Sunday, January 19, 2014

Why has the Church taken so long on Medjugorje?

Preface: Pray for truth and rejoice carefully!

I believe the Holy See is concerned with seeking the truth on Medjugorje, not an outcome that appeals to one group or another. Truth cannot co-exist with untruth. Co-workers of truth seek it no matter where it leads and regardless of the pain it may cause. When truth prevails, there are no losers among truth-seekers; rather, there are some people disappointed that what they hoped was true, was deemed untrue.  Therefore, our prayer should not be for approval or disapproval, but for truth to be found and for truth to be conveyed by the Holy See.

I think it is worth mentioning something else. When the Holy Father answers the question of Medjugorje, some will be very happy and some will be very unhappy.  It is contrary to virtue to rejoice in the suffering of others (Proverbs 24:17, Obadiah 1:12).  No matter where you stand on this, please keep that in mind when the Holy Father speaks.  Faithful Catholics on both sides of the divide have a great love for the Blessed Virgin Mary, and for the Church.  The disagreement is whether it is Mother of Our Lord who is appearing to anyone associated with Medjugorje.

Why so long?

The alleged apparitions in Medjugorje began in June of 1981, so why has it taken so long for the Church to get to the eve of answering the question of Medjugorje?  You will see variations of that question in online discussions whenever the topic is at hand.

I cannot read the minds of the hierarchy, but there are some things I've taken into consideration that may be useful to others. We are now waiting on the findings of the international commission of inquiry on Medjugorje to make its way from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) to the Holy Father. There has been no mention as to how long the CDF will keep it, or whether any part of it will be released to the public.  One thing I do hope for is that a certain amount of catechesis will accompany any statements.

Here are those considerations on why I believe it has taken so long:
  1. The alleged visions are ongoing
  2. War and the break-up of the former Yugoslav Bishops Conference (YBC)
  3. The aftermath of the war
  4. There is more than Medjugorje of concern to Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH) bishops

In addition, a few words on these subjects
  • The Diocese of Mostar-Duvno is a valid source for information
  • Names and faces of the bishops of Bosnia-Herzegovina

1. The alleged visions are ongoing

Many will say that the Church has let this go for so long because the alleged visions are still ongoing. In fact, this is almost a sole reason we see people put forth.  They might even argue that no definitive judgement can be made until the visions are done.  But, we know this is not true because many alleged apparitions have been judged as not supernatural while they were still happening. So negative judgments can come any time for the good of the faithful.  On the other hand, an alleged apparition would never be approved while ongoing because if the entity began talking about a "fourth person" of the Trinity, after such approval, the credibility of the Church would suffer great harm.

Sometimes the Church cannot affirm supernaturality, but also does not have sufficient evidence to determine that there is fraud, diabolical involvement, psychological or natural explanations, etc.  Because the question is open, historically - at least until Medjugorje - bishops have been careful not to do anything that could lend credibility, especially giving visionaries a platform on Church property. This was a point made recently to US bishops by the CDF.

Of course, if the Church does find evidence of fraud or diabolical involvement, or other explanation, the Holy See technically could not allow it to continue, even if some good was coming from it (Veritatis Splendor 75).  Moreover, to continue on in the face of any manifestations of falsehood is to participate in a lie, which is no less harmful, even if it comes through omission.  Here again, truth and untruth cannot co-exist.

Not wanting to feed solely on low-hanging fruit, let's look at some other considerations.

2. War and the break-up of the former YBC

In 1987, the third commission making an inquiry into the events in Medjugorje began, at the level of the bishops conference of the former Yugoslavia, which represented all 23 dioceses.  The reason was given in a joint statement by the president of the YBC, Archbishop Franjo Kuharić and the local ordinary, Bishop Pavao Žanić:

During the inquiry these events under investigation have appeared to go much beyond the limits of the diocese. Therefore, on the basis of the said regulations, it became fitting to continue the work at the level of the Bishops' Conference, and thus to form a new Commission for that purpose.
That correlates with Section III.2 of the 1978 Norms for Discernment of Presumed Apparitions or Revelations: Interest in it had spread outside the bounds of the diocese. For those who have read this and still say, "it was taken from the hands of the local bishop" - they are engaging in intellectual dishonesty.

On a side note: With the current international commission, Fr. Lombardi explained, it too was created because the bishops of BiH requested it since it had spread outside the bounds of the diocese. Reading section IV of the same norms, we learn that the Ordinary's way of proceeding must be judged, which explains the absence of Bishop Perić on the commission.  He cannot participate in judging his own way of proceeding.  Sadly, people gloated over the fact his name was not on the list, even suggesting he was shunned. Some journalists, not doing their homework, neglected to see the truth of the matter and report it as such. The net effect was that many developed a lower opinion of the local bishop, but I digress.

On April 10, 1991, the YBC issued the Zadar Declaration, with 19 voting in favor, one abstention, and three absentees, which said:
On the bas[is] of studies made so far, it cannot be affirmed that these matters concern supernatural apparitions or revelations.

In his book, Medjugorje Revisited, Donal Anthony Foley, points out an interesting predicament that surely had been on the minds of the bishops with what was bubbling in the background as they met:

Around the same time that the statement of the Yugoslav Bishops’ Conference was issued, the political situation in the country began to come to a climax. Franjo Tudjman and Slobodan Milosevic met in early 1991, and decided between them that they would partition Bosnia-Herzegovina, with the Croats to take the northwestern section, the Serbs the southeastern section, with a Muslim buffer zone in the middle. On 25 June 1991, almost exactly ten years after Medjugorje began, both Croatia and Slovenia declared independence. The result of these declarations was that the Yugoslav army, essentially a Serb-run military, invaded Slovenia, thus initiating full-scale hostilities. 
Foley, Donal Anthony (2011-10-27). Medjugorje Revisited: 30 Years of Visions or Religious Fraud? (Kindle Locations 4866-4871). Theotokos Books. Kindle Edition. 

The war ended in 1995.  I think we can all understand why there was no action from anyone at any level of the Church with regards to answering the question of Medjugorje during this time.  Many churches and monasteries were left in ruins. The cathedral and the bishop's palace in Mostar were not spared, nor was a library of over 50,000 books housed there. And, that was just the tip of a very big iceberg.

3. The aftermath of the war

Things do not just go back to, "normal," after a war.  Even today, the ruins are still seen in places by those who travel to the region.  View it through the lens of a Fulbright Scholar living in Mostar.  

A boy runs through Mostar in 1995,
grenades still being lobbed.
Consider what the four bishops of BiH were facing in 1995: Dead people, displaced people, hungry and cold people, people in tension, the maimed, the orphans, those with the invisible scars on their minds and in their spirits.    The economy was devastated, and it suffers still today with heavy unemployment. There will probably always be some tensions because of the way the nation was divided between three ethnic and religious groups.   This says nothing of an increase in radical islamists entering the region since the war.  When I lived there in 1980-83, I was unaware of any radical elements in the Muslim community.  This 2002 interview with Cardinal Puljić sheds some light on what happened. Have things changed since then? This is a question for journalists to ask.  

Just as fighting and tensions don't just abruptly cease with war ending agreements, the effects of any war can linger for many years, even decades.  

I would humbly suggest that during that 10-15 year period after the war, the bishops of Bosnia and Herzegovina were overwhelmed with things much more important than discerning the authenticity of Medjugorje. For those of us abroad, that often seems to be a singular focus of our interest in what goes on there.  I suspect Pope Benedict felt it was best to let things remain as they were for the time being, as well,  rather than put those people through the rigors of what will be a painful decision for some no matter which way it goes.  

4. There is more than Medjugorje of concern to BiH bishops

Question: How much news do you find in English or Italian press about BiH that doesn't involve Medjugorje?

I ask this question because we put the Medjugorje lens on without looking at what else is happening in that region.  Cardinal Puljić said he was tired, after all these years, of spending countless hours going through information.  Now, some might think he is tired of Medjugorje, and that may very well be the case.  But the most charitable explanation is that the volume of work associated with it has been taking time away from other things he needs to work on, or making his days much longer.  I count myself among those who believe this commission was wrapping up it's work about the time Pope Benedict XVI abdicated the throne.  What else could the Holy See do but delay completion?

I think the bishops of that nation have a story to tell about life there - one that is different from neighboring Croatia because of how it has been divided between the ethnic and religious groups.  I would love for journalists to talk to the bishops and enlighten us in English and Italian Catholic press.  Do Catholics suffer persecution there? If so, how?  How has the population of Catholics changed there since the war and what has happened with local sacramental life? How are priests and religious treated?  Do young Catholics feel they have a future there, or are they migrating to Croatia? There is much more in Croatian media, and the language barrier doesn't help. but most bishops know a second language or can find interpreters. All of this news is largely hidden behind Medjugorje.

Also, hidden behind the news about Medjugorje, is a situation no bishop would ever want to be faced with: Members of a local religious order in open rebellion with the diocese and the Holy See itself and the numbers are not insignificant.  Yet another set of invalid "confirmations" was held last year at a parish usurped in the late 1990's, by now former Francisans (since suspended a divinis, and removed from the Order of Friars Minor).  See my report on this from April of 2013.  Hopefully it is clear that Medjugorje is not the only thing the Holy See is concerned with in that region.

Is this connected with Medjugorje?  Perhaps it is not directly connected, but you will find opinion pieces on many pro-Medjugorje sites, saying the bishop is at odds with the Franciscans, or persecuting them, rather than the Franciscans being at odds with a decision of the Holy See (some in open rebellion.)  Aside from that, one ought to wonder how hundreds, if not thousands of invalid sacraments, can be happening a stone's throw from Medjugorje, and the "gospa" says nothing?

Incidentally, the Holy See document at the heart of the conflict - the 1975 decree, Romanis Pontificibus -  comes from the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, on which I believe Cardinal Puljić still serves. There is a great deal of history and catechesis in the first part of that decree.

The Diocese of Mostar-Duvno is a valid source for information

One of the open wounds in the Church today -- one that I hope is bandaged by Pope Francis, is the utter contempt some have for the local bishop of Mostar.  The contempt on some pro-Medjugorje sites ranges from overt, to passive-aggressive. When ordinary people google Medjugorje, they land at these sites and their opinion of this apostolic successor is formed by the rash judgments and even calumnies, such as the malicious and ridiculous one suggesting that Bishop Žanić colluded with the communists to take down Medjugorje (see herehere and here; and diocesan response here)

There is a lot of information detailing the problems the diocese has had with regards to Medjugorje, in English; and in Italian for those who don't dismiss this as a valid source for information.  With regards to information about the rebellion of some Franciscans in the Herzegovina province, there is an entire page devoted to that at the diocese - all of it worked out with the OFM in Rome and the Holy See.   Scrolling down you will see a list of nine men dismissed from the OFM's; and, another 18 who remain without faculties for refusing to sign a declaration of obedience to which the Franciscan Minister General and local bishop agreed, and the Holy See confirmed.  It should be noted that the majority of Franciscans in that province have cooperated.

Names and faces of the bishops of Bosnia - Herzegovina

To reporters and journalists: These are the men who lead the Church in Bosnia-Herzegovina.  Got questions? Ask them.  Are there conflicts with what you find elsewhere on the web with what they say? Take your questions to the appropriate congregation at the Holy See if you doubt what they tell you, then tell us what you learn.

The bishops of Bosnia-Herzegovina with Apostolic Nuncio from left to right: Bishop Pero Sudar (auxiliary - Sarajevo); Bishop Ratko Perić (Mostar-Duvno/Trebinje); former Nuncio, Alessandro D'Errico; Cardinal Vinko Puljić, Sarajevo; Bishop Franjo Komarica (Banja Luka); Bishop Bishop Tomo Vukšić (Military Ordinariate of BiH); Bishop Marko Semren, OFM (auxiliary - Banja Luka)

The Bishops' Conference of BiH has grown with the addition of the auxiliary bishops in recent years, and with the establishment of a Military Ordinariate in February of 2011.

Also noteworthy is that when Bishop Marko Semren, OFM was consecrated he became the first Franciscan bishop in the dioceses making up BiH since the mid-1940's.  He hails from the Bosnian Franciscan Province (there are separate provinces for Herzegovina and Bosnia). Bishop Semren is an expert on Franciscan history in the region, something that may be helpful in cutting through the stories you will find on some websites.   See my coverage here and the rather interesting homily by the Apostolic Nuncio here.

Corrections and Edits.

  1. Corrected a sentence that said the war ended in 2005, to 1995. 
  2. Added the missing quote from the 1987 joint statement on the YBC commission and related discussion, along with link to the 1978 Norms for Discernment of Presumed Apparitions and Revelations. 
  3. Note and links added in "Diocese is a valid source for information" about calumny against local bishop

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