Pope Francis sent a message of hope to all the young people attending this year’s Mladifest, the Medjugorje International Youth Festival. He wants them to know that even in a world filled with “a multitude of things that oppress our hearts … there is Jesus, who calls us.”

“This call requires us to set out and trust, and does not allow us to remain in the same place, stiff and frightened in the face of life’s challenges. It sounds easy, but in dark moments we simply close in on ourselves. And it is precisely from this loneliness that Jesus wants to bring us out,” Francis said.

This annual gathering of Catholic youth in Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina takes place from Aug. 1-6. It draws roughly 50,000 people every year. The festival began in 1989 to celebrate Aug. 5, the day the alleged seers of Our Lady of Medjugorje recognize as the Virgin Mary’s birthday.

Though the Marian apparitions at Medjugorje have not been officially authenticated by the Vatican, it is Europe’s third most popular pilgrimage destination after Lourdes and Fatima. According to media reports, over 30 million believers have come to the small town since the first apparitions were reported in the early 1980s.

On June 24, 1981, six youths between the ages of 10 and 16 claimed to have witnessed the apparitions of the Virgin Mary on Podbrdo hill outside the town. They said that Mary introduced herself as the “Queen of Peace” and that she continues to speak to them regularly.

Three of the visionaries claim that Mary appears to them each day, while the remaining three say they have the same experience once a year. Following three diocesan commissions, the then-Yugoslavian bishops decided that it was “impossible to determine whether we are dealing with apparition or supernatural revelations” in a 1991 declaration in Zara.

The local bishop clashed with the Franciscans who had been associated with the visionaries, and the friars were expelled in 1999. In 2008, the spiritual director for the visionaries was suspended “for the diffusion of dubious doctrine, manipulation of consciences, suspicious mysticism, disobedience toward legitimately issued orders.”

Despite these setbacks, the apparition site continued to attract up to 1 million pilgrims each year.

More recently, Francis sent a Polish archbishop to look into the veracity of the apparitions. Archbishop Henryk Hoser, who died in 2021, said Medjugorje was a place of great faith, but in keeping with his mandate, avoided getting into the question of the apparitions. 

Mladifest, which takes place at the site of Bosnia’s Marian shrine under the motto Learn from me and you will find peace, also had the support of the Cardinal Archbishop of Barcelona and President of the Spanish Episcopal Conference, Cardinal Juan José Omella, who celebrated the inaugural Mass.

In his homily, the cardinal pointed out that “life is precious and deserves to be lived with all its intensity.” 

“During life we wage successive battles and evil sometimes wins the game and takes over parts of our existence,” Omella told the young people. “Yes, evil dominates and subjugates aspects of our life. Our life is a journey of continuous conversion so that, with the help of Jesus and Mary, we can identify and overcome those parasites that rob us of our life.”

“And what are the yokes and bonds with which we come and which rob us of peace and joy?” he asked, giving some examples: “Image, prestige, the search for honors; the desire for power, money, to have or possess; social networks, Tik Tok, YouTube, pornography; or happiness confused with an unlimited accumulation of pleasures.”

Omella urged young people not to fall “into the clutches of those who offer us easy and quick solutions to complex situations. God is the only one who can save us, but he will do it according to his chronometer and not according to our haste or urgency. God’s times are not ours. He is thinking of our eternal salvation.”

Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma