ROME – On Saturday Pope Francis sent an envoy to Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina, not to rule on the credibility of the alleged Marian apparitions taking place at the site since 1981, but to assist with pastoral issues.

Speaking to Crux, a source close to the matter said that Archbishop Henryk Hoser of Warsaw-Prague, Poland, the man tapped by the pope, won’t have a doctrinal role, but a pastoral one. It’s the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that has to rule on legitimacy of the alleged apparitions.

In announcing the appointment, the Vatican acknowledged that thousands of pilgrims flock to Medjugorje every year.

“The mission has the aim of acquiring a deeper knowledge of the pastoral situation there, and, above all, of the needs of the faithful who go there in pilgrimage, and on the basis of this, to suggest possible pastoral initiatives for the future.”

The city is a pilgrimage hub because of the reported apparitions. In 1981, Medjugorje was an unexceptional farming community of some 400 Croatian families in the former Yugoslavia, and most believe it’d still be one had it not been for the regular Marian messages.

The news of a papal delegate being appointed was announced on Saturday by the Vatican’s press office, through a statement that also insisted on the “exclusively pastoral character” of Hoser’s mission.

The bishop will continue to exercise his role as bishop of Warsaw, but he’s expected to finish his assessment by Europe’s summer time.

Those who take the reported apparitions at face value believe the Virgin Mary, or the “Gospa,” as she’s affectionately known in Medjugorje, has been appearing in this small town 60 miles from Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia Herzegovina, since June 24, 1981.

According to the lore, the Virgin first appeared daily to six young people aged between 10 and 17 at the time, but since 1989 has continued to do so only to some of them – twice a month: on the 2nd and the 25th.

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In the years since that first message, the Vatican hasn’t ruled on the veracity of the apparitions. Generally speaking, for the Vatican to even consider issuing a finding on a reported apparition, the revelations have to be over, and in Medjugorje they’re definitely not.

The fact that the local Catholic hierarchy is divided doesn’t help either.

In 2010, under Benedict, the Vatican set up a commission to study the Medjugorje question. Five years later, on June 6, 2015, Pope Francis told reporters that “we’ve reached the point of making a decision and then they will say.” But over 18 months later, nothing has been said.

Only days later, during one of his morning Masses, Francis cautioned against basing one’s faith solely on predicted visions or anything other than Christ himself. And last November, he reiterated a concept he’d spoken about before, which is that the Virgin Mary is not a postmistress, delivering daily letters, a point he mentioned again this week.

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Among other things, Hoser will have to study the pastoral care given to the pilgrims by the local Franciscan community, which runs the Saint James church that doubles as a pilgrimage welcoming center.

Archbishop Henryk Hoser of Warsaw-Praga, Poland, arrives for the morning session of the Synod of Bishops on the familyin 2015 at the Vatican. (Credit: CNS photo/Paul Haring.)
Archbishop Henryk Hoser of Warsaw-Praga, Poland, arrives for the morning session of the Synod of Bishops on the familyin 2015 at the Vatican. (Credit: CNS photo/Paul Haring.)

There are several Masses throughout the day, Eucharistic adoration and some 35 confessionals where priests who accompany pilgrimage groups hear confessions in several languages.

According to their statistics, an average of 26 priests per day concelebrated in the Masses in January 2017, and some 36,000 people received Communion during the same period.

Yet despite the many pastoral services provided for the pilgrims, this community hasn’t been free of scandals in recent years and has long been at odds with the bishops of Mostar-Duvno, the diocese to which Medjugorje belongs.

Both bishop Pavao Žanić, who led the diocese from 1980 to 1993, and current bishop Ratko Perić asserted clearly that nothing supernatural is happening here.

Among the scandals surrounding the Franciscans, one of the most resounding was the 2010 defrocking of Father Tomislav Vlasic, a Franciscan priest who served as a former “spiritual director” to the six visionaries.

The decision, approved by emeritus Pope Benedict XVI, came after a year-long probe into charges he exaggerated the apparitions and had fathered a child with a nun.

It wasn’t lost on many observers that the announcement came on Feb. 11, the day on which the Catholic Church marks the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, who appeared in the small French village from February 11 to July 15, 1858.