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There is no question that Bishop Ratko Peric of Mostar-Duvno, Bosnia-Hercegoivina, has jurisdiction over church property and liturgical issues in his diocese, which includes the famed apparition site of Medjugorje, and also no question that the bishop -- while disallowed by the Vatican from ruling on the apparitions themselves -- should be obeyed in matters that involve use of church property and presentation of the sacraments.

Of late, the bishop has exercised that authority with increased vigor, imposing new restrictions as regards the parish of St. James and adjacent Catholic communities.

Those restrictions -- pertinent to the sacraments and use of parish facilities -- must be obeyed.

The question: is his imposition of more stringent guidelines simply the bishop's way of exerting what authority he does have in making a statement about the apparitions, and if so, is this renewed vigor -- which has included a prohibition against the parish distributing the monthly Medjugorje message -- simply one in a long series of such actions by the diocese, or is it a precursor to stricter actions by the Vatican itself?

As pertains to the world's most famous apparition, it is the question of the hour.

A quick history:

While the power to rule on the apparitions was removed from the Mostar diocese by John Paul II in the 1980s, the bishop retains full right over other Church matters and of late has taken away the right for a community called the Oasis of Peace that supported the seers to have Adoration; has forbidden a second community, Cenacola, from allowing a seer to have monthly apparitions on its property; has instructed the parish to halt the monthly commentary on messages; has directed that the messages not be alluded to in prayers or devotions; and, as mentioned, has ordered that the messages themselves no longer be distributed from the rectory, as they have been for more than two decades.

Moreover, foreign priests now need permission to celebrate Mass at Medjugorje, as do those who want to hold spiritual retreats. (In 2007, as a result, the papal preacher, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, was forced to cancel a planned appearance there.)

The "clampdown" is seen by some as a sign that the Vatican itself, which has been studying the apparitions with a special commission, may itself issue restrictions or even rule on the legitimacy of the widely reputed phenomena.

While it seems unlikely, due to its massive following, and widespread reports of conversion, that the Vatican would outright negate the apparitions, anything is possible in the current anti-mystical climate and it would not be surprising to see some sort of directive that affirms at least some of the bishop's restrictions.

That could come as soon as the end of this year, according to Sarajevo Cardinal Vinko Puljic, head of the bishops’ conference in Bosnia -- although a spokesman for Cardinal Puljic told Spirit Daily several years ago that a final judgment on the apparitions themselves would not be issued until the apparitions cease.

Currently, three of the six seers say they still receive daily visitations.

Often at odds with the Franciscan order -- which was in Bosnia-Hercegovina before it was a secular diocese, and which operates the parish at Medjugorje (as well as twenty other churches) -- the Mostar-Duvno chancery has long stood as the most vocal opponent of Medjugorje. The imposition of restrictions is not a new development. But in the age of the internet, anti-apparition forces have seized on each new directive as if it were a final discernment, and succeeded in having them presented as such by blogs and even members of the establishment Catholic press.

During the past twenty years -- since the late 1980s -- Bishop Peric and his predecessor and mentor, Pavao Zanic, have issued a stream of directives aimed at limiting access of the seers to Church property, halting them from having their apparitions in the choir loft of the church as well as a room across from the sacristy, and then prohibiting them from the rectory, where they also had their daily apparitions for a period of time.

Both bishops have spoken against the apparitions at parish events. On June 14, 2001, while administering the sacrament to 72 candidates in Medjugorje, Bishop Peric denounced the apparitions from the pulpit of the parish church -- as he did also this past June, during the most recent Confirmation -- despite an order from the Vatican not to publicly express an opinion on Medjugorje.

It was in 1986 that the Vatican -- through Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who is now Pope Benedict XVI -- "chastened" Bishop Zanic when he tried to condemn Medjugorje and dissolved a commission that was studying the apparitions for the diocese, placing it instead in the hands of the Yugoslav Bishops' Conference. Noted author and BBC journalist Mary Craig: "[Cardinal Ratzinger] gave no reasons for this action, unprecedented in the history of the Vatican, which has always left such investigations to the local bishop."

So it was that the Vatican took away the bishop's authority to reject Medjugorje, preserving the apparitions for future judgment.

On May 26, 1998, Vatican Secretary Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone described the bishop's negative statements as "the expression of the personal conviction of the Bishop of Mostar which he has the right to express as Ordinary of the place, but which is and remains his personal opinion" and was quoted as referring to it as a "Marian shrine."

That has caused further confusion because Bishop Peric recently has issued an order regarding use of the term "shrine" -- prohibiting it in regard to Medjugorje.

Whether there will be a resolution to the long-standing confusion between the local bishop's opinion and the Vatican's ultimate conviction, only time will tell.

In September of 1991 Cardinal Ratzinger announced that the Vatican was "open" to Medjugorje, and on August 28, 1991 -- speaking in Austria -- the future pontiff expressed hope that "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."

The great unknown, however, is whether that positive perspective was the viewpoint of Pope Benedict XVI himself or whether Cardinal Ratzinger was conveying the views of his superior, John Paul II.

While John Paul was widely known to favor the apparitions -- and even prayed daily to the Blessed Mother of Medjugorje (as did Mother Teresa) -- Pope Benedict, as Cardinal Ratzinger, at times has indicated both support and doubts about the situation.

Reportedly visiting Medjugorje twice incognito as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger has kept his judgment closely guarded, although he did express concern, it has been reported, that the seers, like everyone else in Medjugorje, make a livelihood from pilgrim houses.

Indeed, all have private houses that cater to visitors, and in at least one case a seer has even organized plane trips from the U.S. Critics assert that this seer has luxury cars and at least two large homes. A television station in Bosnia reported on the living standards of a second seer.

Many ascribe the financial aspect of the seers to a Westernization of Medjugorje or money lavished on them by foreigners who have sought closeness to the apparitions, which are the most famous since Fatima.

While it is understandable that visionaries need to support themselves, and while everyone in the community is doing the same (Medjugorje, which once was based on tobacco, is now all but entirely dependent on pilgrims), the realization of monetary gain from an apparition was listed by Mariologist Father Rene Laurentin -- long a supporter of Medjugorje -- as one of several standard reasons for ecclesiastic rejection. The quandary: how else are the seers to make a living, and is it their fault that pilgrims naturally prefer proximity to them? In fact, wealthy Italians financed the erection of at least one seer's pilgrim house and probably funded others as well.

How this will be viewed by Rome may be pivotal in the extent of future restrictions. That is all for Church authorities to discern. It remains confusing why authorities have not previously intervened to help seers sustain themselves as they tend to endless requests from pilgrims. Millions have claimed conversions or healings through Medjugorje, and hundreds of priests have attributed their vocations to a visit there.

Still, it is difficult to say what "fruits" will be recognized by the Vatican Commission -- which includes psychologists -- as the deciding ones.

Most germane may be the attitude toward mysticism of Pope Benedict himself. While, as Ratzinger, he allowed for the approval of apparitions such as those in Rwanda, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and discussed an alleged message from Akita, Japan, he is known to have shown some reluctance to do so and in a commentary on Fatima even indicated what seemed like skepticism about the famous sun miracle of October 13, 1917.

"Whatever did or did not happen on that October thirteenth, from a purely scientific point of view, we have no way of knowing for certain," he wrote in God and the World.

Thus, his approach is more intellectual than mystical. Where John Paul II was said to recite constant rosaries (praying up to seven hours a day), Cardinal Ratzinger, when asked if he prayed all three sets of mysteries of the Rosary daily, explained in the book that "three are too much for me. I am too much of a restless spirit; I would wander too much. I take just one, and then often only two or three mysteries out of the five, because I can then fit in a certain interval when I want to get away from work and free myself a bit, when I want to be quiet and to clear my head."

Yet while that seems like less of a Marian devotion than his predecessor -- who often sunk into what seemed like an ecstatic state while praying -- Pope Benedict plans to visit Fatima and has gone as a pilgrim to places like Loreto, indicating an affinity for the Blessed Mother and a belief in past miracles.

And so there is no way of knowing how he will view Medjugorje. Recently, he accepted the laicization of a priest, Father Tomislav Vlašić, who was in the parish of St. James for several years after the apparitions began and left in 1985.

Father Vlašić was accused by the Mostar bishop of a scandal involving a nun and his removal as a priest was long sought by the Mostar-Duvno diocese, even though he left Medjugorje in 1985. That too was seen as part of a "clamp down."

Meanwhile, Father Jozo Zovko -- the most well-known priest in association with the apparitions -- has been forbidden by the bishop from speaking in the U.S. and recently left the diocesan vicinity for a "sabbatical."

While millions of pilgrims, tens of thousands of priests, hundreds of bishops, and dozens of cardinals have visited Medjugorje, and have supported its authenticity, the  institutional secularized Catholic press in the U.S. has stood staunchly against it, as have both the liberal and traditional extremes of the Church, for differing reasons.

How the Pope's successor at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William Levada (formerly of San Francisco), feels is not known. While he allowed events linked to Medjugorje to take place in his diocese, certain language in his directive against Father Vlašić seemed to be taken from previous statements by Bishop Peric -- who used terms like " "manipulated consciences" and dubious "mysticism" in describing the priest. Bishop Zanic had called Father Vlašić a "myth maker" and "charismatic magus."

Strident opponents of Medjugorje, most of whom are in direct communication with Bishop Peric (or with a reporter in London who is antagonistic to Medjugorje), have fought long and hard to purvey the diocesan view as if it is the Church's final pronouncement, despite the clear and easily verified fact that Rome had asked Bishop Peric to halt comments on the apparitions and has placed it in higher authority (raising the question of how one could be obedient to a bishop who himself did not seem to be following directives).

Will the issue soon be resolved? Will the Vatican actually issue its first direct public comments on Medjugorje in years? And will it allow Medjugorje to continue -- or stop it in its tracks (as the bishop so ardently requests)?

If indeed a directive is issued, it seems likely to restrain at least some elements of Medjugorje, and everyone should follow all official directives.

Has the Pope decided to take a tougher stand?

Will he accept the entire recommendation of a commission -- even if it reverses the discernment of John Paul II?

Does former Cardinal Ratzinger remain open -- or have developments in recent years caused him pause and even skepticism?

It would not be surprising if new restrictions came in the coming months (some kind of statement seems to be in the wind, if not this year perhaps next) -- although it also would not be surprising if the Vatican maintains its distance. In the end, it is all in the hands of former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

One thing we know about Pope Benedict is that in his commentary on the third secret of Fatima he quoted Scripture where it says, "Do not quench the Spirit, do not despise prophesying, but test everything, holding fast to what is good (Thessalonians 5:19-21), while adding, "In every age the Church has received the charism of prophecy, which must be scrutinized but not scorned. On this point, it should be kept in mind that prophecy in the biblical sense does not mean to predict the future but to explain the Will of God for the present, and therefore show the right path to take for the future."

[resources: Medjugorje and the Church and Queen of the Cosmos]

[see also: Seers said disbelief in Medjugorje would precede 'secrets']

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