The Vatican appears to be heading for an unprecedented mixed verdict

The Medjugorje movement is very much in tune with the Second Vatican Council. Devotees are prone to uplifting guitar music borrowed from charismatic Protestant revivals. They go in for those warped, El Greco-style crucifixes. They photoshop images of the Virgin Mary over the small Herzegovinian town where she has allegedly been appearing for four decades. The visionaries who claim to consort daily with Our Lady return with messages of peace, tolerance and equality. Is Medjugorje an apparition for our time?

The Vatican seems to be leaning in that direction. In May, a commission established by Benedict XVI in 2010 to study the apparitions handed in its findings. The document, known as the Ruini report and as yet unpublished, reportedly recognised the validity of the first six apparitions. Then, in August, Archbishop Henryk Hoser said that “all indications are that the revelations will be recognised, perhaps even this year”. Hoser was appointed by the Holy See to assess whether the pastoral practices in Medjugorje were in keeping with Church teaching.

Of course, the Ruini and Hoser reports are by no means conclusive. Just this May, the Holy Father appeared to dismiss the apparitions out of hand. Asked by reporters if he believed they were authentic, he said: “I prefer Our Lady as Mother, our Mother, and not Our Lady as head of the post office who sends a message at a stated time. This isn’t Jesus’s Mother. And these alleged apparitions don’t have much value … Who thinks that Our Lady says, ‘Come, because tomorrow at this time I will give a message to that seer?’ No!”

Yet for Church authorities – both supporters and critics – the emphasis tends to fall less on the visions themselves and more on the remarkable ministry that’s emerged around Medjugorje. “This movement will not stop and should not be stopped, because of the good fruit that grows out of it,” said Hoser. “It is one of the liveliest places of prayer and conversion in Europe – and has a healthy spirituality.”

Two pavilions in the village square at Medjugorje house 50 confessionals, which are constantly inundated by pilgrims. Hoser spoke to one local priest who said that “it was enough to listen to Confessions for an hour to witness real conversions”.

Pope Francis agrees, saying that the “real core” of the Ruini report is “the spiritual fact, the pastoral fact” that thousands of pilgrims have been converted in the town. “For this there is no magic wand,” he said, “this spiritual-pastoral fact cannot be denied.” The tension between the dubious nature of the apparitions and the astounding efficacy of the site is driving Medjugorje’s halting progress towards recognition.

To complicate matters further, 13 of the Ruini commission’s 15 members accepted the legitimacy of the first six visions, which occurred over a period of 10 days in 1981. However, only three vouched for the subsequent (and ongoing) revelations. This splitting of the Medjugorje phenomenon into two distinct phases is unprecedented, and it’s raising eyebrows across the Church.

There is definitely a striking difference between the visions in 1981 and those that followed. The early messages are very much like those at Fatima, with their emphasis on the singular importance of the Catholic faith. During the third Medjugorje apparition on June 26, Mary told the children: “I have come because there are many true believers here. I wish to be with you to convert and to reconcile the whole world.”

All of that quickly changed, however. In a 1992 interview, the seer Vicka was asked if Mary still desired all people to become Catholic. She is said to have replied emphatically: “No! The Blessed Mother says all religions are dear to her and her Son. She says it is we on earth who have made division.”

The latter apparitions contain other major deviations from those at Fatima. For instance, the Medjugorje children eventually began to pray the Our Father with Mary, which she refused to do with the Fatima seers Lucia, Jacinta and Francisco. That makes sense: the Church teaches that Mary was conceived without sin and “remained free of every personal sin her whole life long”. She has no need to pray “forgive us our trespasses”; she’s never trespassed.

What’s more, expert investigators have repeatedly proven that the visionaries react to external stimuli during their “ecstasies”. In October 1984, ophthalmologist Dr Jacques Philippot found that their pupils dilated when exposed to light. In January 1985, a man named Jean-Louis Martin swatted at Vicka during a vision, which caused her to blink and recoil. (Vicka sought out Martin afterwards to explain that she had been trying to stop Mary from dropping the Christ Child.)

So why not dismiss the Medjugorje phenomenon altogether? Critics claim that, after the 10 days of valid apparitions, the visionaries were caught up in a local power struggle and were manipulated into feigning more visions. And here we stumble down the rabbit hole of factionalism in the Bosnian-Herzegovinian Church.

Catholicism arrived in the country by way of the Franciscans, who remained dominant until diocesan clergy were given jurisdiction in the 19th century. Medjugorje is in the Diocese of Mostar-Duvno, but is still controlled by the Franciscans. Several dubious “messages” from the Virgin suggest that the Franciscans manipulated the Medjugorje children as part of their war with the diocese. Vicka, for example, claimed in 1981 that Our Lady condemned the Bishop of Mostar as “the more guilty party” in the dispute, and that Mary defended the Franciscans’ disobedience towards the bishop. In 1983, Vicka said that Mary called for the bishop’s “immediate conversion”. Otherwise, she and Jesus would “strike him”.

The Franciscans suffered a major setback in 2008, when the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith began investigating the children’s spiritual director, the Franciscan Fr Tomislav Vlašić. They Vatican accused him, among other things, of “dubious doctrine, the manipulation of consciences, suspect mysticism, disobedience towards legitimately issued orders”… and impregnating a nun. Vlašić didn’t defend himself, instead choosing to be laicised.

If Hoser is correct about Medjugorje being approved within the year, the Vatican will almost certainly follow the Ruini report’s advice and only authenticate the first 10 apparitions. Such a result would be guaranteed to irritate everyone: both zealous supporters, who believe the visions are ongoing, and critics – like the Diocese of Mostar – who believe the whole thing’s a con.

However the Vatican wants to spin it, the “real core” of a Marian apparition is Mary, not the quality of pastoral care being offered four decades later. If we’re being deceived – by the visionaries, the Franciscans, or whomever – Holy Mother Church has a duty to the faithful, and to Mary, to expose the farce. The volume of conversions is wonderful, but it’s not a clinching argument.

And what are the implications for future Marian apparitions? Let’s be clear: the “valid phase” is 10 days out of 36 years. In other words, if Rome publicly backs the first visions but not the later ones it is implicitly suggesting that Medjugorje is 99.9 per cent a hoax. If Pope Francis accepts the Ruini report and closes the investigation, there will be a serious debate about what to do with the visionaries. Are they messengers of Christ’s Virgin Mother, and therefore possibly future saints? Or are they flaky pseudo-mystics of the sort who bedevilled the medieval Church?

The Vatican investigation into Medjugorje will settle nothing. That much is already clear. Unfortunately, nothing else is.

Michael Davis is the Catholic Herald’s US editor

This article first appeared in the September 29 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here