Today is the Feast of Our Lady of Lourdes. I have been to Lourdes on several occasions, largely drawn by the personality of St Bernadette herself. Being chosen by Our Lady as her messenger did not make Bernadette holy; it was how she lived her life afterwards, especially during the 13 years she spent at the convent in Nevers: often in pain, unable to take part in the regular life of the community because of her ill-health, lonely, isolated and constantly belittled by the mistress of novices, she nevertheless bore her crosses with exemplary patience.
St Bernadette has been on my mind ever since I got sent a YouTube film recently, advertising Medjugorje. J Edgar Hoover once said that the only certainties in life were death and taxes. I would add a third: controversy over Medjugorje. It seems that Catholics today are divided into two camps: you are either “for” Medjugorje or “against”. This, needless to say, has led to much unseemly in-fighting within the Church.
What annoyed me about the YouTube presentation (apart from the muzak and the hushed and reverential voice of the narrator) was its blatant way of referring to the alleged apparition as “Our Lady”, as if this were a foregone conclusion. It isn’t. I was further nettled by statements seeming to show that the late pope, John Paul II, as well as Mother Teresa, both “believed” in it, as if to demonstrate that the apparitions must be true, simply because of the witness of these two holy heavyweights.
I am not an expert on the subject of these alleged apparitions. But I have read enough of St John of the Cross to know what he means by “spiritual gluttony” in my encounters over the years with adherents of the place. One lady told me excitedly of her rosary turning to gold; another had been overwhelmed by watching the sun dance; a third became very angry very quickly when I expressed a little caution in my response to her assertion that Medjugorje only brought forth good fruits.
My own instinct is to think that Our Lady has not appeared thousands of times to the supposed seers, or given them dozens of different “secrets”. Nor do the seers themselves live lives like St Bernadette. Of course, you don’t have to be a saint to see Our Lady, as I said above; but there seems to be nothing humble, holy or hidden about the later lives of the Medjugorje “seers”.
Actually, what I think as a private person, or what the late pope wrote in a private letter to two friends who had sent him literature about Medjugorje, or indeed what the saintly Mother Teresa is said to have said, is neither here nor there; it is what the Church thinks that matters. What the Church thinks about alleged apparitions is left to the local Ordinary to investigate and pronounce.
Four years after the Lourdes apparitions of 1858, and after a lengthy investigation, the local bishop pronounced them authentic. In the case of Medjugorje, both Bishop Zanic of Mostar and his successor, Bishop Peric, fully investigated the phenomenon and decided that nothing supernatural was taking place. So why are bandwagons of pilgrims still going there? The answer probably lies in Understanding Medjugorje: Heavenly Visions or Religious Illusion by Donal Foley, available from Theotokos Books. Foley has his vociferous detractors, naturally enough, but he has done his homework and reading his book reinforced my own sceptical instincts. In particular, the scandalous behaviour he describes of some of the Franciscans closely associated with the place, seems shocking: Fr Slavko Barbaric, who died in 2000 and who I was told by one of the faithful at the time “has been taken by Our Lady straight to heaven”, had actually had his faculties for hearing confession withdrawn by Bishop Peric several months before his death; Fr Zovko, who was refused permission to celebrate Mass in Washington in 2002, had had his faculties also revoked; worst of all, Fr Tomislav Vlasic, deeply involved in the early years of Medjugorje, was laicised and dismissed from the Franciscan order very recently, in July 2009, for various misdemeanours including some against the Sixth Commandment.
Bishop Peric has spoken of other problems, apart from disobedient Franciscans: religious communities established without diocesan permission and ecclesiastical buildings erected without approval. What is going on? A sound Canadian priest once said to me, when I asked him about the “good fruits” of Medjugorje: “The Devil doesn’t mind a few thousand people becoming better Catholics after going there if, as a result, he’s got millions of Catholics being disobedient to the authority of the Church.”
Obedience is the issue. It’s what the Devil (you can’t get away from him – and my thanks to “paulpriest”, who pointed out at length to me after my last blog how very busy Old Nick is behind the scenes today) hates like poison. You can imagine Screwtape rubbing his hands with glee. St Bernadette was once asked what she feared most; her reply was: “Bad Catholics”.