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 by Michael H. Brown

@Spirit Daily

Led by a new provincial, Franciscans in Hercegovina are seeking agreement with the bishop of Mostar, the diocese that oversees the apparition site of Medjugorje.

The moves come at a time when the bishop, Ratko Peric, has sought further control of his diocese, punishing 40 Franciscans last July for not signing a loyalty oath. For decades the diocese has been as odds with Franciscans over control of parishes in Hercegovina.  

The dispute began when secular priests, who fled the region during Muslim oppression in the 1400s, returned in the 1880s and began what would become a long struggle with the Franciscans (who had remained behind) for control of parishes. The issue escalated in 1942 when a secular priest was named bishop of Mostar and has continued to the present day.

Caught in the middle has been Medjugorje, a Franciscan parish located in that tense Mostar diocese. Although initially a believer in the apparitions, Bishop Peric's predecessor, Bishop Pavao Zanic -- who was there at the beginning of the apparitions -- had turned against Medjugorje following a dispute with two Mostar Franciscans who were frequent visitors to Medjugorje and whose side, it seemed to the bishop, the Virgin had taken. Intent on halting the apparitions, Zanic had taken a ship across the Adriatic to Italy in 1986 and, arriving in Rome, sought Medjugorje's formal rejection. 

That attempt to block apparitions at the Franciscan parish failed when the bishop's verdict was turned away by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which has final say over all mystical revelation. 

Although the local bishop usually handles such events, the Vatican decided that the importance of Medjugorje went far beyond local diocesan boundaries and transferred the matter to a national commission that has yet to definitively rule on the matter. 

In the meantime, Bishop Peric, who succeeded Zanic in 1993, has proven to be equally skeptical. He has tightened control over priests and nuns who seek to speak publicly about Medjugorje, disallowing them from speaking at foreign conferences.  

At Medjugorje, however, there is the atmosphere of reconciliation with the bishop. Unconfirmed reports state that the new pastor, Father Ivan Sesar, has signed the bishop's loyalty oath and has taken moves to reign in pilgrim groups who might stray from strict diocesan or parish regulations. Bishop Peric appeared at Medjugorje last spring for Confirmation and although sources say he remained critical of the apparitions themselves, he is said to have complimented the Franciscans' on their conduct. "He expressed his satisfaction about the way the parish priest is administering this parish," said the official parish website. "After the solemn Eucharistic celebration, Monsignor Ratko Perić remained in friendly conversation with priests in the Presbytery." 

Although official parish pilgrimages are not allowed until there is formal Church approval, private pilgrimages are allowed and have been returning to the numbers last seen before the recent war, which for years had caused pilgrimages to drop. At the Mass commemorating the twentieth anniversary 273 priests concelebrated and at least 50,000 pilgrims were in the village. More than 10,000 youth from around the world (and more than 300 priests) were in Medjugorje for the Youth Festival from July 31 through August 6, with simultaneous translations into 15 languages.  

We can only hope that the bishop and the Franciscans reconcile. In some cases -- at other parishes -- the revolt among Franciscans has been vitriolic. Two sanctioned Franciscans have publicly struck back at Bishop Peric but according to The Vecernji List, "it has been discovered from inside the province that the actions of [these two priests] do not represent the position of all of the 40 punished Franciscans. An unnamed source said that at the last conference of the Franciscan province, where Father Slavko Soldo was selected as the new provincial, it was decided and agreed to that the Franciscan community be brought into agreement with the local bishop." 

[See most recent Vatican statement on Medjugorje]

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