ROME— A papal envoy to Medjugorje has compared the controversial pilgrimage site in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the Virgin Mary has allegedly been appearing since 1981, to Lourdes in France, a widely celebrated and officially approved Marian sanctuary, at the end of his first visit.
Though the comparison doesn’t amount to a clean bill of health, it will likely be taken by Medjguorje supporters as a positive indication about the envoy’s attitude.
Polish Archbishop Henryk Hoser was appointed by Pope Francis in February to review the pastoral situation for the residents and the 2.5 million faithful who arrive on pilgrimage at Medjugorje each year.
It’s not the scope of Hoser’s mission to determine the veracity of the alleged Marian apparitions at Medjugorje. The Vatican’s doctrinal office set up a commission in 2011 for that purpose, which allegedly finalized its work in 2014, but to this point, nothing has been announced.
“The same as you, I expect a final decision from the commission, and of course the Holy Father Pope Francis,” Hoser said at an April 5 press conference in Medjugorje. Speaking in French, he also said that he has no knowledge of where Francis stands regarding the apparitions.
The local bishop, Ratko Peri of Mostar-Duvno, who unless the Vatican says differently is the Church authority who has to rule over the alleged apparitions, has repeatedly said that there’s no truth to them. In fact, he did so again last February, two weeks after Francis tapped Hoser to determine the pastoral situation of the pilgrims.
The supernatural events in Medjugorje reportedly began in 1981, when six children claimed they had seen the Virgin Mary in the form of Our Lady Queen of Peace. The visionaries claim that the apparitions continue to this day, with three of them receiving daily visits.
Although he refused to even give his personal opinion regarding the phenomenon, Hoser did have considerable praise to bestow at the end of his seven-day visit.
For instance, he praised the many expressions of faith he found in Medjugorje, saying that from a religious perspective, the place is “very fertile grounds for religious vocations.”
He said that 610 priests have cited Medjugerje as a moving force in their vocation, with most of these vocations coming from the United States, Italy and Germany. This, Hoser noted, is a significant contribution, given the crisis of vocations to the priesthood in some countries.
Other statistics Hoser supplied include the fact that pilgrims flock to Medjugorje from 80 countries, and he underlined the fact that after only 36 years, 2.5 million people travel there yearly. Hoser acknowledged that number is significantly lower than Lourdes, where six million people visit every year, but have been doing so for 150 years.
The number of pilgrims who visit represents a “huge challenge” for the priests who serve in Medjugorje, Hoser said, requiring expansions to the infrastructure of the church, which is run by the Franciscans.
Yet despite the parallel Hoser drew between Lourdes and Medjugorje, he also said there were differences between what is allegedly going on in Bosnia-Herzegovina and other major Marian sites. One of them is the location.
For instance, at Lourdes the Virgin always appeared in the cave that later became the famous grotto, while in Fatima she always appeared above the oak tree.
“Here, according to what visionaries are saying, the apparitions follow the person, where the person goes,” Hoser said. “This could be at home, when they are traveling, in the church.
“These are all specifics that make the work of a final decision more difficult,” he explained.
On the matter of “expressions of faith,” the archbishop once again praised the site, this time for giving pilgrims things they no longer find at home: “In many old Christian countries, individual confessions do not exist anymore. In many countries, there is no Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. In many countries, there is no Way of the Cross anymore. There’s no rosary anymore.
“In Britain, in France, they told me the last time they prayed the Way of the Cross was 30 years ago,” he continued. “And such dryness of spiritual, sacred space obviously leads towards a crisis of the faith.”
Another positive aspect of Medjugorje, according to Hoser, is the title given to the Virgin, “Queen of Peace,” particularly at a moment in history which Francis has said a “piecemeal Third World War” is underway.
As examples of the conflicts that have taken place since the apparitions began, Hoser spoke about the Balkans war in the 1990s, the Rwandan genocide, and the ongoing destruction of Syria, home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world.
“To invoke the Queen of Peace, the Mother of God: this is the specific role of Medjugorje. It is most important,” he said.
“My friends, you should be carriers of joyful news,” Hoser said in the press conferences, livestreamed through MaryTv. “And you can say to the whole world that in Medjugorje, there is a light… we need these spots of light in today’s world that is going down into darkness.”
Once the Q&A began, the question of the apparitions, as had been expected, came up. Hoser insisted that he wasn’t in Bosnia-Herzegovina to study them, yet he again compared the alleged events with ones that also began in 1981, but which have already been approved by the Church: Marian apparitions in Kibeho, Rwanda.
In Rwanda, the Virgin reportedly warned about a looming genocide, which took place in 1994. Hoser, a Pallottine missionary and medical physician, spent over 20 years of his life in that African nation and served on a medical commission evaluating the apparition.
“The message was similar to the message that was given here in Medjugorje,” the archbishop said. “It was a calling to conversion … it is a calling to peace, an invitation to peace.
“In the beginning, there were doubts whether those visionaries were authentic,” he said of the Rwanda apparitions. “That is why I ask you for your patience. The more complex a phenomenon is, the more time is takes to achieve valid conclusions.”