VATICAN CITY — Cardinal Francis Arinze has said the continued wait for a papal decision on the authenticity of the Medjugorje apparitions shows they are not so easy to verify or disprove, but the important aspect to remember is that the Blessed Virgin Mary is venerated there.
Speaking to the Register March 13, the retired Nigerian cardinal stressed he is no authority on Medjugorje, but drew attention to the lack of unanimity on the authenticity of the apparitions and the lack of a papal decision on a 2010-2014 investigation ordered by Benedict XVI to look into the matter.
“The fact that, since then, we have had nothing officially publicized shows it’s not so simple,” said Cardinal Arinze, whose new book — Marian Veneration: Firm Foundations — will be published later this month. “If it were so clear, why have we not heard anything?”
He said lightheartedly he is “tempted to ask” Cardinal Camillo Ruini, who headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) commission, what they advised the Pope to decide, but has refrained from doing so because the Italian cardinal is “bound to keep his mouth shut and let the Pope decide.”
The commission of specialists undertook a detailed study of reports of the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje, which allegedly began in 1981. These visions continue regularly to this day, according to the shrine’s six “seers,” attracting hundreds of thousands of pilgrims each year.
The Holy Father implied he was about to make a decision on the commission’s work in the summer of 2015, but the Vatican later denied any pronouncement was imminent.
Cardinal Arinze’s comments follow those of Bishop Ratko Peric of Mostar-Duvno, Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose diocese includes Medjugorje. In a Feb. 26 statement, the bishop said he and his predecessor have always been “clear and resolute” in their belief that the Blessed Virgin has never appeared at the famous pilgrimage site.
“These are not true apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary,” Bishop Peric wrote. “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.”
In his detailed statement, he also cited other examples connected to the apparitions to demonstrate “this is not the Virgin of the Gospels.”
The Medjugorje apparitions are currently not officially approved by the Church as being of supernatural origin (constat de supernaturalitate), but neither are they condemned by the Church as being false or invalid (constat de non supernaturalitate). Bishop Peric’s position as the local bishop is taken to be his “personal opinion,” according to a 1998 CDF letter.
The visions are instead considered non constat de supernaturalitate, which allows for personal belief in the authenticity of the apparitions along with personal (not diocesan sponsored) pilgrimages to the apparition site, pending the Pope’s awaited decision.
The Vatican remains cautious; and in 2013, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the CDF, asked the U.S. papal nuncio to instruct U.S. clergy and laity not to participate in any meetings, conferences or public celebrations in which the authenticity of the Medjugorje apparitions are taken for granted.
In his instruction, Cardinal Müller stressed the 1991 finding of the bishops of the former Yugoslavia, who asserted, “On the basis of the research that has been done, it is not possible to state that there were apparitions or supernatural revelations.”
Notwithstanding the contentious debate over the visions, more important for Cardinal Arinze are the positive effects Medjugorje has had on the faithful who visit.
“One point that is not doubted is that people who go there actually repent. They actually go to confession, go to Mass — that is, they become better Christians,” he said.
He also pointed out that the Blessed Virgin Mary has not appeared at every shrine dedicated to her and gave as an example the National Shrine of Our Lady of Aparecida in Brazil. The Mother of God did not appear there, he explained, but fisherman found a statue of her in the ocean and brought it there, after which people visited the shrine and received graces by doing so.
“So it is a shrine, and whether she appeared there or not is a secondary question,” he said. “She doesn’t have to appear there to give grace.”
“The most important thing is that people venerate the Blessed Virgin Mary and that they venerate her in the correct way, that it changes their lives and that they become better Christians,” said Cardinal Arinze, a former prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
Archbishop Hoser’s Appointment
For this reason, he welcomed Pope Francis’ decision last month to appoint Archbishop Henryk Hoser of Warsaw-Prague, Poland, to be the Holy See’s special envoy to Medjugorje. The Vatican said the archbishop’s task will be of an “exclusively pastoral character,” to acquire a “deeper knowledge” of the pastoral situation there, especially the needs of pilgrims, and to ascertain “possible pastoral initiatives for the future.”
Archbishop Hoser is expected to finish his assignment by the summer.
The prelate’s work also is seen as needed, because of problems that have emerged from Medjugorje in the form of disobedience to Church authority and cases of religious communities being established without diocesan approval.
The Pope’s own views on Medjugorje are unclear, although some believe he appeared to allude to the apparitions when, in a talk to 140 superiors general of male religious orders and congregations last November, he said the real Madonna is not “at the head of a post office,” every day sending “a different letter” that says: ‘My children, do this and then the next day do that.’”
“The real Madonna is the one who generates Jesus in our hearts, a mother,” he said. “The superstar Virgin Mary, who seeks the limelight, is not Catholic,” he added. Francis made similar comments, also taken to be in the context of Medjugorje, in June 2015.
Seen in the context of the Pope’s remarks and Archbishop Hoser’s appointment, Bishop Peric’s statement was to be expected, according to Donal Anthony Foley, author of Medjugorje Revisited: 30 Years of Visions or Religious Fraud? More significant for him is that, in his statement, Bishop Peric focused on the first seven days of the alleged visions, and in particular transcripts of the taped conversations with the visionaries during that first week in June 1981.
These transcripts are “the key to understanding Medjugorje,” Foley believes, as they “reveal the serious problems with accepting the visions as genuinely supernatural,” an aspect he highlighted in his book.
Foley hopes that more people will pay attention to them, and he would like the Vatican to publish “an agreed and authentic” multilingual version of the transcripts to help the ordinary faithful “better understand the phenomena of Medjugorje.”
Echoes of Marpingen?
Given these ongoing questions, Foley believes Medjugorje will continue to be popular, but probably not as much as before. He noted the numbers of pilgrims to the shrine, which is particularly loved by Italians, have “dropped since the repeated remarks of Pope Francis on the subject have become better known.”
But like Cardinal Arinze, he values how some pilgrims have experienced “a change of heart, a conversion” there. He believes this is “more due to their use of the sacrament of confession than to the alleged visions,” which he believes are “highly suspect.”
Although he said it was on a smaller scale, he compared Medjugorje to the alleged Marian visions at Marpingen, Germany, which dated from the 1870s and led the area to be once labeled the “German Lourdes.” The place drew large crowds, especially in the 1930s and 1950s, before interest gradually waned. Then-Bishop Reinhard Marx of Trier issued a statement in 2005 denying the events there were of supernatural character.
“The fact that it took nearly a century for interest in Marpingen to finally die down probably indicates that we will have Medjugorje devotees with us for some time to come,” Foley said.
Whatever the truth behind the apparitions, for Cardinal Arinze, the pastoral effects of Medjugorje are “the most important thing.”
“If the effects are good,” he said, “we rejoice.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.