Sunday, August 9, 2009

Weighing Medjugorje even more - Lessons for priests and bishops

Over at the excellent blog, The Catholic Thing, in an article entitled, "Weighing Medjugorje", Austin Ruse discusses the recent laicization of Fr. Tomislav Vlasic, OFM by the Holy See, and his personal experience with the place while on a trip there 10 years ago.

His description of the surroundings put me back over 25 years when I lived in that region from November of 1980 to February of 1983. I was fond of the rocky terrain. Any path leading into that area is as beautiful as described by Ruse. I lived on the outskirts of Mostar - about 30 minutes by car from Medjugorje. I got there through Zagreb, not from Dubrovnik as some may go. I have some old photos I should scan of the three-sided mountain tunnel which ran alongside the Neretva river. Truly stunning!

Austin talks about his personal skepticism about the alleged apparitions, which mirrors my own reasons for personal disbelief in authenticity. Given the official status of Medjugorje, I remain open to the wisdom of Holy Mother Church on the matter. I truly believe that events will be separated from fruits, and truth will prevail.

Ruse talks about how the place itself can move even a skeptic of the apparitions to prayer,which has a lot of truth to it:

Though I am a skeptic of the visions, I am a believer in the place. That is the thing about Medjugorje. It is quiet and prayerful. In fact, it is the most prayerful place I have ever visited. Where ever you go there, you are drawn to prayer. It is almost involuntary. Your mind and heart are raised to God constantly, almost against your will.


What most people don’t know is that this place was a pilgrim site long before the phenomenon. People have tramped up and down Cross Hill for at least a century. Though the Blessed Mother may not be appearing there, what is happening there is prayer. Millions and millions of prayers cannot be ignored. This is the wonder of the place.

For a moment there, in that first paragraph, I could have easily thought he was talking about my parish - Assumption Grotto in Detroit (Austin, consider yourself invited for a visit!). While it is absent the emotions of visiting a place that some believe the Blessed Mother physically appeared, it nonetheless is an oasis amongst parishes today. Marian devotion flourishes there, but it is particular. More on that near the end. I'm going to bring my own parish in throughout this post, not because it is special, but because it is ordinary in the sense that it should be and I think many of the things that it offers are things for which many yearn. They travel across the world to experience silence and expressions of faith that they should be able to get right in their own parish.

Does the Blessed Virgin Mary need to be appearing some place to prompt the kinds of things Austin talks about? Not if we believe in the graces connected with the Sacraments - especially with confession. The same can be said about Eucharistic and Marian devotion, and when priests teach the fullness of the faith from the pulpit, and in the confessional, without ambiguity. In fact, the homily or sermon should prompt us to make an examination of conscience, unless we are there to examine the conscience of all those other people. I remember the preaching in Medjugorje decades ago. It touched on subjects otherwise undiscussible. They talked about.... [gasp]......sin. And, you know what? Folks wanted to hear about such subjects. There are parishes today where a handful of people will probably get up and walk out because their self esteem is bruised. So? They have a free will. The pride of a few should not lead to the neglect of the many who want to hear that admonition.

But are these things readily accessible or cultivated in our parishes?

At Assumption Grotto, it is indeed the case. I am acutely aware of some magnificent conversions, and they are sustained for many years now. They are sustained by the hard work of priests who work there, preaching nothing less than the fullness of faith, and willing to sit in confessionals even outside of posted times. Confession lines are long, by parish standards, every Sunday before the 9:30am and Noon Masses. And, believe me, seeing people standing in line for confession, or seeing a priest in the confessional, is inviting to the Sacrament. I am convinced that this is a kind of grace that God gives to souls - a visible cue - in which he draws them to repent. Therefore, it does not surprise me that so many people would go to confession in Medjugorje.

How was it possible that so many locals could attend daily Mass in Medjugorje? Answer: It was held in the evening. Can we do this in scattered parishes around our dioceses to make it accessible? Attendance at daily Mass at Grotto is solid because priests encourage it, and because they give opportunities at times needed by workers and students (early morning and evening). Some people only go a few times weekly, as they can. Contrary to popular belief, daily Mass is not just for old people trying to get into heaven. With a priest shortage this may be difficult, but it doesn't mean priests in certain areas cannot work together to hold their daily Masses at different times, some of those times suitable to working class folk. Too many parishes in a radius of several miles hold only retiree Masses.

Medjugorje is big on Eucharistic adoration. Do our parishes offer Adoration? It is offered daily in a chapel at Grotto, and at other times. There are a few other chapels in the area, but truly, I have to drive at least 20-30 minutes in any direction to find one. Hopefully, Archbishop Vigneron can do for Detroit what he did in Oakland. There were only 10 chapels when he first took the helm there. When he left this past year to head the Archdiocese of Detroit, there were over 50 chapels.

As an aside, the priests recently began offering a post-Mass Rosary on Sundays and after the 7:30am and 7:00pm weekday Masses that is well attended. I would estimate at least 95% remain in prayer after Mass on Sundays. This may not work for every parish, but our pastor started it, watched how people responded, and with high participation, kept it. Most were already praying the Rosary, but this pulled us all togehter.

Austin talks about profound silence in Medjugorje (I'm presuming he meant in the parish Church - St. James). The depth of silence in Assumption Grotto parish, between Masses, even when full of people, is deafening! The only thing heard are kneelers going up and down, confessional doors opening and closing, and an occasional cough or baby making noises. People understand how precious this silence is before the Blessed Sacrament and they seize it. Socializing takes place after Mass where meats are grilled, and coffee and donuts are offered (about 48 Sundays out of the year). Some families hang out for an hour or more, letting their kids mingle. Contrast this with the average American parish (and I've been in many), where the decibels in Church rival that of a mall on a Saturday afternoon, and people are tripping over each other, and even the priest, to get out before Mass is over. I should know, I was one of them (sorry, Father). Our priests and bishops need to cultivate this silence. Sometimes, I think they are too concerned with hurting people's feelings without considering how hurt Our Lord is that so many are indifferent to His Presence and His desire to talk with them in their hearts. One should not have to go to Medjugorje, or a parish an hour away, to experience this.

"Medjugorje yields many vocations" is another thing that I hear. For a parish of about 800 families, Assumption Grotto has a steady flow of male and female vocations - diocesan and religious order. I just photographed the first Mass of Charles White IV, and we have a few others in seminary or convent, not to mention a handful of young people discerning while going to school. This too is a fruit of a parish where the fullness of the faith is taught and cultivated. The parish has an altar boy corp of probably over 40, with many young men choosing to serve beyond their 18th birthday.

The big thing about Medjugorje is it's Marian lure. At my parish, Marian devotion is fostered with an emphasis on Mary in Scripture, and in Church documents, the writings of Church fathers and doctors, popes, and approved apparitions. The pastor does not permit any apparition or private revelation which are not approved to be promoted, nor does he encourage involvement with them. In fact, he has urged caution, which is a prudent response. Why spend time on things that are not approved, when there is an arsenal of things approved?

I want to shift gears with another thought on this while I have it. I don't think Austin was suggesting this, but I have heard it elsewhere, and from respectable sources. With regards to Medjugorje, I have had a couple of priests tell me that they don't believe the apparitions are authentic, "but confessions conversions, and vocations are happening there, so let it be."

I have a fundamental problem with this line of thinking and it goes like this:

If the Church comes to a conclusion that the apparitions at Medjugorje are not supernatural, I am convinced that she will make this very clear, regardless of the visible, good fruits, but not before she can fully comprehend it and communicate it without ambiguity. I say this because if she looks past the truth to keep something going for the sake of what good it brings, then the Church engages in consequentialism. Pope Benedict XVI, of all people, will not take that path. Nor will he disregard truth in order to spare people's feelings. Any threat from the government which loomed over the head of the local Church if a negative judgment had been passed back in the late 80's or early 90's is now gone. I'm convinced that continuing to investigate the alleged apparitions under the political circumstances of the time may have been a prudent path indeed.

However, I also do not believe that Pope Benedict would simply call it a day and leave millions of people hanging without considering how to best keep them in the fold. One of the greatest fears many have over Medjugorje is that IF a negative judgment comes, some followers will not be able to accept it. We have seen this with each of the condemned apparitions and this is how Satan wins: Division.

Should the Church come to a conclusion that Medjugorje is not supernatural, I believe the Holy Father, in his great charity, will amaze the Catholic world in a way that preserves and acknolwedges authentic Marian devotion, while curbing some of emotional fanaticism and dangerous sensationalism that has plagued the Church in recent years. Our Lady is seen on everything from latte foam to toast and people wow their way to these claims.

I'm going to come back to Austin's comment, in which he says he is a believer of the place. I pose this question again: Do we need to go to the other side of the globe to experience the many things that truly lure good and faithful Catholics to Medjugorje?

No. I think the answer lies not in people going to Medjugorje because it is a place which invites heightened spiritual awareness and response. I think the answer lies in making our parishes the center of our spiritual activities.

What can you do?

For starters, pray for your pastor and parish priests. Secondly, ask for adoration, even if it is just one evening or afternoon per week to start. As people get involved see if it can be expanded. Be charitable and if he says, "no", don't argue with him. Try to understand why. It could be that he is not confident he will have enough people to cover it, or is overwhelmed Perhaps he is charged with several parishes - talk to people in those parishes and come up with a plan that will work for people in all of those parishes. Continue to pray for your priests, give them some space and try again at a later time. Be supportive and patient. It's incompatible with charity to show anger to our pastors, even if only in our hearts, while asking for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

If you have a regular confession time, show up and go to confession, especially on first Saturdays. While people respond to a priest in the confessional, many priests will be overjoyed with an uptick in the number of people coming to confession. If there is no regular confession time, ask for one, and be there! If you get advice that you know counters the CCC, find a new confessor if he is steadfast in beliefs that clearly counter it.

Encourage silence. While it is the pastor's job to foster this, it is also something the laity can help with. Don't hold casual conversations in Church. Take them outside. Ask your pastor to talk about the need for silence. There are ways to communicate this need without being condescending. Invite people to speak to God in his own language: Silence. They may be surprised with what He has to say to them.

And I'll say it again....pray for your priests and bishops!

I will allow for a limited number of comments which are truly relevant to the discussion. I won't be posting anything which discusses the apparitions themselves.

See also, my Medjugorje FAQ's and Official Documents site (a work in progress).

Te Deum Laudamus! Home

The obedient are not held captive by Holy Mother Church; it is the disobedient who are held captive by the world!