Pilgrims flock to Medjugorje while Vatican studies alleged apparitions

A statue of Mary is seen outside St. James Church in Medjugorje. A Vatican-appointed commission is studying the alleged Marian apparitions at Medjugorje, which began nearly 30 years ago. (CNS/Paul Haring)

By Cindy Wooden

Catholic News Service
MEDJUGORJE, Bosnia-Herzegovina (CNS) -- A Vatican-appointed commission is studying the alleged Marian apparitions at Medjugorje, but pilgrims keep arriving in the small town.

As the 30th anniversary of the alleged apparitions approaches, the town is experiencing a building boom with new hostels, restaurants and shops that cater to pilgrims.

The 11 Franciscan friars assigned to the town's convent and its sole parish -- St. James -- are assisted by visiting priests in ministering to the pilgrims and the town's 3,500 residents, who pack the church even in the winter when pilgrim buses are few and far between. A few hotels and dozens and dozens of family-run hostels offer more than 10,000 beds for pilgrims.

Individuals and members of organized groups climb the craggy Apparition Hill where six village children said they first saw Mary in June 1981. The pilgrims pray the rosary as they trudge up the hill, careful not to twist their ankles on the slices of rock jutting out of the hillside.

Most of the Medjugorje "seers" have said the apparitions have continued every day for years. Three say they still have visions each day, while the other three see Mary only once a year now. All six are now married and have children.

Ivanka Ivankovic-Elez, Mirjana Dragicevic-Soldo and Jakov Colo still live year round in Medjugorje or a nearby village; each of them was contacted in late February but declined to be interviewed.

On the second of each month, Dragicevic-Soldo says Mary shares with her a prayer for unbelievers and on the 25th of each month, Marija Pavlovic-Lunetti, who now lives with her husband and children in northern Italy, says she receives a public message from Mary.

For years the local bishop, Bishop Ratko Peric of Mostar-Duvno, has said he believes nothing supernatural is happening in Medjugorje. In an e-mail to Catholic News Service in late February, he said he would no longer comment about what is happening in Medjugorje out of respect for the Vatican commission.

While the Vatican has said dioceses should not organize official pilgrimages to Medjugorje, it has said Catholics are free to visit the town and pray there, and that the Diocese of Mostar-Duvno and the Franciscans should organize pastoral care for them.

Franciscan Father Svetozar Kraljevic, who runs pilgrim-funded social projects on the edge of town, said, "We are all a commission" -- the local Franciscans, the townspeople and the pilgrims, who by their presence continue to study the claims about Mary's appearance in Medjugorje and to judge the authenticity of the messages the young people say she gives them.

At least 1.5 million pilgrims came in the past year and their judgment is clear, he said, although the formal commission members "have been given a special responsibility" for discernment.

Offering an introductory session Feb. 25 for a pilgrim group from St. Louis, Franciscan Father Danko Perutina told them, "Everything Our Lady has been talking about here is already in our tradition -- it's nothing new -- pray, read the Bible, recite the rosary, go to Holy Mass, go to confession."

Father Perutina told the St. Louis group that official church bodies, particularly bishops' conferences, have been investigating the Medjugorje visionaries' claims for years and whatever the Vatican commission decides, "we must accept."

"There weren't as many investigations of Lourdes and Fatima," the Marian apparitions in France and Portugal respectively, "but everything must be tried by fire. Only the good things will remain," he said.

Father Perutina told the pilgrims, "Apparitions are one expression of God's acting in the world and they are helping people."

The Franciscan friar is collecting stories of priests and nuns from around the world who say their vocations are connected to Medjugorje and he said he already has more than 500 such testimonies; Father Rodger Fleming, one of the priests leading the St. Louis group, said his is one of them.

The associate pastor of St. Clement of Rome parish in St. Louis said he was making his 20th visit to Medjugorje, which he first visited with his parents and siblings.

In late February, his group was the only organized English-speaking pilgrimage in Medjugorje; there were several Italian groups, but things were pretty quiet in the little town.

Wandering around the church grounds Feb. 26 were four men in their 30s carrying plastic souvenir bags. The four friends work in Switzerland, but two are Armenian Orthodox from Turkey, one is Italian and one is Croatian.
Jakob, a 37-year-old Armenian, said, "Whether the Vatican says it's true or not really doesn't matter. What counts is what you believe inside, and I believe people need this."

The Italian, who said he has changed his name to Omar, said he agreed to join his friends on the roadtrip to Medjugorje "because I believe. It attracts me. You don't have to have more of a reason than that."

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