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The rumors last autumn swirled. After long years of confusion among the flock, after virulent debate -- and diatribes, especially from those who opposed it -- and after periods of outright befuddlement, the Vatican was going to issue guidelines on the famous apparition site of Medjugorje, said the Cardinal of Sarajevo, with hints that those guidelines would not be interpreted as favorable. It would come, they said, by the end of the year.

"I don't think we must wait for a long time, I think it will be this year, but that is not clear... I am going to Rome in November and we must discuss this," said Cardinal Vinko Puljic last October.  

The same was indicated by the Bishop of Mostar, Ratko Peric -- who would normally have jurisdiction but whose authority in the matter was removed more than twenty years ago when his close associate and predecessor tried to ban the apparitions.

Pope Benedict, went the buzz, would finally put a rein on the apparitions, and perhaps even dismiss them.

That was the hope in a band of detractors who for years have spearheaded e-mail campaigns against Medjugorje, led by the bishop.

So there was consternation if not a degree of shock last week when a major cardinal -- Christoph Maria Michael Hugo Damian Peter Adalbert von Schönborn of Vienna, better known simply as  Cardinal Schönborn -- not only visited Medjugorje, but celebrated Mass at St. James Church with Medjugorje pilgrims, freely moved about the village -- at least once with a seer who accompanied him up the hill of apparitions -- and issued what could only be interpreted as positive statements about the apparitions.

"Who could make these things up?" he asked at one point after his arrival. "Who could invent this thing? Man? No, this is not a human act."

The cardinal also called Medjugorje a "superpower" of God's mercy.

In conversation with the press office of the Archdiocese of Vienna, Cardinal Schönborn advocated "an integration of the 'Medjugorje phenomenon' into the normal pastoral work of the Church," reported an Austrian radio station. "The Archbishop of Vienna made a private visit to the Marian pilgrimage site over Christmas. He wanted to see the place from which so 'many positive fruits' had come."

It hardly meant that the Church had officially approved of the site. The Cardinal is not the prefect of the congregation that one day may make this decision. But he is a close ally of the Pope and a member of that congregation. Moreover, Cardinal Schönborn was director of the team that wrote the Catechism -- obviously, an expert on Church teaching.

While some tried to spin the event otherwise, it became difficult. There was immediate consternation  in the U.S. Catholic press.

Medjugorje, said the cardinal, has not yet been ruled upon by the Church; a committee of Yugoslavian bishops in 1991 declared it  non constat de supernaturalitatae, meaning that thus far, the supernaturality of the events has not been confirmed. No one knows what the final decision will be. But instead of being a rejection, said the eminent cardinal, this leaves open the possibility that it is indeed a supernatural event. The cardinal said that pilgrims and priests are allowed to go as long as such a pilgrimage is not an official parish event -- something announced long ago by Rome.

This flew directly in the face of those who have long argued that the local bishop -- who disapproves -- has sole authority, and that pilgrimages are prohibited.

It was a stunning clarification, as was his statement, to an interviewer from Vecernji List, daily newspaper for Croatia, Bosnia, and Herzegovina, that "when I see the fruits of Medjugorje back at home I can only say that the tree is surely good."

The cardinal mentioned as fruits the countless vocations and conversions spawned by Medjugorje, along with healings.

The statements were especially powerful in that Cardinal Schönborn is known as a close friend and colleague of Pope Benedict XVI. "Cardinal Schönborn is a prominent voice in a wide variety of contemporary discussions and (though he himself avoids this characterization) is considered by many as 'papabile,' that is, as a prelate with a significant chance of someday being elected Pope," notes a site that follows his movements.

Acknowledged one Catholic news blog that has been negative toward the apparitions, "Cardinal Schönborn has unquestioned influence at the Vatican; he is a former student and close ally of Pope Benedict, who chaired the editorial committee that prepared the Catechism of the Catholic Church."

Besides the Doctrine of the Faith Cardinal Schönborn has "curial membership" in the congregations for the Oriental Churches and Catholic Education. He is a member of the pontifical Council on Culture, the commission on the Cultural Heritage of the Church, as well as the Special Council for Europe of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops. The cardinal is also Ordinary for the faithful of the Byzantine Rite in Austria.

Notes a bio, "in collaboration with the Archbishops of Paris, Brussels, Lisbon, and Budapest, Cardinal Schönborn is deeply involved in the re-evangelization of Europe. He is active in bringing about cooperation between new movements (such as the Charismatic Renewal) and the Church's hierarchical structure, and is recognized for his sensitivity to Eastern Christian and Orthodox spiritualities. Within Austria and Europe, Cardinal Schönborn has led the way in reconciling Christians and Jews."

That stature gave his words yet more power -- and they were surprising ones. But there was also a cautionary tone.

"Supreme authority in the Church is the Holy See, the Holy Father and his Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and that is the highest authority in all of the issues of faith and morality," stated Schönborn -- dismissing that notion that the local bishop has ultimate say over Medjugorje.

There will be no decision, he added, until the phenomena cease -- a dramatic confirmation of what supporters have argued -- accurately, as it turns out -- for more than two decades.  "Both in Lourdes and Fatima, the events first ceased and than the Church made its decision about that; its final decision," he said. "Sooner or later that will take place here as well, but until then we leave the Mother of God with freedom of choice.

It wasn't the only time he compared Medjugorje with Lourdes and Fatima.

Said the Cardinal: "There are three elements which are connected with this phenomenon. Almost always Our Lady appears to children. Those were not especially intelligent children or holy children but normal. Bernadette did not know how to write. She was 14, almost as children over here. Secondly, Mary gives the messages through the children. It is insulting for one bishop. Why Our Lady does not come to bishop’s house? Why does she come to the hill filled with stones or by the river? This is not practical. In Fatima she appeared in the bushes. She gives the messages through children because children are not complicated. The third element: it looks like Our Lady has her own program. In Fatima she appeared before Russian Revolution and she gave a message. When rationalism was on its highest level she appeared in Lourdes. She appeared in Yugoslavia in the moment when we did not have an idea that Yugoslavia would fall apart in the time when the Catholics, Muslims, and Orthodox were living together. She appears with the name Queen of Peace.  I think that theologians have to study the syntax of Mary’s apparitions and in that context to study the phenomena of Medjugorje."

"I am fascinated with the coherence of Medjugorje with other Marian shrines, apparition sides," went on the eminent churchman. "I always say that there is a grammar of Mary’s apparitions. That style has something special with Our Lady."

In his New Year's homily at Medjugorje -- concelebrated with Franciscan priests who support the apparitions --  the cardinal added, "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."

"We cannot deny that pilgrims have been coming over here for the past twenty years, as we can not deny what they experience in Medjugorje and how close they felt to the Blessed Mother," he commented. "This is my first visit, but since I’ve been a Bishop from 1991. I have simply noticed the fruits of Medjugorje."

It will be hard to put a negative spin on those words. Still, controversy is likely to arise over what some have seen as liberal tendencies of the cardinal, including controversies over what has been allowed in the Vienna archdiocese and some reports asserting that he tends toward allowing married priests. Meanwhile, although the Medjugorje parish has not suffered through an abuse crisis -- despite dozens of Franciscans who have served there -- two priestly scandals have been cited as negatives, as has materialism.

And the Vatican -- which has final say -- has not yet ruled; no one is certain how Benedict himself feels. There are credible reports that as a cardinal -- and prefect of the same congregation -- the Pope twice visited Medjugorje incognito.

At the same time, it seems unlikely that a close friend of the pontiff would travel there without tacit approval. Was it perhaps even the "statement" or "guideline" many were expecting?

"There is no official recognition yet, but in that formulation it is also said that supernaturality is not excluded," said the cardinal. "The Church has clearly said it is not excluded. It is not confirmed, but it is not excluded."

But Cardinal Schönborn made no secret of his own belief, and went so far as to lead a rendition of Gospa Mojka Moja -- written by a pilgrim and the virtual theme song of Medjugorje. "His first words as he stepped to the podium were 'Hvaljen Isus i Marija,' a Croatian phrase that means 'Praised be Jesus and Mary,'" noted a blog. "This is a common greeting among the visionaries and Medjugorje villagers. The cardinal repeated it several times and urged the crowd to repeat it with him."

"He went on to say, 'When you look at a place like Medjugorje, you can see a superpower of mercy. Many merciful deeds were born here or they were supported here.'"

While concluding a talk in Medjugorje, Cardinal Schönborn said, "I believe that many experiences in the Church demonstrate something that is impossible from a human point of view." Pope John Paul II was also known to view the apparitions positively.

The cardinal's visit immediately raised a protest from Bishop Peric, who still claims authority over the situation, even though he has been directed by the Vatican not to comment on the apparitions.

Complained the bishop, who said he was "surprised" by the visit: "As the diocesan bishop with this statement 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, brings something new to the present suffering of the local Church which does not contribute to peace and unity so necessary."

Although no longer in charge of discernment as far as mystical claims, the bishop retains authority over sacramental practices in Medjugorje (as at any other parish) and should be respected in this role. He has used that power of late to restrict the activities of pilgrims and seers.

And despite the powerful rebuke to Bishop Peric -- and the clarification of several crucial issues -- the debate is not likely to end until there is an official Church declaration either way. When it comes, we'll strictly adhere to it.

Added Cardinal Schönborn, "I would advise for patience. The Mother of God is so patient with us that for nearly 29 years here, in a very direct way, she is showing her closeness and care for the parish of Medjugorje and numerous pilgrims. We can peacefully wait and have patience! Twenty nine years is a long period of time for us, but not such a long period to our God!"

[see also: Bishop Peric's statement and John Paul II's notes on Medjugorje]

[And: Prominent Cardinal: supernatural nature of Medjugorje not yet determined but 'fruits' and 'tree' are 'good' and pilgrims are free to go, Text of bombshell interview, The archives: what JP II said about Medjugorje, Cardinal celebrates Mass at Medjugorje, and Cardinal seen as close to Benedict]

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