Papal Envoy Talks Challenge of Medjugorje, Praises Pilgrims’ Expressions of Faith

At April 5 press conference, Archbishop Henryk Hoser stressed that the final determination of the apparition’s authenticity remains to be seen.

(photo: Pixabay)

MEDJUGORJE, Bosnia — Pope Francis’ envoy to Medjugorje said Wednesday that the site seems to be bearing numerous expressions of faith and vocations. However, he added, the final determination of the apparition’s authenticity remains to be seen.

Archbishop Henryk Hoser was sent by the Pope to evaluate the pastoral situation for residents and pilgrims in Medjugorje. He clarified that he was not tasked with anything beyond this scope.

“The same as you, I expect a final decision from the commission, and, of course, the Holy Father Pope Francis,” Archbishop Hoser said at an April 5 press conference in Medjugorje. “I do not know what the Holy Father thinks — he never told me,” he said. “The Holy Father also needs to see what the conclusions are of the commission.”

The apparitions are under investigation by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is to submit its final document to the Pope for a final decision.

The apparitions allegedly started on June 24, 1981, when six children in Medjugorje, a town in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, claimed to have witnessed apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

According to the alleged visionaries, the apparitions conveyed a message of peace for the world, a call to conversion, prayer and fasting, as well as certain secrets surrounding events to be fulfilled in the future.  

These apparitions are said to have continued almost daily since their first occurrence, with three of the original six visionaries claiming to have received apparitions every afternoon because not all of the “secrets” intended for them have been revealed.

Since their beginning, the alleged apparitions have been a source of both controversy and conversion. More than 2.5 million people go on pilgrimage to Medjugorje each year. Some claim to have experienced miracles at the site, while many others claim the visions are non-credible.

Skeptics of the apparitions include Bishop Ratko Peric of Mostar-Duvno, whose diocese includes Medjugorje. In a Feb. 26 statement, he said, “These are not true apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

“The female figure who supposedly appeared in Medjugorje behaves in a manner completely different from the real Virgin Mother of God in the apparitions currently recognized as authentic by the Church: Usually, she does not speak first — she laughs in a strange way; before some questions she disappears and appears again; she obeys the ‘visionaries’ and the local pastor, who make her come down from the hill into the church even against her will. She doesn’t know with certainty how many more times she will appear; she allows some of those present to step on her veil extended on the ground and to touch her dress and her body. This is not the Virgin of the Gospels.”

Bishop Peric also pointed to a sense of nervousness rather than peace among the seers.

As for papal envoy Archbishop Hoser, he said Wednesday that he had contact with the reputed visionaries of Medjugorje. This contact was “completely normal,” but not in depth.

“Let us remember they are no longer boys and girls,” he said. “Some of them are already grandmothers.”

“We should note that they are immersed in the normal, regular, everyday life of the family. They need to work and support their families. They have a similar life to many of us,” he said.

He repeated that his role was not to speak about the apparitions and said the Church has not made the relevant statements yet. Nonetheless, questions at the press conference raised the issue.

Archbishop Hoser compared and contrasted the apparitions with the Marian apparitions at Kibeho in Rwanda, which began in October 1981. An apparition of the Virgin Mary had warned about a coming genocide years before the mass killings of 1994.

The archbishop had served on a medical commission evaluating that apparition.

“The message was similar to the message that was said here in Medjugorje,” the archbishop said. “It was a calling to conversion. ... It is a calling to peace, an invitation to peace.”

Unlike Medjugorje, the Rwanda apparitions have already received Church approval for having nothing that contradicts the faith.

“In the beginning, there were doubts whether those visionaries were authentic,” he said of the Rwanda apparitions. “That is why I ask you for your patience. The more complex a phenomenon is, it takes more time to achieve valid conclusions.”

He noted some differences between the Medjugorje apparitions and other Marian apparitions. Some have counted 47,000 claims of individual apparitions related to Medjugorje, while other Marian apparitions are much fewer in number.

In other Marian apparitions, the Virgin Mary appears only in one place. At Lourdes, she always appeared in the cave that later became the famous grotto. In Fatima, she always appeared above the oak tree.

“Here, according to what visionaries are saying, the apparitions follow the person, where the person goes,” Archbishop Hoser said. “This could be at home, when they are traveling, in the church.”

“These are all specifics that make the work of a final decision more difficult,” he explained.

Archbishop Hoser, who holds the title of archbishop as a personal recognition from Pope John Paul II, heads the Polish Diocese of Warszawa-Praga.

When the archbishop’s appointment as papal envoy was announced in February, Holy See press officer Greg Burke stressed that his mission was pastoral, not doctrinal, and would not consider the substance of the Marian apparitions there. That topic is under the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Archbishop Hoser praised various expressions of faith he found in Medjugorje: the centrality of the celebration of the holy Eucharist, devotion to the Word of God, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, devotion to the Rosary, and meditation on the mysteries of the faith and the Way of the Cross. He also praised the frequent use of the sacrament of reconciliation.

“From the religious perspective, Medjugorje is very fertile grounds for religious vocations,” he said. About 610 priests have cited Medjugorje as a motivating force in their vocation, with the greatest number of these vocations coming from Italy, the U.S. and Germany.

For the archbishop, this is a significant contribution, given the crisis of vocations in some countries.

Medjugorje is only about 36 years old, he observed, but it attracts an estimated 2.5 million pilgrims each year. By comparison, Lourdes, France attracts 6 million people per year, 150 years after the apparition.

Archbishop Hoser noted the need to consider parish life for those who live there and the effects of the many pilgrims.

The number of pilgrims poses “a huge challenge” for the priests who serve in Medjugorje, with expansions to the church infrastructure needed to accommodate them. The number of pilgrims has also caused an increase in the number of hotels, restaurants and other facilities to accommodate them.

Some people have come from elsewhere to settle in Medjugorje.

The archbishop noted the various humanitarian groups and activities in Medjugorje, some of which have roots in the town. There is the Franciscans’ Domus Maria, Mary’s House, which serves orphans, young people in difficulty, persons struggling with drug and alcohol addictions, the disabled and handicapped. The retreat house Domus Pacis provides spiritual exercises, serving more than 42,000 participants in 1,200 groups each year.

There are also various seminars dedicated to priestly formation, married couples, doctors and medical professionals, people with disabilities, and a new pro-life seminar.

All of this activity could be applied in other parts of the world, the papal envoy said.

“People perceive there things that they don’t have at home,” Archbishop Hoser said of Medjugorje. “In many old Christian countries, individual confessions do not exist anymore. In many countries, there is no adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. In many countries, there is no Way of the Cross anymore. There’s no Rosary anymore. In Britain, in France, they told me the last time they prayed the Way of the Cross was 30 years ago. And such dryness of sacred space obviously leads towards a crisis of the faith.”

He praised the emphasis in Medjugorje on the Virgin Mary’s title “Queen of Peace,” especially during the period which Pope Francis has called a “piecemeal third world war.”

He cited the Balkans’ suffering of a civil war in the 1990s, with the breakup of Yugoslavia. In addition, he cited his own experience in Rwanda and the destruction in Syria, which hosts the oldest Christian presence in the world.

“To invoke the Queen of Peace, the Mother of God: This is the specific role of Medjugorje. It is most important.”

“My friends, you should be carriers of joyful news,” he told the press conference. “And you can say to the whole world that, in Medjugorje, there is a light. ... We need these spots of light in today’s world that is going down into darkness.”