We just returned from a pilgrimage to the apparition site of Medjugorje, which is currently under active investigation by the Vatican -- so active, in fact, that one seer, Ivanka Ivankovic Elez, just returned from a three-hour session in Rome with the commission, which was composed of twenty members.

At least in this first session, the questioning was not negative or hostile.

Next in line is seer Mirjana Soldo, who has not yet been given a date.

We sat down, as usual, for a talk with Mirjana during our pilgrimage, but before we get to what she said, we'd like to report on Medjugorje in  general.

The village -- once just a church surrounded by brush, vineyards, tobacco fields, and a smattering of relatively primitive stone houses with cement floors -- is now a startlingly large city -- to our eye, about the size, when it comes to religious-goods shops and bed-and breakfasts, of Fatima or Lourdes. It is not uncommon to see a small four-story hotel, and one source there said about two hundred structures of various kinds -- from shops to pansiones -- have been erected since we last visited three years ago. There are now even beauty salons -- in this village that at one time didn't even have a cafe or discoteque. Taxis line up in front of the church, with the majority of pilgrims from Italy -- where the conversion of a television celebrity named Paul Ambrosio has caused a firestorm of reports on Channel Five as well as competing networks across Italy, to the point where Mirjana and other seers are now mainstream "celebrities" themselves -- recognized not just by Catholics who are familiar with Medjugorje, but the general public and the Italian visitors have increased by thirty percent in just the past year, according to a major guide.

How good this ends up being is anyone's guess. The materialism in Medjugorje is understandable; pilgrims demand religious items and a place to rest their heads. They desire amenities. And those whose sole support was once tobacco, or a father who had to work in Germany, now have shifted into owning the pansiones where pilgrims stay and eat two meals a day. A number of the seers are among those who own significant bed-and-breakfast-style structures. On the one hand, and despite similar commercialism at older sites like Lourdes, the Vatican Committee may look with a certain disdain upon all the shops, which are such that the church steeples, once a landmark for those on foot, are now obscured. On the other hand, the incredible eruption of devotionalism (there are more pilgrims than ever at Medjugorje) is often considered as a powerful reason to believe in the authenticity of a supernatural phenomenon. It is difficult to imagine a small group of investigators wielding enough power to quash an entire city, without powerful reasons and the strong support of the Pope (who as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger reportedly visited "incognito" at least twice).

Besides the publicity in Italy, and the formal Vatican commission, the surge in visitors is also credited to positive remarks by Cardinal Schonborn, a high Church official (director of the Catechism). Most recently, the top Church authority in the canonization of John Paul II has detailed that Pope's not only belief but strong support for the apparition (in the international bestseller, Why He Is A Saint).

Although it takes some adjusting, the feelings of peace and joy for which Medjugorje is famous remain, as do certain aspects of phenomena, including sun miracles and rosaries turning gold. The 15-foot bronze Corpus of Christ behind the church continues to "weep" droplets of an unusual oily water-like substance near what is like a right knee wound. Long lines are usually formed as pilgrims swipe or rub little cloths to collect droplets, to such as extend that they have polished the statue to its original bronze, differentiating the bottom of the Corpus from the black-green that covers the rest of it. It is as if the bronze itself is being worn down. When it first started, at least in a big way, in 2001 -- three years after it was installed -- we contacted two experts on bronze in the U.S. who said the phenomenon as described should never occur with bronze, which does not "sweat" condensation after its initial formation. Moreover, part of the bottom is filled with concrete, and no hole collecting rainwater has ever been found.

And so the largest weeping icon in history also finds itself at this incredible place, where healings are also reported. The church is often filled with daily Masses, said in Croatian, German, English, Italian, and often other languages, and often with fifteen or twenty priests concelebrating. We were blessed to have two priests and a deacon among our pilgrims, who besides the church now have an area seating five thousand behind the church to use during nightly Rosary and Mass, which is outdoors. During May the number of Host distributed was 195,500 and the number of priests who concelebrated  4,010 (or 129 per day). Ironically, while the majority of churches in Europe -- and elsewhere -- have troubles filling the pews, even on holy days, at Medjugorje crowds all but fight to get in the doors; one capacity Mass ends and another immediately begins, if one wants to judge fruits.

In short, although Americans have not returned in the numbers previous to the civil war, Medjugorje is bigger than ever. Some claim a million a year are visiting. If one considers the average pilgrim consuming five Hosts during a stay (which may be a high number; many are weekend visitors), the number would be at least 40,000 pilgrims a month during warming months. Bookstores, pizzerias, internet cafes, bakeries, restaurants, grocery stores, and gelato stands now join the shops selling rosaries. It is now an important place economically for the entire nation.

The seers remain united -- remarkably so, with no major outbreak of known dissent in thirty years. Still, they do not remain in constant touch, at least not on a daily basis, as they might with close friends. Mirjana learned of Ivanka's visit to the Vatican Commission when she ran into the fellow seer after Mass while we were there. The seers remain closed-mouth when questioned about reports that Pope Benedict once visited.

They also strain to avoid questions on their "secrets" -- prophecies said to include predictions of major events looming for the world. The claim that Satan was given a century to test the Church -- a famous revelation in the early days that seemed to confirm an earlier vision of Pope Leo XII -- is now discouraged by at least one seer. Mirjana, who in the early days was quite explicit, with at least one priest, about the general nature of her first secrets, now distances herself from those discussions and says that the details of her secrets are usually blotted from her consciousness to the extent that she goes for extremely long periods of time giving them no thought, as if they were wiped from her recollection. While this has caused confusion, it is also understandable; the seers have given thousands of interviews over the years and fear mischaracterization. Mirjana herself says she never characterized her secrets, although in the early years priests and journalists reported interviews with her (includeding an extensive taped one) and other seers reflecting certain general details that, it seems, at least for Mirjana, are now "blocked" out. She says she was given a grace so that they are at least for now taken away from her so she does not become fearful or dwell on them.

Still, none of the seers deny that secrets involve major world and Church events and a great miracle at Medjugorje itself. In fact, such was documented in a letter to John Paul II by a parish priest in 1982* and also in a taped interview with one of the spiritual directors. There are "warnings" in the secrets -- but will the warnings be as we imagine or might a Croatian translation of warning also mean "reminder," which could have a different level of meaning? Serious events, nonetheless -- chastisements, as confirmed repeatedly by seers such a Vicka [left], Ivanka, and Marija -- remain indicated as always. There is no real change. The serious nature of the secrets has been discussed by the seers with countless interviewers and pilgrim groups, along with luminaries such as Father René Laurentin and Father Svetozar Kraljevic (currently the most prominent priest at Medjugorje, whose book was edited by Franciscan University's Father Michael Scanlan).

Long ago, Mirjana told lawyer Jan Connell, for her groundbreaking book, Queen of the Cosmos, that "the first two secrets come as advance warnings for the whole world and as proof that the Blessed Mother is here in Medjugorje" -- something she elaborated upon in an interview with her spiritual director Father Petar Ljubicic in 1985 (for full interview, see Tower of Light).

When we sat down with her on Monday,  Mirjana said that when the first warning comes, everyone around the world will know of the event immediately.

There are perplexities to what Mirjana recalls. For example, she told our group that she has never characterized the secrets, and apparently does not remember what she said as a teenager when interviewers barraged her with questions. She also said that the Blessed Mother always comes the same joyful way -- but then said in "this latest apparition she was very, very sad. I could almost see the tears in her eyes." When she first had apparitions, Mirjana explains, she experienced "all possible emotions -- fear, beauty, misunderstanding."

It was Mirjana and Ivanka who first saw the Blessed Mother on June 24, 1981, and it was the next day -- June 25 -- that Our Lady spoke, saying, "My children, do not be afraid. I am the Queen of Peace." At that spot on Apparition Hill is now a statue with the words, "    "

It is one of the most powerful spots at Medjugorje. In my experience, ranked up with it is the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes inside St. James Church and of course Cross Mountain. Many find the Adoration Chapel particularly memorable. And very many find themselves weeping at the Corpus, with the spinning sun in the dramatic background.

When the first secret is about to occur, Mirjana told me, she will give it to Father Ljubicic, who will then fast with her for seven days and announce it three days in advance. This is not a choice; she said he must do it, and that if for some reason he is not around, another priest will be chosen. "He doesn't have the choice to say or not to say," she said, quashing reports to the contrary. She quotes Our Lady as saying, "What I started at Fatima I will finish in Medjugorje." Pope John Paul II said the same.

"This time is the time of decision," says the seer -- leaving us, again, little doubt about the serious nature of our times -- although all the seers deflect discussion of the negative and focus on how the Blessed Mother comes to deliver joy, optimism, and hope.

Mirjana's daily apparitions halted when she became the first to receive all ten of her secrets on Christmas Day in 1984. It was two months after the apparitions began that she received her first secrets, and she received all of them within a year. She began receiving "extra apparitons" on the second of each month beginning on August 2, 1987 (along with an annual one on her birthday).

She says she can't talk about whether the secrets will occur in her lifetime. Vicka has said she will still be receiving apparitions as the secrets unfold. In Mirjana's case, there is the incredibly intriguing claim that she was given a "parchment" on which her secrets are written -- in such a way that if someone looked at it, they would only be able to read the secrets with special grace.

She says it was handed to her by the Blessed Mother when she was given her tenth secret and is tangible, slightly larger than a sheet of paper from a legal pad.

Once, during the war, she left it in Sarajevo. "U.N. soldiers brought it back to me and they had no idea what they were carrying," she says. "One saw a prayer on it, another a request for prayer from one person to another."

She can't talk about whether the secrets will unfold in her lifetime. But she made the equally intriguing remark that the parchment is not so she can remember the secrets so much as in case she is not around for all the secrets. T hey include "dates and places, everything," she said. "I don't have to be alive. I don't think about it. The Blessed Mother comes to bring love and hope."

When asked about the concept of a coming "illumination," an event that would open the consciences of everyone on earth, Mirjana -- again, intriguingly -- said, "I cannot speak about that."

On the first secret, she says "Everyone will know at the same time."

And so we wait and feel the grace. Peace is tangible here. She says Mary appears about three feet in front of her and a foot and a half above the ground. There is suddenly all around blue like the sky and Our Lady in the middle. "I can say that painting or picture is beautiful," she said, but not that any painting or picture accurately captures the Blessed Mother. How can someone judge it without coming here? It is the epitome of hubris. The Vatican's Commission has been quietly visiting. No one knows how many times they may call the seers. It is said that there cannot be an approval until the apparitions halt. There have been historical exceptions. Also, Rome might be waiting to see if there are true prophecies. In Kibeho, Rwanda, which was approved, the major prophecy -- of genocide -- came true, although there are others pertaining to events yet in the future. Will the secrets of Medjugorje materialize?

And if they do, this question: would a ruling be possible or relevant afterwards?

[rsources: Tower of Light, Queen of the Cosmos, The Fruits of Medjugorje]






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