The Marian Apparitions: Phenomena of Mind, Mendacity, Miracle, or Mystery
What happens when a Rolling Stone writer goes on a fact-finding mission involving Marian apparitions in a small town on the outer fringe of Bosnia-Herzegovina during the height of the Bosnian War? He finds that separating fact from fiction, fabrication, and fantasy can be a bedeviling exercise that brings to light as much about the investigator as the thing investigated.
A chance encounter
In 1994, while rummaging for travel information in a local bookstore, Rolling Stone Contributing Editor Randall Sullivan found himself unexpectedly in the “Religion and Metaphysics” section. There, on a musty shelf marked, “Virgin Mary,” rested a weighty, academically-styled book that caught his eye. Without knowing why, Sullivan retrieved the volume and began thumbing through its pages until he landed on the story of six children in Medjugorje, Bosnia.
According to the reports, the children began having encounters with Mary, the mother of Jesus, in 1981 -- encounters, in which Mary not only visibly appeared to the children, but imparted private and public messages to them, including “secrets” they were entrusted to keep until an undisclosed future time.
“Strange spooky s---,” muttered Sullivan, slamming the book shut. With a jaw-chattering chill coursing through his body, the unnerved investigator made a quick exit for a coffee shop to settle himself with the silky notes of a latte.
Stories of personal encounters with Mary go as far back as the middle of the first century. In 40 AD, James the Greater, an apostle of the early Christian church, claimed that the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared to him with an instruction to build her a church. In 231 AD, Gregory the Wonderworker was said to have been visited Mary who offered clarification to some doctrinal issues of the day. Thirteen hundred years later, an Aztec Indian peasant reported a Marian apparition that has been, arguably, the most influential in history.
In 1531, Juan Diego said that the “eternal Virgin, holy Mother of the true God” came to him on the border of what is now Mexico City. In the visitation, Diego claimed that Mary instructed him -- like James the Greater 1500 years earlier -- to build her a church. To authenticate her message, it is said that Mary infused an image of herself on the inside of Diego’s cloak, a relic that adorns the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe to this day.” Generating a brisk tourist economy for the Basilica (at several million visitors a year) and the surrounding region, the “miracle of Guadalupe” is largely credited with establishing the foothold of the Catholic Church in Latin America.
In the modern era, the visions of Bernadette at Lourdes, France in 1858 and of Lucia dos Santos at Fatima, Portugal in 1917, are the most famous: the former, due to four healings that defied medical explanations of the day and eventually led to Bernadette’s canonization by the Catholic church; the latter, owing to three “secrets” the Virgin reportedly gave young Lucia, and to unusual phenomena exhibited by the sun (variously described as “trembling”, “dancing”, “whirling”, and “plunging”) witnessed by as many as seventy thousand people.
However, the most unique and controversial Marian apparitions, because of their duration (continually since 1981), number (several thousand to date), secrets about the future, and trips to the netherworld, are those associated with the six young visionaries in Medjugorje.
On June 24, 1981, Mirjana Dragicevic, Vicka Ivankovic, Ivanka Ivankovic, Marija Pavlovic, and Ivan Dragicevic, all teenagers at the time, and ten-year-old Jakov Colo reported a vision they had on a hillside in Medjugorje, Bosnia. What they saw, as Sullivan tells it, was “a shining woman who seemed more to hover than to stand… a luminous silhouette that gradually resolved into a beautiful woman wearing a silver-gray dress and a white veil, holding a baby wrapped in a blanket.”
For nearly two months thereafter, their visions continued on a daily basis with communications in their native Croatian tongue from the woman they accepted as the Blessed Mother. (Today, Vicka, Marija, and Ivan are still having daily visions, with Jakov, Ivanka, and Mirjana, having annual ones.)
The communications fall into three general categories: personal messages, admonitions for the world, and secrets – ten, in number -- about the future.
Personal messages include: life instructions (“Obey your grandmother and help her, because she is old”); commendations to the spiritual disciplines of praying (especially, the rosary) and fasting; theological insights (“It is false to teach people that we are reborn many times.”); and words of encouragement (“Don’t be fearful, for I will guide and protect you.”). On one occasion, Vicka asked, and was told, about the disposition of her deceased mother (“She is with me.”).
Universal admonitions include warnings about the influence of the Devil, urgings to conversion and penance, and callings to peace.
The most controversial communications, the “Ten Secrets,” pertain to future events, apocalyptic in nature, that will bring about judgment on the wicked and blessings for the faithful. According to the visionaries, they are not to disclose the secrets until the appointed time. Once they receive all ten secrets, the apparitions will cease and the fulfillment of the secrets will commence, beginning with a phenomenon of sufficient quality to convince the world of divine agency.
Mirjana, considered the most intelligent and educated of the visionaries, has said that all this would occur in her lifetime. She is now 51 years old. At present, she, Jakov, and Ivanka have received ten secrets; the others have been given nine.
Then there’s the matter of the “parchment.”
Mirjana maintains that the Virgin handed her a parchment-like “material unlike anything else on earth,” giving the dates and details of the events contained in the secrets. She has said that ten days prior to the first secret, she will entrust the parchment to a priest of her choice, who, “on the third day before the secret is divulged,” will make public “that this and that will happen at this and this place.”
The priest, Fr. Petar Ljubicic, who once served in Medjugorje, confided in a September 1985 public statement, “Mirjana emphasizes that the time is at hand when the first Secret will be revealed.” To date, Fr. Ljubicic has neither claimed to see the parchment nor made any disclosures about the secrets it putatively contains.
But, far and away, the most bizarre claims of the seers are the reports of physical, physical, visits to heaven, purgatory, and hell with descriptions aligning closely with Roman Catholic teachings on the afterlife.
For example: heaven was “so far beyond description… as if filled with some indescribable joy”; purgatory was a place of suffering where souls “are completely dependent of the prayers of those still living” for cleansing; and the epicenter of Hell was an “ocean of raging flames” that damned souls, naked and raging, willingly plunged into.
Lastly, there are the reports of hundreds of miraculous healings and dramatic religious conversions of people visiting Medjugorje and “Apparition Hill.”
Strange stuff, indeed.
So, how does one go about investigating such passingly weird phenomena? That was the question pressing on Randall Sullivan on his way out of the bookstore.
In his agnostic reasoning, an open-minded perspective required the consideration of four possible explanations: the visions were the products of fraud, religious fanaticism, some type of Jungian psychological projection, or they were true. The notion that demonic forces might be in play, as argued by some Christian critics, was too great a stretch – greater than for the phenomena themselves for his objective imagination.
Thus began a near decade-long process that took “The Miracle Detective” -- the title of Randall Sullivan’s investigative book on “holy visions” – from the outskirts of Oregon to the war-torn country of Bosnia.
When I was a young boy, five or six years of age, I had a “vision.” At the time, my mother and I were living alone in a trailer, as my father was on TDY (military jargon for, “temporary duty”).
One night, late, awakened by a troubling dream, I bolted, heart racing, from my bed into mom’s, yanking the covers over my head. It was several minutes – seemed like a half hour – before I could screw up enough courage to brave a peek from under my dark cocoon. Peeling back the thin layers of my sanctuary just enough to expose one eye, I was gripped in fear.
At the foot of the bed, straight from the cast of Treasure Island (1950), hovered three menacing pirates. I jerked the sheets back over my head, remaining dead still, believing that if I didn’t move or make a sound, the brigands would leave us alone. They did.
By morning, the only trace of our baleful visitors was in my hippocampus. Yet, for years afterward, I was convinced that my corpse-like stillness kept us both from being killed, or worse.
Robert F. Kennedy once said, borrowing a line from a George Bernard Shaw play, “You see things; you say, 'Why?' But I dream things that never were; and I say 'Why not?”
To “dream of things that never were” is an exclusive faculty of the human imagination. Every social and technological advance from the Stone Age to Space Age originated in a mind that could dream of “things that could be.” Similarly, the ability to see “things that are” in new and unexpected ways has led to the distinctly human creations of art, poetry, and story.
The imagination of “things unseen,” whether real or unreal, is what is known as imaginative vision -- the mental grasp of something abstracted from all physically visible forms (think: the quantum vacuum, Higgs boson, the soul, heavenly beings, gremlins). Stirred by natural causes (human will/desires/fears, personal experience, or scientific experiment) or ultranatural ones (divine, demonic, or extraterrestrial forces), imaginative vision has led to discoveries about the universe and ourselves, harmony between our existential condition and yearnings, and certain pathologies.
While the miscreants in my early childhood vision were clearly the products of my Disney-saturated mind, those of the Medjugoran seers are not so easy to categorize, as Randall Sullivan would discover.
First stop, Vatican City
Sullivan began his investigation with passport and Rolling Stone credentials in hand, making for Vatican City to learn how the Catholic Church, in its ongoing investigation of Medjugorje, evaluated the authenticity of such occurrences.
In the offices of the Roman curia, he came upon two chief functionaries of the Sacred Congregation of the Causes for the Saints who informed him that claims of divine intervention are subjected to rigorous scientific tests that screen out nearly everything other than miracles of a medical nature – of which, less than one percent are deemed worthy to be passed up the hierarchal gauntlet of three successive theological tribunals for official Church recognition.
As a result, reports of apparitions, whether in Medjugorje or anywhere else, including Lourdes and Fatima, have never been officially recognized by the Church. Nevertheless, opinions about Medjugorje are sharply divided between church officials who are, at least, tacitly supportive and those who are not. Of the former were the late Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who later would become Pope Benedict XVI.
Sullivan found it curious that those in the first group “all had made pilgrimages across the Adriatic to experience the village firsthand, while those who scoffed knew only what they had read or heard.”
In his research, Sullivan learned that the young visionaries and their visionary experiences had been subjected to more medical, psychological, and scientific scrutiny by the church and government than for any other alleged supernatural phenomena in church history.
As children, the seers had undergone numerous physical and mental examinations, inquisitions by the local police of a communist government anxious over a religiously fueled awakening of nationalistic fervor (Mirjana, for example, endured fifteen months of government interrogation in Sarajevo), and even spiritual threats by their parish priest who warned of God’s judgment if they persisted in their deception.
Yet, no team of specialists uncovered any evidence of pathology or deceit; and no strong-arm tactic by the state or the church was able to break the children and make them recant the stories about what they had seen and heard. To date, all six have held firm on their testimony.
Next stop, Medjugorje
Meeting Mirjana in 1995, Sullivan judged her to be neither a lunatic nor liar, but a person “quite sure of herself yet entirely unassuming.” When he pressed her for details about the visions, Mirjana, perceptive of his skepticism, directed him to Apparition Mountain. “Go to the cross, to find out what you believe.” The challenge occasioned what Sullivan considered, his “first real religious experience.”
His mountain-top experience, triggered by a freak thunderstorm and the kindness of a young, dark-haired woman in a long grey skirt* traveling with a group of nuns, brought the agnostic an incipient clarity about himself and his convictions.
“In that place, at that time, I had discovered myself as a person I could not recognize, one who did not need to know the words to understand what was being said, who chose to forgive rather than to forget, who was more moved by the old ladies kneeling on the gravel than by the long-legged girls tottering past on their platform heels.”
In the weeks, months, and years that followed, Sullivan found faith (going to confession and vowing to become a Catholic), lost faith (doubting what he imagined he found on the mountain that day), and rediscovered faith, making good on his vow, concluding that “faith is no more the elimination of doubt than courage is the elimination of fear.”
But on the day immediately following, he was on the verge of panic.
Aware of a change within that could cost him everything, the Rolling Stone writer decided to leave Medjugorje straight away. It was a decision that would take two days for his curiosity and professionalism to win out over his fear.
When he resumed his inquiry, Sullivan learned that in the mid-80’s the regional bishop Pavao Zanic, convinced the visionaries were frauds or fanatics, had handpicked a team of skeptical experts to refute their stories. But instead of confirming the bishop’s convictions, the experts concluded that the children exhibited no evidence of psycho-pathological influences. In fact, one member of the select team became an ardent supporter of the seers.
Over against Bishop Zanic’s conviction was that of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, considered one of Catholicism’s most influential theologians of the last century: “Medjugorje’s theology rings true. I am convinced of its truth. And everything about Medjugorje is authentic in a Catholic sense. What is happening is so evident, so convincing.”
For other church officials, Medjugorje is theologically problematic – for example, the Madonna’s statement that all religions are equal before God and questionable details about (not to mention, guided tours to) heaven, hell, and purgatory, and the end time apocalypse.
To many Christians, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, the “truth” of Medjugorje is authenticated by its “fruits” – medical cures and spiritual conversions. Of the first, Sullivan found that the local parish maintains a list of over 500 alleged miraculous healings -- none of which, he noted, had satisfied the scientific benchmarks of the Catholic Church. Of the second, Sullivan was profoundly moved by numerous stories of people whose “lives had been fundamentally altered” by what they experienced in Medjugorje.
Others, like Croatian priest Father Philip Pavich, discount the influences of mendacity and mental illness and believe that the seers are having genuine encounters with an otherworldly entity – not the Mother of God, mind you, but a “dark spirit disguising itself” as such.
Then there are those who believe that Medjugorje is a mixed bag – something that could have been originally real and true, but was distorted over time either because the visionaries became confused about their experiences or added their own interpretations of them.
The late Benedict Groeschel, a Franciscan monk whom many in the Vatican considered a foremost authority on mystical theology, would largely agree. Satisfied that the seers were neither mentally unstable nor pathological liars, Groeschel allowed that religious visionaries in general “can be a little dishonest or a little crazy, or both” and yet report genuine visionary experiences. (Emphasis added.)
As a result, Marian apparitions can be a mixture of the real and imagined, supernatural and paranormal (natural phenomena beyond current explanations), and divine and diabolical which, in the end, makes the occurrences inscrutable mysteries.
In June 2015, the Holy See’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) submitted the results of its three-year investigation of Medjugorje to Pope Francis. As of this writing, the CDF’s findings have not been made public. But it is the considered opinions of insiders that the report will be largely negative – that is, a conclusion of no evidence of the supernatural.
In the interim, the Vatican has instructed clergy and laypeople to refrain from participation in “meetings, conferences, or public celebrations during which the credibility of such apparitions would be taken for granted.”
* Years later, Sullivan came across of photograph of Bernadette Soubirous that triggered an hour-long episode of hyperventilation as he tried to rid himself of the impression it was the girl he met that day.