Life and Soul

Pastor Iuventus

Fear and discomfort in Medjugorje

I want to share my experience of my first visit to Medjugorje. As the Holy See hasn’t yet pronounced on the authenticity of the apparitions, I certainly can’t, but I went with an open mind, happy to pray and celebrate the sacraments there, open to whatever graces these would bestow in that place.

I am sorry if what I write offends anyone, for I know and respect many good people who speak highly of their experience of the place and say that they owe their faith practice to it. But what follows is my experience and it is only by appeal to experience that Medjugorje has acquired a reputation as a place where extraordinary things are happening.

Official ecclesiastical judgment has never credited the apparitions there with supernatural quality. Neither the visionaries’ state during the apparitions nor the thousands of miracles claimed have been subjected to rigorous, objective or conclusive scientific testing. What I found in Medjugorje was a cult of the alleged visionaries which left me feeling more uncomfortable and fearful than I have ever felt in any place of pilgrimage.

Imagine, if you can, the following hypothetical scenario. Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes experiences her apparitions. She builds not a chapel, but a large hotel, complete with a gift shop selling religious souvenirs. On the walls are photographs of herself having apparitions, or paintings of her in ecstasy. Here she gives a detailed presentation of her apparitions to the guests. The homely talk is word for word the same one she gave three years ago and posted on YouTube, and though apparently Our Lady has appeared to her more than 40 times since then, the script does not change.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 7am, her team of minders and security men arrange for groups of pilgrims to assemble outside a local orphanage. There they are made to gather in the open air, facing a veranda on which video cameras are set up. Burly men in high-vis jackets marked “Security” police the crowds, communicating on mobile phones. Without being told why, priests are collected by the minders and taken to a kind of anteroom inside the building. Over the next hour they are invited to appear on the veranda to recite the rosary. They are thereby subtly but publicly harnessed to the cult of Bernadette as a visionary, though ecclesiastical authority has not condoned this.

The crowds wait expectantly. With no warning and no explanation as to what is happening, the priests in the anteroom are ushered into Bernadette’s presence and she starts laying hands on their heads. Well, not laying hands exactly – something less gentle. She digs her fingers firmly into pressure points on the skull and applies a downward pressure, forcing the neck to bend. As she does so, official photographers are in place to capture the heads bending under the visionary’s touch; more evidence perhaps of her special status, despite the lack of any official engagement crediting the visionary with supernatural gifts.

Bernadette then goes out onto the veranda where the crowd has been waiting at least an hour. Despite repeated assertions that one message of her apparitions is that we are to pray the rosary, as Bernadette steps outside to the crowd the rosary ceases and she blows kisses and waves excitedly to everyone. She addresses them in Italian, and tells them what the Madonna has been saying to her. It is unremarkable stuff about praying for peace, for priests and doing penance.

Bernadette then announces that she will pray silently. This she does in full view of the crowd and facing them, though the Blessed Sacrament is reserved in a chapel 15 feet away. Her lips and her hands move. The crowd for the most part watch her or photograph her. The official cameras roll.

Can you imagine St Bernadette or Sister Lucia of Fatima behaving thus? But to the last detail, this is exactly what the alleged visionaries of Medjugorje are doing or are party to.

Pastor Iuventus is a Catholic priest in London