Cardinal Schönborn visited the hillside in Medjugorje where the Virgin Mary was alleged to appear (CNS photo)
Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has defended his decision to visit Medjugorje after he was criticised by the local bishop. The Archbishop of Vienna said that his visit to the Bosnian town was an attempt to "de-dramatise" the "Medjugorje phenomenon".
Cardinal Schönborn said the unusual goings-on in Medjugorje - the alleged Marian apparitions which were first reported in the 1980s - had taken a secondary place in Medjugorje, which he described as "a school of normal Christian life".
He said: "[Medjugorje] is about faith in Christ, prayer, the Eucharist, about lived love of neighbour, about the essentials of Christianity and the strengthening of Christian daily life." The cardinal, who leads the Austrian bishops' conference and is a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said he did not intend to make a decision ahead of the universal Church and make a pronouncement on the supernatural aspects of the reported Marian apparitions in Medjugorje.
He said he wanted to stick to the guidelines set up by the 1991 Zadar Declaration, the last formal statement about the apparitions, which forbids official pilgrimages to Medjugorje, and which he described as "wise and directing". He said he had come to Medjugorje to see the "tree" that had borne such fruits as Cenacolo, a community which helps to rehabilitate drug users, and Mary's Meals, which helps feed starving children around the world. He made his comments to the Austrian Church's official newswire Kathweb.com four days after he paid a private visit to Medjugorje.
He celebrated Midnight Mass in St James's Church in Medjugorje as well as meeting Franciscans and hearing confessions. He also visited the hillside where the Virgin Mary is alleged to appear, with Marija Pavlovic-Lunetti, one of the six reported visionaries. On Saturday, Bishop Ratko Peric of Mostar-Duvno issued a statement heavily criticising Cardinal Schönborn, in which he said the cardinal's visit contributed new suffering to the local Church and did not contribute to "peace and unity [that is] so necessary".
Bishop Peric said Cardinal Schönborn's public appearance at Medjugorje gave "some believers the erroneous impression that the cardinal's presence acknowledged the authenticity of the Medjugorje 'apparitions'". He said the cardinal had not notified either the diocese or the parish that he planned to make a visit to the place where six children witnessed the alleged apparitions. Bishop Peric also said he was surprised by Cardinal Schönborn's visit. The bishop said: "I understand that the cardinal of the Holy Roman Church enjoys the right to profess and preach the Gospel throughout the Catholic Church. But with regard to public appearances outside their own diocese there exists also among bishops a certain ecclesiastical code of conduct; the bishop or cardinal who intends to come to another diocese and appear publicly, announces himself in first instance to the local bishop, which is encouraged also by ecclesiastical prudence. I hold that such ecclesiastical prudence and such a rule should have been especially applied in this case."
During his homily at St James's Church, the cardinal is reported to have said: "These days, we have all come to Medjugorje to be especially close to the mother of the Lord. To be more exact, we have to say that we have come here because we know that the mother of the Lord wants to be close to us. "With her, we want to begin the New Year. And the first thing that moves me when I think about the manger and the shepherds is that there were no angels present. Although here there is an angel at the nativity set, but in the gospel there are no angels waiting there. They were on the field with the shepherds... an entire host of angels. But Mary and Joseph only heard about it. The shepherds told them. "We also didn't see the Gospa. But there are people here who told about it. And we trust that the Mother of God really is close to us. Belief comes from hearing. And it impresses me that first, in the gospel of today, there is talk about hearing. We have to listen to the good news first. We have two ears, two eyes, and only one mouth. That means we have to listen much, watch much, and then talk also. And what are we supposed to say? We are supposed to report what we have seen and heard
The world needs a new evangelisation and that is only possible through people for whom it is impossible to keep silent about what they have seen and heard," he said. In 1981 six children reported seeing the Virgin Mary on a hillside outside the town of Medjugorje. Since the first sighting, she has reportedly appeared to the seers over 40,000 times and has conveyed hundreds of messages to them. The Vatican has not ruled definitively on the apparitions. Over 30 million pilgrims have visited the site and several hundred thousand visitors come annually from the British Isles. Fr Raniero Cantalamessa, the papal preacher, cancelled a retreat he was scheduled to give in 2007 at Medjugorje after he was told he did not have the diocesan bishop's permission to appear there officially.