Editor's note: On 24 June 1981 six children from Bijakovici, Bosnia, Yugoslavia, reported seeing a vision of the Virgin Mary in nearby Medugorje. They testified to the same spiritual encounter on 25 June, and on 26 June one thousand villagers joined the children. On 28 June some 15,000 people congregated in Medugorje for what, from the start, has been described as a daily appearance of the Virgin Mary to the children. To the present day, four of the original children, now grown, give reports of their daily visions of the Virgin Mary.
Medugorje is a small village, once unknown even in its own country, set in harsh landscape in the far south of Bosnia and Hercegovina, 30 kilometers southeast of Mostar. The [Catholic] parish of Medugorje dates back to 1599. Today, Medugorje is visited, like similar shrines all over Europe, by the sick who are seeking consolation and healing. However, healing is not the primary reason why believers make the trip. [It is, rather,] the Virgin Mary's visitations, translated daily into many languages. Witnesses say that the Virgin Mary has spoken on several occasions about great tensions in the world and that mankind is on the verge of catastrophe, but that faith will restore self-confidence, which is why the Virgin pleads for conversion. Masses celebrating the anniversary of the Virgin's first visitation are held in 13 languages. Through the history of the Roman Catholic Church, theologians have recorded all witnessings of visitations of the Virgin Mary, but it has never been recorded that the Virgin has appeared every day for years, and to the same group of children, as has been the case in Medugorje since 1981.
The Franciscans and the Catholic Hierarchy at Odds
In 1463 Bosnia fell to the Ottoman Empire, a date that marks the beginning of a long period of Turkish dominance in Bosnia and the spread of Islam, which was to dominate Bosnia for centuries. However, despite this new political and religious pressure, the Franciscans remained in Bosnia, managing to obtain a charter in 1463 from Mohammed II that guaranteed their freedom to carry out religious services. The Franciscans retained the role of being the only Catholic force in Bosnia until the Austro-Hungarian occupation in 1878. In 1891 a Catholic church hierarchy was established in Bosnia and Hercegovina, with one archbishopric in Sarajevo and two bishoprics in Mostar and Baja Luka, thereby creating two competing Catholic movements in Bosnia and Hercegovina. The Franciscans insisted on the rights they felt they had achieved through their presence in the region over the centuries. In 1967 the Vatican ordered the Franciscans to give up some parishes to the diocesan clergy. One of the disputed parishes, which the Franciscans still maintain to date, is the parish of Medugorje. The Franciscans run this parish even though the rival Bishop of Mostar, Pavao Zanic, has obtained the full right to do so, and for this the Franciscans have to thank, above all, the visitation of the Virgin Mary.
Bishop Zanic has more than once challenged the authenticity of the visitations. In a Newsweek interview (July 1987), he stated that "the phenomenon of Medugorje will be the church's greatest shame in the twentieth century" and alleged that the Franciscans were deliberately using the visitations to discredit the episcopacy. In 1982 he punished two of the most active Franciscans in Medugorje by suspending them; the suspension is still in force. It is interesting to note that one of the witnesses claims that the Virgin has on many occasions ordered the bishop to end the suspension of the two Franciscans. One of the most eminent theologians among the bishops in Croatia, the Archbishop of the Split-Makarska region, Frane Franic, does not share the view of the Bishop of Mostar, but believes in visitations. This has heated the argument and roused interest in the Christian public in Bosnia and Hercegovina and abroad.
Both church dignitaries were interviewed in the Milan, Italy, Christian monthly magazine, Jesus, in May 1986. Asked about the authenticity of the visitations in Medugorje, Bishop Zanic replied, "I foresee disappointment, and I have so often suggested to the Franciscans, the priests, and the animators of the movement that they should say to the believers: 'Don't rush to conclusions, don't proselytize, but wait for the judgment of the Church.'" To the same question, Archbishop Franic replied, "It is known that my personal opinion is favorable, the main reason being the fruit of what I see. I am not just a theologian and scientist, I am a shepherd, and I see the good fruits of penitence, prayer, and conversion. These signs tell me enough. You can tell the tree by its fruit."
The Bishops Conference of former Yugoslavia established a special commission to undertake thorough research over a number of years to make a final judgment in the name of the church. Until that time, the decree of the Bishops Conference of former Yugoslavia (promulgated in October 1984) remains in force and recommends believers not go on pilgrimages to Medugorje and prohibits organized official visits. The same stand was repeated by the Vatican at the beginning of August 1990. The head of one of the highest Vatican bodies at the time, the Congregation for Religious Education (the successor to the former Inquisition), Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, expressed his opinion on the matter in a letter to Bishop Stimpfleu in Augsburg, where a very active organization, Medugorje Deutschland, has been founded and organizes regular pilgrimages under the guidance of priests. In this letter, the "Iron Cardinal" warns that the Bishops Conference of former Yugoslavia has not yet passed judgment. [Nevertheless,] during the period of decay and disintegration of former Yugoslavia, and even during the war in Bosnia, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims came to Medugorje.
A Pilgrimage Boomtown
Enormous changes have taken place in only a few years in what used to be an almost anonymous village in a backward region. There has been a boom in the number of apartments, and the number of private houses has increased many times. A journalist has written that even though there has been a 10-year economic crisis in former Yugoslavia--especially a total lack of investment because of massive inflation, which was curbed only at the beginning of 1990--there was one place in the country, Medugorje, in which development is "in top gear" and is racing forward.
According to the Italian press, the value of Medugorje tourism to Italian operators exceeded $10 billion (U.S.) by 1989. Because of the Madonna of Medugorje, the Italians bought new coaches, leased aircraft and ferryboats, formed specialized tourist agencies, set up special radio stations, and published brochures and books. Some of the newly founded tourist agencies have advertised trips to Medugorje as their specialty. A magazine entitled Medugorje is published in Milan; in 15 towns throughout Italy there is a telephone service that gives information about Medugorje; in Arcinasho d'Erbe, there is a radio station with a special program promoting Medugorje; as many as 36 societies or groups have been formed that promote Medugorje in Italy; on 20 September 1989 more than 10,000 people gathered in Verona in support of Medugorje. One result of all these activities or developments is that more than 400,000 Italians visited Medugorje in 1987.
However, the Italians are not alone in this. There are "Medugorje" societies in London, Vienna, Brussels, and Dublin, as well as in Boston and other towns in the United States. Special bulletins are issued, such as Medugorje Monthly in London, where the Virgin Mary's messages are published. Dozens of books and monographs about the Medugorje phenomenon have been published in former Yugoslavia and abroad. Time, Newsweek, Corriere della Sera, Observattore Romano, Europo UNITA, Paris Match, Figaro, and other magazines have published special reports on Medugorje. Special television programs on Medugorje have been made by former Yugoslav film and television crews and also by BBC, RAI, ABC, and the French television network Antenne.
About one million visitors (and according to some estimates, two and a half million) visited Medugorje before the [Bosnian] war. It is estimated that more than ten million visitors came to Medugorje between 1981 and 1988. In 1987, Yugo-tours published 200,000 copies of its annual package tour brochures for the Italian market, listing Medugorje as the main attraction. The greatest number of pilgrims come from the United States (especially 1987-90), followed by Italy, Ireland, and other countries of Western and Eastern Europe.
Editor's note: According to the Press Bulletin, the Official Newsletter of the Information Center Mir in Medugorje (http://www.medugorje.com), the number of pilgrims (recipients of Holy Communion) in recent years is as follows: 579,420 (1994); 588,500 (1995); 869,000 (1996); 1,021,000 (1997); and 1,066,000 (1998).
Piety and Prosperity
In Medugorje private accommodations have increased to 8,000 beds, and the price of land has reached astronomical heights. It is interesting to witness the variety of more or less improvised retail outlets and restaurants that have sprung up. Neighboring Citluk, the administrative center of the region, used to have two taxis, but 400 were on the official register by 1990. Before the visitation, no currency exchange office existed in the region, but in 1990 there were 18. In the five duty-free shops, German marks, U.S. dollars, and other foreign currencies are accepted. In 1988, six million dollars passed through these exchange offices, while at least twice as much was collected through direct payment to the private sector. From the outset--the first visitations of the Virgin Mary--improvised outlets sprang up around the church in the center of Medugorje. Now hundreds of stands operate day and night, selling fruit, cooked food, holy books, articles of clothing with pictures of the Virgin Mary and Medugorje, as well as rosaries, holy pictures, and all kinds of souvenirs. Great social change also is evident in the local population, of whom many have amassed fortunes from kitsch and poor service. This commercialization has been one of the main arguments advanced by church authorities in refusing to accept the Medugorje visitation as a true event.
According to the local tourist office, the average length of stay of visitors in the Medugorje region has risen to 3.2 days. Visitors from the United States stay the longest (seven days), while those from Italy stay the shortest (two and a half days). These figures are impressive, at least in the context of Mediterranean tourism. Indeed, many well-established tourist resorts would wish to have such a performance. According to the local tourist authority, the majority of visitors are middle-aged or older, women predominate, and there is an exceptionally high proportion of handicapped and sick, of whom many are children accompanied by their parents.
It can be said that the Virgin Mary has become the prosperity trademark for Medugorje residents, so it is not surprising that the local population fully supports those who speak in favor of the visitation. It is easy to understand the worldly behavior of the local people, who for centuries knew only poverty and hard work on poor soil. The era of basic survival in poor houses roofed with straw, without windows and with only a hearth for heating and cooking, has been transformed into a time of real prosperity. The new ostentatious houses make it difficult to believe that there was once a time of hardship. It has been said that the people of Medugorje do not need the final judgment of the church on the visitation; they believe in the Virgin Mary, they pray to Her, and they cooperate with Her well and profitably.
Excerpt reprinted with permission from Boris Vukonic, Tourism and Religion (New York: Pergamon, 1996).
Boris Vukonic, "Catholic Pilgrimage: The Phenomenon of Medugorje," East-West Church & Ministry Report 7 (Fall 1999), 1-3.
The best-known Roman Catholic pilgrimage site in East Central Europe is the Monastery of Jasna Gora at Czestochowa in southern Poland, founded in the fourteenth century. It serves as the repository of the famous icon of the Black Madonna.
Written permission is required for reprinting or electronic distribution of any portion of the East-West Church & Ministry Report.
© 1999 East-West Church and Ministry Report