that something was happening up there on Podbrdo, but the exact nature of that "something" had still to be determined.

It is interesting, too, that the "Gospa" gradually appeared in an indistinct form out of a cloud or mist. That is not a mark of genuine Marian visions, but is one of the main characteristics of false or suspect visions-such as those which followed the genuine apparitions at Lourdes.

Diabolical origin?

He then asks the disturbing question: whether what the visionaries saw in the early days was in fact of diabolical origin? The strange phenomena, untypical of Marian apparitions would point to this possibility in the early days, but Foley believes the later ecstasies, which took place in the church, were more likely self-induced trances. There is also a very strong possibility that the later manifestations have been to a large extent stage-managed by the Franciscans.

As news of the visions spread, pilgrims began flocking to Medjugorje, and the seers would spend quite a lot of time laying hands on them or "blessing" pious objects for them. What a contrast to Fatima, where young Francisco told an old woman: "I could not give a blessing....Only priests do that." It appears, in fact that a mixture of magic and Christian rituals has grown up around the Medjugorje visionaries, who are being treated by some as pseudo-priests or folk doctors with special powers. Foley points out that for generations people in Medjugorje have been living in a primitive spiritual universe, believing in a "middle field" between good and evil which could be influenced by occult practices.

Dottiness and banality

Perhaps the most telling evidence against the authenticity of Medjugorje is the sheer dottiness of some of the things Our Lady is alleged to have said (leaving aside the utter banality of the daily messages). For instance, there is the so-called, "bloody handkerchief" incident, written by Vicka in her diary. This concerned a meeting between a "driver" and a man covered in blood-apparently Our Lord Himself-who ordered that a handkerchief soaked in blood should be thrown into a river:

This driver then met Mary who asked for the handkerchief, although he was apparently reluctant to hand it over. Then the Blessed Virgin reportedly said, "If you had not given it to me that would have been the end of the world. Vicka stated categorically that: "The Gospa said that was the truth."

To swallow anything like that you would need not simple faith, but the digestion of an ostrich. One does not need to consult theological experts in order to discern nonsense. In these interminable messages, the "Gospa" repeatedly signs off by saying: "Thank you for having responded to my call." As Foley notes, this suggests that people are conferring a favour on Our Lady. It is without precedent in any approved apparitions. Sometimes the encounters with the "Gospa " descend to the level of farce. In the early 1980s one of the visionaries, Jakov, asked her how his favourite football team had fared in a match-causing the others to burst out laughing.

Yet in spite of all the difficulties-involving both the seers themselves and the Franciscans most involved with them-from the publicity surrounding Medjugorje you would think it was all perfectly acceptable in a religious sense.

Foley devotes a chapter to the propaganda offensive mounted by numerous clerics, most notably by the renowned mariologist Fr RenE Laurentin, without whose backing Medjugorje would never have attained such an important role in the Church. He believes Fr Laurentin became so personally entangled in Medjugorje that he lost the ability to discern the visions in an objective and impartial manner. The writings of Fr Robert Faricy SJ and the Irish Holy Ghost Father Michael O'Carroll also helped considerably to promote the apparitions-in the teeth of opposition from the local Ordinaries Bishops Zanic and Peric-and indeed from the entire Yugoslav hierarchy save one.

There has even been a smear campaign against Bishop Zanic, who was falsely accused in the film Gospa, starring Martin Sheen, of being a Communist collaborator. Foley asks the pertinent question: "Would the supporters of a genuine apparition of Mary have resorted to such methods?" As he says, it appears that some Medjugorje supporters are determined to force their subjective views on the whole Catholic world, without respecting the authority of the Church to decide such matters.

Bishops' ruling rejected

The complicated tale of the various episcopal commissions looking into the phenomena over the years is also dealt with. Medjugorje supporters refused to accept the bishops' conclusion, non constat de supernaturalitate-that is, there is no direct evidence of the supernatural, as closing the matter. Foley says that in theory, the formula could allow for further developments; but surely not when one had already dealt with three thousand alleged visions over 10 years? How many more, and how much longer might be required?

It is also quite untrue, as some have claimed, that the Vatican has deprived the present Bishop of Mostar, Ratko Peric of jurisdiction over matters connected with Medjugorje. One correspondent even assured me that Bishop Peric had been treated to a "diplomatic squelch".

Foley acknowledges that there have been some good fruits from Medjugorje (for instance, the tens of thousands of Confessions) but insists that these cannot be used-as they so frequently are-as the sole criteria for assessing the truth of the visions. There have been so many bad fruits. Evidence of miraculous healings is examined and found wanting. The activities of some of the Franciscans involved in Medjugorje have been sadly disedifying. (Foley does not go into the details of the worst of these.)

In the early 1990s, when pilgrims were absent because of the Yugoslav civil war, there was a horrific outbreak of inter-clan violence. If Our Lady had been truly appearing there, could this have happened? Why has Medjugorje been such a runaway success? Apart from the propaganda offensive of influential theologians referred to above, Foley points to two other crucial factors:

The Church in the West has still not recovered from the aftermath of the cultural revolution which, in the wake of Vatican II, threatened to overwhelm it. Catechesis has largely collapsed, and the result has been large numbers of ill-informed Catholics, who have turned out to be easy prey for those promoting suspect visions. 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.

Foley covers in some detail the attitude of Rome to the phenomena. The maxim salus animarum suprema lex-the salvation of souls is the highest law-comes into play, and that is why the Church has proceeded with such caution. It has after all to deal with the pastoral needs of the hundreds of thousands of pilgrims going to Medjugorje in good faith.

He believes Pope John Paul-and now Pope Benedict-found themselves in a position very like that outlined by Our Lord in the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13: 24-30) The landowner would not grub up the weeds because this might mean pulling out the wheat as well:

The point of the parable is that in the beginning, when both the weeds and wheat sprout, they are very difficult to distinguish. In the same way, at the beginning, many of the signs associated with Medjugorje seemed good. Thus it had to be given time to develop. But having been given that time, it is now clear that the weeds are largely just that, weeds. They have grown up and are threatening to overwhelm the good seed, that is, the message of Fatima. Unfortunately Medjugorje is proving to be a long-lasting plant, and it does not look as though it will wither away by itself; rather, some negative declaration coming from the highest levels of the Church will be necessary. But the "harvest" is surely approaching, the time when Medjugorje will have to be uprooted from the Church, regardless of the difficulties this will involve.

And difficulties there will certainly be. He agrees with Michael Davies, who wrote in Medjugorje After 15 Years that the longer the announcement-which must inevitably come-is delayed, the greater the number of devotees and the greater their disappointment. Davies thought that many souls will be lost to the Church, as they prefer the authority of the spurious messages to the authority of the Magisterium.

The only rational conclusion about Medjugorje, Foley believes, is that it has indeed turned out to be a vast, if captivating, religious illusion. I know this judgement will cause an outcry, but I am not reopening a correspondence on the subject.

In some ways Donal Foley is a David to the Goliath of the lucrative Medjugorje industry. Week after week in the Irish and British Catholic press, Medjugorje generates considerable revenue in the form of travel ads for pilgrimages, often accompanied by favourable articles. Recently the Irish Catholic even carried an advertising feature for apartments in Medjugorje. It has been extremely difficult to obtain a hearing for the other side-though thanks partly to Understanding Medjugorje, that may be beginning to change. There have been several favourable reviews.

I would not recommend that you beg, steal or borrow Understanding Medjugorje: I would suggest that you buy it! You won't find it on the shelves of Veritas or Cathedral Books, although they would probably order it for you. It may be obtained from Theotokos Books at . For those in Ireland the best way to pay-unless you use a credit card-is by a sterling draft to the equivalent of EUR25.95, which includes postage and handling. Further details on the Theotokos Books website: www.theotokos.org.uk/pages/books/medjbook/medjbook.html

As I know from setting up Brandsma Books Ltd., it is far from easy to establish a publishing firm dedicated to promoting undiluted Catholicism. Theotokos Books has gone about marketing Understanding Medjugorje in a thoroughly professional way, which is sensible but expensive. If you can spare a few extra Euros with each copy you buy, I am sure Donal Foley would be most grateful.


To order the book, please click here

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

ISBN 0955074606

Extracts from the proposed book in PDF format, including the table of contents, introduction, sample chapters and the bibliography, can be seen here ...

To order the book please click here


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