Vienna cardinal’s Medjugorje visit stirs emotions, speculation about Mary visions
A highly-publicised visit by Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn to the disputed Roman Catholic shrine of Medjugorje seems to have deepened the divide between Catholics who fervently believe the Virgin Mary appears to visionaries there and those who suspect the Bosnian pilgrimage site may be a hoax.
The visit over the New Year’s holiday provoked a surprisingly undiplomatic public complaint from the bishop of Mostar, the Bosnian region that includes Medjugorje, and that has set the Catholic blogosphere buzzing (for example here … here … here… here… here… here… here… here…). It also prompted a little-noticed theological comment from Schönborn that might point to where the debate over Medjugorje may be going. More on that later…
We reported here in October that Bosnian Church officials expected the Vatican to rule soon on the apparitions at the village supporters see as a “new Lourdes.” There has still not been any such ruling, so the issue has remained unresolved. This also heightened the interest in a visit by a leading “prince of the Church,” a cardinal who is also a close adviser of Pope Benedict and editor of the official Catechism catechism.
Schönborn engaged in a bit of Church one-upmanship by visiting the pilgrimage site without consulting the local bishop, a noted sceptic about claims that the mother of Jesus has been visiting the place almost daily since 1981. While his visit was described as private, his public comments there were so positive as to raise the question whether the Vatican might change its long-standing reservations regarding events there.
“These days, we have all come to Medjugorje to be especially close to the Mother of the Lord. To be more exact, we have to say that we have come here because we know that the Mother of the Lord wants to be close to us,” Schönborn told believers who attended his New Year’s Vigil Mass in Medjugorje.
Back in Vienna, he explained the reason for his visit by saying: “One has to ask what the tree that bears so many good fruits looks like.” He said he wanted to “take the drama out of [entdramatisieren] the Medjugorje phenomenon” and integrate it more into the Church’s pastoral work. The cardinal noted that the Vatican had still not ruled on whether to recognise the apparitions there as genuinely supernatural. But the fact that millions came there every year to pray made Medjugorje “a school of normal Christian life,” he said. “The focus here is on faith in Christ, on prayer, on the Eucharist, on putting charity into practice, on the essential core of Christianity, on giving strength to everyday Christian life,” he said. “Maybe we in the Church should let ourselves be more inspired by this pastoral concept of Mary.”
The visit prompted a sharp reaction by Mostar Bishop Ratko Peric, a leading sceptic about Medjugorje. He declared himself surprised by the visit and said it could encourage “a growing number of new communities and disobedient associations of the faithful.”
In a statement on his diocese’s website, Peric announced: “I want to inform the faithful that the visit of Cardinal Christoph Schönborn does not imply any recognition of the authenticity of the ‘apparitions’ related to Medjugorje. I regret that the cardinal, with his visit, appearance and statements, has added new sufferings to those already present of this local Church which do not contribute to its much needed peace and unity.”
“New sufferings” — that’s pretty strong language for a bishop talking about a cardinal. But Peric isn’t shy about making his views clear. He openly charges that Schönborn was encouraging nuns there to disobey the Church: “His visit to the Cenacolo community and with Sr. Elvira, who by the way, as a religious sister has no authorization to reside and operate in the territory of this diocese, could be interpreted as supportive. And not only to her, but to a growing number of new communities and disobedient associations of the faithful in Medjugorje, which can be read as encouragement for their ecclesiastical disobedience.”
Peric backs up his complaint with a list of his disputes with the Franciscans running the shrine. He also casts deep doubt on the claims of six visionaries who say they have seen Mary repeatedly since 1981. The claims of daily visions of the Virgin contrast with the accounts of apparitions in recognised Marian shrines like Lourdes or Fatima, where they occurred only a few times and then stopped. “All together up till now: about 40,000 ‘apparitions’!” Peric wrote. “Indeed, one gets the impression that some ‘visionaries’ determine where and when the Madonna ‘appears’ since the appearance happens when and where they want. Is this not an inadmissible manipulation of Our Lady and the Sacred in general?”
Now for that theological twist: in his statement in Vienna, Schönborn played down the usual pro-versus-con apparitions argument and urged Catholics to see Medjugorje “in the light of the Second Vatican Council” by looking to the sensus fidelium (“sense of the faithful”) about it. This concept focuses more on what Catholics in the pews actually believe rather than on the dogmas involved. His stress on the “fruits of the tree” rather than its roots fits with this approach. Given the standoff over Church approval for the Medjugorje apparitions, is Schönborn trying to move the theological goalposts to break the standoff and win recognition for them after all?