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Medjugorje

Medjugorje

Name of a village in Yugoslavia that has been the site of claimed apparitions of the Virgin Mary. The case follows a pattern seen also at Lourdes, La Salette, and Fatima, in which teenage visionaries state that the Virgin has given them "secrets" concerning civilization and religion. It is the latest of a series of prominent cases of the apparition of the Virgin that began in the early nineteenth century.

The visionaries have attracted some attention due to their location. They began to report apparitions in 1981 in Yugoslavia, at that time an atheist Marxist country. Although Yugoslavia was independent of the Soviet Union, the state tolerated religion but hardly encouraged it. The reported apparitions brought many tourists, especially from Italy, into the country. Medjugorje is located at some distance from the Serbian-Bosnian war as it progresses into the 1990s, but the number of visitors from outside of the country has definitely dropped. Additional complications concerning the apparitions occurred not only over confrontations between church and state, but also between different branches of Christianity (Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox).

The intricate story of the apparitions has been presented in a stream of books and several documentaries such as The Madonna of Medjugorje, produced by Angela Tilby, which appeared in the British Broadcasting Company's Everyman series in 1986.

Background History of Medjugorje

Medjugorje is a small village of some 3,500 people in Bosnia-Herzegovina, about 200 kilometers inland from the Adriatic coast. The area is a meeting place between Serbs and Croats, between Moslem traditions, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the established Catholic Church, and the Franciscans. The region has a complex and troubled history, involving military and religious conflicts.

For four centuries, the region was under Turkish rule, and many Christians were converted to Islam. The Franciscans kept the Catholic faith alive and became identified with the concept of Croatian identity. When the Turks lost power in 1878, Pope Leo XIII appointed non-Franciscans to work in the parish. This was resisted by the laity, and by the Franciscans themselves, who did not wish to lose their status. Conflict of interest between the established Church and the Franciscans on the issues of lay priests has remained latent into the twentieth century.

Another historical problem dates from World War II, when in 1941 a Croatian fascist group was formed with strong Roman Catholic ties. It lasted only a few years, but during that period these Croats were responsible for terrible atrocities against their Serbian neighbors of the Eastern Orthodox faith. Only a short distance from the site of the modern apparitions, hundreds of Serbian women, children, and babies were thrown to their deaths from the top of a high cliff.

The First Apparitions

The first apparition was reported in 1981. There were six visionaries, all teenagers or younger children: four girls, Marija Pavlovic (16), Vicka Ivankovic (16), Mirjana Dragicevic (16), and Ivanka Ivankovic (15), and two boys, Ivan Dragicevic (16) and Jakov Colo (10).

On the feast of St. John, June 24, 1981, Ivanka, Marija, and Mirjana went for a walk to the hill of Crnica. Ivanka suddenly exclaimed "There's Our Lady!" Mirjana felt unable to look, but Ivanka was convinced that she had seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary. The girls returned home, and a few hours later set out again to help a farmer with his sheep. They left a message for their friends to follow them. The apparition again appeared, and was also seen by some of the other children, who had met up with Ivanka and Mirjana. The apparition was a beautiful smiling mother with child, wearing a starry crown and floating above the ground.

The following day, four of the teenagers returned to the same place, followed by friends, and this time, Jakov Colo and Marija Pavlovic saw the apparition. Similar encounters took place on succeeding days, when the Virgin spoke to the children in excellent Croatian. She said that she was the Blessed Virgin Mary, sent from God with a gospel message. Asked why the message should come through such ordinary children, she replied that it was precisely because they were ordinary and average, neither the best nor worst, that they had been chosen. Thereafter, the children assembled on the hill each day to witness the apparition.

When news of the apparition reached the church, the parish priest was temporarily absent. The assistant priest was not impressed and thought that maybe the children were on drugs and hallucinating. But after a few days, as the news spread, thousands of devout followers flocked to the hill, many in tears as they witnessed the children in a state of ecstasy.

When Father Jozo Zovko, the parish priest, returned from a retreat, he was astonished to find a chaotic situation, with crowds gathering around the hill. His reaction was one of incredulity that people should seek divine revelation on a hillside when the church itself, with its sacraments, was the proper center for worship.

However, Zovko gave the children some prayer books and rosaries, and tried to instruct them about the church in more detail. He also gave Mirjana a book about the apparitions of Lourdes, from which the children concluded that the current apparitions would cease after July 3rd, as they did at Lourdes. In fact, they did not. On the following day, the children did not visit the hill, but each one had a vision wherever he or she happened to be at the time.

By now, there were serious difficulties involving both church and state authorities. According to state laws, gatherings for worship had to be regulated, and the daily assembly on the hill was not authorized by state or church. News of the apparitions had reached Sarajevo, capital of the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where there was alarm that all this might be a right-wing plot in religious disguise. It was thought that this might indicate a return of Croatian nationalism, with a revival of the old Nazi sympathy. Official observers merged with the crowds to report back on this dangerous situation. The children were interrogated by police and examined by doctors. The gatherings on the hillside were forbidden.

The Second Stage

On July 1, the eighth day of the apparitions, the parish priest was troubled by both religious and state problems. In the church, he prayed for divine guidance, while the police went to the hill to arrest the young visionaries. The children fled through the fields and vineyards, followed by the police. There was only one place of sanctuarythe church.

In an answer to prayer, the priest heard a voice saying "Go and protect the children, then I will tell you what to do." He went to the door of the church and found the children pleading to be hidden. He concealed them in a room in the presbytery. That evening, the apparition came to the children again, but this time in the church itself. Now each evening the congregation gathered to pray in the church and the apparitions appeared as usual to the children. Often in tears, the apparition urged the faithful to confess sins, do penance, and fast once a week on bread and water.

The parish priest now supported the apparitions, and indeed also shared the vision in church. The local bishop, Pavao Zanic, visited the parish on several occasions, but was constrained by his theological and political responsibilities. Government observers attending a church congregation reported back that a sermon about the need for personal change was really a disguised criticism of socialism. Father Jozo was arrested by the police and accused of slandering the state system. In October, he was tried and sentenced to three years' imprisonment. He saw the apparition in prison.

The Aftermath of the Apparitions

Meanwhile, in March 1983, Bishop Zanic appointed a theological commission to investigate and form a judgment on the apparitions. The visionaries reported that the Virgin recommended special prayers for the bishop and his heavy responsibility.

The religious authorities in Rome sent representatives to make their own on-the-spot investigations. The children were given extensive medical and psychological tests. Electroencephalographs probed the ecstatic state of the children during the apparitions, and scientists concluded that they were healthy and sane, and not telling lies. The visionaries focused intently on the same spot during the appearance of the apparition. The ecstatic state was genuine and elevating and certainly not a pathological condition. During this state, the children seemed transported into a higher condition of fulfillment.

Thousands of pilgrims continued to flock to Medjugorje, many seeking inspiration and guidance from the young visionaries. Some typical informal question-and-answer sessions in the open air were recorded by the BBC television team. Because of the large number of pilgrims, priests often took confessions in the open air. The main focal point for these gatherings was a cross, which had been erected many years earlier in 1933 and stood opposite the site of the apparitions. People claimed that the cross sometimes changed into a column of light or into the form of the Virgin, and some photographs taken of the cross certainly show "extras" of this nature.

A somewhat disturbing claim was that people believed that they were able to look into the sun and see it dancing, a phenomenon that had been reported earlier in conjunction with the apparitions at Fatima. Naturally gazing at the sun with the naked eye can produce a number of strange visual effects, but it is a highly dangerous practice.

There were also reports of miraculous healings. The BBC television team recorded an interview with a German woman who was previously unable to walk, but now had no difficulty.

These large-scale demonstrations of a revival of faith were alarming both to state and ecclesiastical authorities. Bishop Pavao Zanic found himself in an increasingly delicate position. He had earlier defended the integrity of the children, and was fully aware that their experience might be as valid as those at Lourdes and Fatima, but was reluctant to sanction organized pilgrimages to the site of the apparitions.

While his commission worked slowly in its investigations, an old controversy was now inflamed. The Franciscans had been the parish clergy in Medjugorje for many years. In 1980, during a reorganization instigated by the authorities in Rome, the bishop had attempted to replace two of the Franciscans with secular clergy. The two friars now consulted the visionaries, seeking the opinion of the Virgin, and it was reported that the Virgin told the children that the bishop should not have suspended the friars. The bishop now became critical of the claimed apparitions as hallucinations inflamed by disaffected Franciscans, and refused to endorse the phenomena or to facilitate pilgrimages.

On the other hand, he did not discourage the pilgrims. Consequently a vast pilgrim and tourist trade grew up at Medjugorje without state or religious sponsorship. In spite of primitive conditions in the area and the nearby war, pilgrims have continued to come from all over Europe in the thousands.

Ironically, the Virgin's message had been one of peace and reconciliation. The report of the bishop's commission was secret, but it was believed to have concluded that the claims of the visionaries were false. The bishop himself stated that the apparitions were collective hallucinations, exploited by the Franciscans, and strongly criticized the chaplain at Medjugorje, Father Tomislav Vlasic, as "a mystifier and charismatic wizard."

There was a theological deadlock. The visionaries were banned from seeing apparitions in the church, but continued to do so in a study bedroom in the presbytery. Meanwhile, the international fame of Medjugorje won a grudging tolerance from the government, which saw the influx of pilgrims as a vindication of Yugoslavia as an open country.

Part of the price of the spiritual revival at Medjugorje has been the inevitable commercialization of the religious tourist trade. The simple village life has been totally uprooted by thousands of tourists, ice cream and soft drink stands, stalls for the sale of religious souvenirs, and other worldly activities. But villagers still meet in small groups, sometimes at night. Two younger girls claim to have seen visions and received messages.

The original group of six young visionaries claimed that the Virgin confided ten secrets, including warnings of future world chastisements if people did not return to spiritual life. People were recommended to give up watching television, and return instead to a life of prayer, fasting, and penance. The world had advanced civilization but had lost God. It was prophesied that Russia would come to glorify the name of God. As with apparitions elsewhere, it was said that there would be a visible sign left on the hill. The visions have now ceased so far as the six children are concerned.

Ivanka received her last "secret" from the Virgin in May 1985, and in early 1987 married. Mirjana took up the study of agriculture at the University of Sarajevo. Ivan's apparitions ceased when he was enlisted for a year of military service. Vicka became ill with an inoperable brain tumor. Jakov was still at school in 1986. Marija planned to become a nun. The fascinating film records of the children in states of ecstasy, as well as the EEG tests, remain a permanent record, as do other of the numerous medical and scientific studies.

Psychiatrists, doctors, and scientists concluded that the visionaries were psychologically healthy, without neurosis or hysteria, and that their ecstasies were not a pathological phenomenon. The fasts on bread and water recommended once or twice weekly could merely counteract the excesses of normal diet without risk of starvation. The cures at Medjugorje were reported upon favorably by doctors from the University of Milan.

The apparitions at Medjugorje present many intriguing problems, both for skeptics and believers. Such apparitions now follow a regular pattern within the framework of Catholic theology, just as claims of UFO contacts are often consistent with a different pattern of belief.

It could be argued that once such conventions are established, knowledge of them influences other visionaries. In the case of Medjugorje, the parish priest had shown one of the visionaries a book about Lourdes, although it must be remembered that the apparitions had established a regular pattern before this.

The ecstatic state of the young visionaries was undoubtedly very real, and in the audio-visual records they appear to be modest, honest, and touchingly sincere, too simple to be able to fabricate intellectually advanced theological discussions. The occasional contradictory elements in the claimed communications from the Virgin (as in the instance of apparent criticism of the bishop), may be due to the intense pressures from lay and ecclesiastical authorities to which the children were subjected; they may also have been misquoted from time to time. The messages about the need for renewal of religious faith and practice are a relevant comment on the secularism of our time, although with a sophistication normally beyond the awareness of village children.

But, as with Lourdes, Fatima, Garabandal, and other apparitions, the messages are only within the framework of the Roman Catholic faith, and there is no insightful communication for Hindus, Buddhists, or people of other religions.

In the West, the apparitions have produced a wave of enthusiastic acceptance of the visions and organizations have sprung up in every significant Roman Catholic community to spread the message of the Virgin and to facilitate tours to the site. However, there has been some opposition among those elements of the Roman Catholic Church who have not only failed to accept the visions, but who feel that they are false. Among the leading critics is Yugoslavian priest Ivo Sivric. He had compiled and published a host of records, many of which he claimed were suppressed, which cast grave doubts upon the apparitions and the continued attention given to the site. He has argued that the apparitions emanated from the children who first saw them. He was joined by E. Michael Jones, who also found numerous contradictions in the events surrounding the apparitions.

Sources:

Jones, E. Michael. Medjugorje: The Untold Story. South Bend, Ind.: Fidelity Press, 1988.

Kraljevic, Svetozar. Apparitions of Our Lady of Medjugorje (1981-1983). Chicago: Franciscan Herald Press, 1984.

Laurentin, René, and Henri Joyeux. Scientific & Medical Studies on the Apparitions at Medjugorje. Dublin: Veritas, 1987.

Laurentin, René, and L. Rupcic. Is the Virgin Mary Appearing at Medjugorje? Washington, D.C.: Word Among Us Press, 1984.

Laurentin, René, L. Rupcic, and René Lejeune. Messages and Teachings of Mary at Medjugorje. Milford, Ohio: The Riehle Foundation, 1988.

O'Carroll, Michael. Medjugorje: Facts, Documents, Theology. Dublin: Veritas, 1986.

Pelletier, Joseph A. The Queen of Peace Visits Medjugorje. Wor-chester, Mass.: Assumption, 1985.

Sevric, Ivo. The Hidden Side of Medjugorje. Saint Francois du Lac, Canada: Psilog, 1989.

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