House at Medjugorje Girl at Medjugorje

Journey to Medjugorje

by Matushka Katherine Swanson

The appearance, continuously for several years now, of the Virgin Mary to a number of young children in a small village in Croatia has been the source of both enthusiasm and controversy in the Roman Catholic world. Encouraged by the local Franciscan clergy, tens of thousands of pilgrims have visited Medjugorje to hear the messages conveyed to the children when the Virgin allegedly appears before them. These messages consist of statements of a general kind about religion, but with a decidedly ecumenical flavor, of late [see, in this regard, paragraph seven, below]. There are also widely reported miraculous healings associated with the apparition. In spite of local church support and the sustained popularity of such pilgrimages, however, the happenings in Medjugorje have met with disapproval from the Croatian Roman Catholic hierarchy and from the Vatican. They have also transformed a small village into a flourishing tourist attraction, replete with all of the tacky trappings that go along with such places and the windfall profits they provide.

In 1986, I had the opportunity to visit this Roman Catholic place of pilgrimage. My employer at the time, an investor and developer and a Roman Catholic, had asked me to accompany his wife, a devout woman, to Medjugorje and to report back to him on what I saw. My husband, an Orthodox Priest and a psychologist who works as an administrator at a local Jesuit university, was apprehensive, at first, about my making such a trip, since he is by training sceptical about popular religious phenomena and, on account of his association with a Roman Catholic institution, is fully aware of the attitude of Rome towards the apparitions at Medjugorje. As a traditionalist and conservative Orthodox clergyman, he also questioned the prudence of an Orthodox Christian visiting this kind of place, especially given its increasing fame as an "ecumenical center."

However, on hearing of my desire to conduct an objective investigation, but with no intention of compromising my own Faith in any way whatsoever, Father and I eventually decided, together, that my trip could prove useful, in terms of informing other Orthodox Christians about the realities of Medjugorje. (This village, incidentally, is a short distance from the Jagodnjaca Pit, where more than a thousand Orthodox Christians were slaughtered and buried in World War II by the Croatian Ustashi, a brutal Nazi rgime supported and aided by the Croatian Franciscans. In Medjugorje itself, twenty Serbian Orthodox Priests were publicly tortured, castrated, and buried alive. For reports of these events, see the book The Suppressed Serbian Voice [Los Angeles, CA: SAVA, 1994], 2nd ed., s.v. "Medjugorje," as well as "The Madonna of Medjugorje," a Westernhanger/BBC video tape presentation, produced by Angela Tilby and available from WTVS, Detroit [1-800-441-3000].) Hence, as though to prove our thinking correct, my present report for Orthodox Tradition and its readers.

Our trip to Croatia was organized by a Roman Catholic tour group and we were guided by a Roman Catholic priest. When we arrived in Zagreb, I visited a local Orthodox parish (a very beautiful Church), after which we were joined by a tourist guide, a woman who happened to be Orthodox and who bluntly indicated that she considered the apparitions at Medjugorje to be a hoax. When we finally reached Medjugorje by bus, we were placed in local homes, households which had obviously benefited materially from the tourist trade generated by the apparitions. Though the village was filled with admittedly pious, if desperate, pilgrims, many obviously ill and seeking cures for every sort of disease, the locals were nonchalant about the religious aspects of their newfound fame. The woman with whom we were placed, much like our Orthodox tourist guide, dismissed the whole phenomenon with what was essentially a verbal shrug.

The appearance of the Virgin—at present to two young children, four other children ("seers") having gone off to college—occurs in the so-called "Apparition Room," inside a large church rectory into which only select individuals are admitted (see photograph at left). Through a series of interesting events that I will not recount here, I was mistaken, while standing with the huge crowd gathered outside the rectory, for a member of the London press. Neither assenting to nor disagreeing with this misidentification, I was quickly shuffled up to the front of the crowd and into the door of the Apparition Room, while my employer’s wife, who had come to Medjugorje as a pilgrim, ironically enough, was left standing with the rest of the people. And so it was that I saw the Medjugorje apparition first-hand, something which most pilgrims, after travelling, in some cases, halfway around the world, never get to see.

What, then, did I experience? Let me begin by saying that the Franciscans who operate the Medjugorje complex are, almost to a number, exceedingly officious, rude, and even nasty. In fact, as I entered the Apparition Room, a brutish Franciscan, "elbowing" his way in, grabbed me by the collar and simply pushed me aside. My strong protest was met with indifference. This nastiness was complemented by the cold, chilling atmosphere of the hall, which gives little evidence of being a religious shrine. At any rate, as I stood at the back of the room, two young people walked in, knelt, Crossed themselves in Latin style, and then stood and stared at the front wall. After a short time, one related the Virgin’s message for the day. Such was the Medjugorje miracle. I saw nothing. I can only attest to the total lack of a spiritual atmosphere in the Apparition Room and to the cold chill that prevailed in it. Nor did I, when outside the building, witness anything like a "dancing sun," another phenomenon reported by pilgrims to Medjugorje. Rather, I am aware of the case of one young man who, looking too long at the sun for this supposed miracle, seriously impaired his vision.

I should add that, after leaving the rectory, our guide took our group for an audience with the "seers." During this audience, a pilgrim asked one of children the following question: "Does the Virgin say that the Catholic Church is the true church?" The response given by the child (Marija, pictured at right) provides clear evidence of the ecumenical content and religious relativism which, oddly enough, increasingly mark the "revelations" at Medjugorje: "Our Blessed Mother says that all religions are equally pleasing to God."

My brief report, here, is not meant to ridicule those sincere Roman Catholic believers who flock to Croatia looking for a miracle, whether to restore their faith or their health. The wrong beliefs of Roman Catholic Christianity are not things in which we Orthodox exult; rather, we deeply grieve for the pious, sincere believers in that church, believers who have been separated from the Grace-filled life of Orthodoxy, in which the miraculous is not a cause of faith and restoration, but a product of these things. Nor do I wish to say that the chilling cold of Medjugorje is a sign of the "demonic," as that word is so often misused. People do not flock there to do or to worship evil. They are seeking God. But in this place, their zeal and faith are met by what is unreal—whether the unreality of delusion or a fantasy contrived by the lovers of cash and profit, I cannot firmly say—, which is a devilish, if lamentable, circumstance indeed.

Matushka Katherine is an Orthodox Christian of Albanian descent. Her husband, the Reverend Dr. Martin Swanson, is Pastor of the St. Basil the Great Orthodox Church in St. Louis, MO, a parish of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. This article originally appeared in Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XIII, Nos. 3&4, pp. 51-53.