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On the apparition beat, there is always Medjugorje, which seems more the topic of discussion now that one of the world's most eminent cardinals, Christoph Schönborn, of Austria [below, left], has visited and issued a strong endorsement.

Two other archbishops followed suit with positive statements about this place that since 1981 has been visited by more than 30,000 priests, hundreds of bishops (75 were officially logged by the parish by 1995), more than a dozen archbishops, and at least half a dozen cardinals.

The number of cardinals is not fully known, for several have gone there incognito, including Cardinal Jaime Lachica Sin of the Philippines (whom we saw there) and according to witnesses, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, who twice was reported in the village when he was prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which oversees alleged apparitions.

In 1991, during a conference in Vienna, which is Cardinal Schönborn's archdiocese, Cardinal Ratzinger, who is now Benedict XVI, had commented that despite the opposition of the local bishop, the issue was open and the Vatican desired "that this place, which has become a place of prayer and faith, remain and come to be even more in the most interior unity with the entire Church" (Gebetsaktion, 1992, #22, page four).

Those words were almost exactly echoed by Cardinal Schönborn (a former student and close friend of the Pope) last month, when, after visiting the apparition, he advocated (in a conversation with his archdiocesan press office) "an integration of the 'Medjugorje phenomenon' into the normal pastoral work of the Church." (After his visit to Medjugorje, he had a long-planned meeting with the pontiff.)

Whatever the final judgment of the Church (which we will strictly obey), the renewed interest brings with it the links between Medjugorje, Fatima (in Portugal), and Russia -- where recent news has indicated a surge of Christianity. 

The question: if Medjugorje is eventually approved, will it be seen as continuing where Fatima left off? Is there a connection between the two places? Have they overlapped?

While Fatima ended with Russia, Medjugorje, it seems, began with it -- even though at the time of their first apparitions, the Yugoslavian seers had not heard of the Portuguese apparitions (Yugoslavia was Communist).

The 1917 prophecies or "secrets" from Fatima had said that if the requests of the Blessed Mother were heeded, there would be a period of peace and Russia would be "converted" instead of spreading its errors. If not, there would be war, "the good will be martyred" and "various nations will be annihilated." Mary foresaw persecution (of the "Church and Holy Father") and called for the consecration of Russia to her Immaculate Heart.

Out of ten sentences in the main part of the first two Fatima secrets, fully five pertained to Russia -- half of the message. Russia was mentioned three times by name. The famous third secret of Fatima, when it was released much later, meanwhile, showed an angel ready to torch the world, as might happen through a fiery nuclear exchange.

As it turns out, Russia was well on its way toward doing what the secrets warned -- annihilating nations, and certainly spreading the errors of Communism  -- when, on March 25, 1984, Pope John Paul II (who was shot three years before on a Fatima anniversary day) consecrated the world and implicitly Russia to the Immaculate Heart as requested 67 years before -- a move that was followed by the shocking, miraculous fall of Communism and a period of tranquility between the superpowers.

The link to Medjugorje?

On August 1, 1989, John Paul II told Most Reverend Pavol Hnilica, of Slovakia, one of the bishops who had been to Medjugorje, and served as an advisor to the Pope on Communist nations, that Medjugorje was "the fulfillment and continuation of Fatima" -- surprisingly strong words leaving no doubt about that particular pontiff's discernment.

Meanwhile, when Archbishop Angelo Kim, president of the Korean Episcopal Conference, visited John Paul II -- thanking the Pope for freeing Poland from Communism -- the pontiff, according to the Korean Weekly's (November 11, 1990, issue) replied, "No, not me, but by the works of the Blessed Virgin, according to her affirmations at Fatima and Medjugorje" [see Medjugorje and the Church].

Two years after, in August of 1991, the Blessed Mother allegedly addressed the issue at Medjugorje when, in another message, she said rather mysteriously, "I invite you to renunciation for nine days so that, with your help, everything I wanted to realize through the secrets I began at Fatima may be fulfilled."

That missive turned out to be the same month that Soviet hardliners attempted to regain power in an attempted coup against Mikhail Gorbachev, with even tanks in Moscow.

The coup failed, and the Soviet Union dismantled soon after. Gorbachev, it is now known, had been presented a synopsis of the Medjugorje messages by Ambassador Alfred Kingon of the U.S., who also briefed President Ronald Reagan on the apparitions after visiting (even though Kingon himself was Jewish).

So tied in seemed the two apparitions that on March 25, 1994, Bishop Hnilica chose Medjugorje to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the world's and Russia's consecration.

Perhaps most interesting -- and little known -- is that Mary reputedly had further remarked at Medjugorje (going back again to 1981) that "the Russian people will be the people who will glorify God the most. The West has made civilization progress, but without God, as if they were their own creators" -- hearkening to the prediction in the first two Fatima secrets.

During the past several weeks a flurry of reports have come out of Russia that may be relevant. On January 6, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev attended midnight Mass services celebrating the Russian Orthodox Christmas in grand splendor in the traditional Vigil liturgy in Saint Christ the Savior Cathedral in the presence of four thousand people. Days later, it was reported that the Russian government will spend $100 million to fix Christian churches -- many destroyed during the horror of Communism.

Medvedev's predecessor and close associate, Vladimir Putin (who many believe is still in charge of Russia), wears a Cross. Both Putin and Medvedev frequently attend church, have been witnessed kissing icons of the Virgin Mary, and seek political and moral counsel from the Russian Orthodox clergy (in stark contrast to the comportment of American leaders). 

Meanwhile, also in January, photographs have circulated of Soviet cosmonauts in the space station with four Christian icons, the Gospels, and a relic of the "true" Cross. In one photo, the relic is floating in weightlessness.

The conversion of Russia, as prophesied?

Not yet.

Weekly church attendance in Russia is rising -- described as a "resurgence" -- and already higher than places like France and England, but still abysmal (by one reckoning, at two percent) for weekly attendance (versus between 25 and 44 percent in the U.S.).

Many more churches need to be rebuilt after all but total obliteration under the Communists.

Are we in a "period of peace" foreseen at Fatima?

Tensions between the superpowers all but vanished after the consecration. Still, that peace could easily end, as could moves toward Christianity.

But there are interesting trends afoot.

Who knows the final outcome.

But this week, Yury Luzhkov, the mayor of Moscow, was quoted by Interfax news agency as calling plans for a gay-rights march there "satanic," a statement that would never be uttered by a mayor in a major American city.

[resources: Visions of the Children, Fatima is Forever, Medjugorje and the Church, and Sister Lucia's Message of Fatima]

[See also: Schönborn to speak in U.S. Sunday and Moscow mayor calls gay-right parade 'satanic']

[Michael Brown retreat, Mass,  San Antonio: apparitions, signs of the times, Jan. 30  and Michael Brown retreat, San Francisco: future events, afterlife: February 27]

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