The Vatican is currently investigating 30 years of visions, writes DANIEL McLAUGHLINin Medjugorje
MORE than a million people visit Medjugorje each year, thousands of them Irish, and most come to climb the hill where six locals claim to have first seen and spoken to the Virgin Mary in June 1981.
It is hard to find a pilgrim who does not speak of the peace and tranquillity of Cross Hill, site of the supposed apparitions that turned a remote and impoverished village into one of the most famous corners of Bosnia.
Few visitors make the short trip from Medjugorje to Surmanci. It is only a few miles from Cross Hill, but far removed from the guest houses, restaurants and souvenir shops of its revered neighbour.
There is deep quiet in this place, but only those who don’t know its history could speak of peace and tranquillity.
In August 1941, local members of the fascist Croat Ustashe organisation murdered some 600 Serb men, women and children in deep natural pits on this barren plateau. Ethnic cleansing may have entered the lexicon during the 1990s Balkan wars, but it was grimly familiar to a previous generation of families from this region.
In the 1940s, the rugged hills of Herzegovina saw vicious fighting between the Ustashe – who ruled Croatia as a Nazi puppet state – Serb nationalist Chetniks and the communist Partisans led by Josip Broz Tito, who would eventually prevail and govern Yugoslavia until his death in 1980.
Each side committed gruesome atrocities, including Tito’s Partisans, who slaughtered 30 Franciscan friars at Siroki Brijeg near Medjugorje, as punishment for supporting the Ustashe.
The Croat Catholic Church backed the Ustashe and its drive for an ethnically pure greater Croatia, and several priests and Franciscan monks were accused of heinous war crimes.
After the war, Tito sought to neutralise the bitterness between parts of the Yugoslav population by suppressing religion and nationalism. He depicted the inter-ethnic fighting as a simple struggle between fascist Ustashe and Chetniks and anti-fascist Partisans; the latter had won, fascism had been routed and so the roots of conflict had been removed.
In places like Medjugorje, though, the wounds never really healed. Croats felt humiliated at being forced to build a monument to the Ustashe’s Serb victims at Surmanci, while official Yugoslav history depicted the Franciscans executed by Partisans at Siroki Brijeg as fascist villains.
The apparitions began at a tricky time for Yugoslavia: the stabilising force that was Tito had died the previous year and the Catholic Solidarity movement was roiling communist Poland, inspired by a new east European pope, John Paul II.
The Yugoslav authorities immediately denounced reports of the visions – which occurred just before the 40th anniversary of the Surmanci massacre – as a “clerical-nationalist” conspiracy cooked up by Croat extremists.
Local Franciscans quickly took control of the Medjugorje phenomenon, declaring the children’s visions to be genuine and installing themselves as intercessors between the young “seers” and a Croat public that was clamouring for religious experience after years of official state atheism.
Thousands of people were soon gathering in Medjugorje for daily “messages” from Our Lady; the authorities arrested a local friar and others whom they suspected of involvement in the alleged hoax. Over time, however, the cash- strapped Yugoslav authorities realised the commercial potential of Medjugorje.
By the mid-1980s, Belgrade had no problem with the daily visions or visitors – but the Catholic Church did.
The Bishop of Mostar, the senior church official in the region, has for decades been at loggerheads with the Franciscans over their refusal to relinquish control of certain parishes in Herzegovina, where they have been present for centuries and enjoy the deep loyalty of local people.
This dispute was already raging when the visions began; some people believe the Franciscans used them – or helped invent them – to protect and enhance their position in Medjugorje.
Unlike those at Fatima and Lourdes, the Vatican has never recognised the authenticity of the Medjugorje visions. In 2009 it defrocked a former Franciscan “spiritual director” to the visionaries amid allegations that he exaggerated the apparitions and fathered a child with a nun.
Several other “disobedient” Franciscans have been expelled from the parish.
Like his predecessor Pavao Zanic, the Bishop of Mostar Ratko Peric is extremely critical of the “visions” and the way the Franciscans and other groups have behaved in Medjugorje. Their striking comments on the phenomenon – which suggest it is merely a lucrative hoax – are posted in English on the diocese website (cbismo.com).
However, the Franciscans of Herzegovina will not give up Medjugorje without a fight. They are tough and tenacious, as everyone from the Ottomans to Bishop Peric has discovered. During the 1992-1995 Bosnian war, Peric was abducted and beaten by Croat militiamen in a local Franciscan chapel, until UN troops and the mayor of Mostar secured his release.
The war unleashed another wave of ethnic cleansing in Herzegovina, much of it by members of the region’s Croat majority, who flattened mosques and Orthodox churches as they drove Muslims and Serbs from their homes.
The memorial at Surmanci was blown up by Croats, many of whom revelled in their Ustashe heritage.
A trickle of pilgrims kept coming to Medjugorje throughout the war. Few perhaps realised that atrocities were taking place nearby, or that their Queen of Peace had been dubbed the “Ustasha Virgin” by Serbs and Muslims who saw her as a symbol of Croatian ultra-nationalism.
Medjugorje last week marked 30 years since the apparitions began and the crowds are as big than ever.
The Vatican is now investigating the apparitions and the tens of thousands of supposedly divine messages that have made Medjugorje’s name.
For the church, the Franciscans, the people of Medjugorje and the visionaries – as well as millions of believers – a great deal rests on its decision.