Apparitions of Mary, the mother of Jesus of Nazareth, are not confined to the past and such long-time Catholic pilgrimage sites as Guadalupe in Mexico, Fatima in Portugal, and Lourdes in France. If the six “visionaries” from the village of Medjugorje in the country now known as Bosnia-Herzegovina (previously part of Yugoslavia) are to be believed, they are continuing today. In fact, they have been ongoing there since June 24, 1981, when some children witnessed the first such apparition.
According to the Medjugorje Web (medjugorje.org), “over 40 million people of all faiths, from all over the world, have visited Medjugorje and have left spiritually strengthened and renewed.” Moreover, it states, “countless unbelievers and physically or mentally afflicted have been converted and healed.”
The first such apparition, nearly 36 years ago, took place when Mirjana Dragicevic, 16, and Ivanka Ivankovic, who would turn 16 the following day, went for a walk. In her 2016 autobiography, My Heart Will Triumph, Mirjana, now 51, and with the married name of Soldo, recalls that she had just arrived from her home in Sarajevo to spend time with her uncle and aunt in Medjugorje as she had during previous summers, and the walk was to catch up on things. Ivanka lived in another village but spent the summers with her grandmother in Medjugorje. As they sat and talked in a shady spot on an unpaved road in the shadow of Podbrdo Hill, the two girls, both Catholics, saw a “beautiful woman” a hundred or more meters up the hill and agreed that it was “Our Lady.” Frightened, both ran home.
Mirjana states that she had never heard of other so-called “apparitions” of Gospa, the Croatian name for, as Catholics know her, the Blessed Virgin Mary, and because Yugoslavia was then a communist country, religious books were practically contraband.
After working the next day in the tobacco fields, Mirjana sought out Ivanka and along with Marija Pavovic, 16, Vicka Ivankovic, 16, Ivan Dragicevic, 15, and Jakov Colo, 10, they were drawn to Podbrdo Hill by three flashes of white light. Together, the six children ran up the hill towards the lady. “The first time I gazed upon the woman up close, I realized she was not of this world,” Mirjana writes. “Immediately—and involuntarily—we fell to our knees. Not sure what to say or do, we began to pray the Our Father, Hail Mary, and Glory Be. To our astonishment, the woman prayed along with us, but she remained silent during the Hail Mary.”
Mirjana further recalls that the woman before them was encompassed by a beautiful blueness, and her skin was imbued with an olive-hued radiance. Her eyes reminded her of the translucent blue of the Adriatic Sea. Most of her long black hair was covered by a white veil. A long dress with a blue-gray glow extended to her feet. There was great intensity in her gaze. “Her very presence brought with it a feeling of peace and maternal love, but I also felt fear because I did not understand what was happening.”
In a 2013 interview, Vicka remembers the initial apparition a little differently, saying that Mirjana and Ivanka, accompanied by Marija’s sister Milka, went to look for some grazing sheep and wanted her to join them. As she was on her way to meet up with them, she saw Milka running towards her, excitedly telling her that “Our Lady” was there. As Vicka ran to see what it was all about, she encountered Ivan, who was with another boy also named Ivan. They soon joined Mirjana and Ivanka and all four witnessed the woman on the hill, now called Apparition Hill. The two boys were so scared that they fled. “We were standing on the road and Our Lady was up on the hill,” Vicka relates. “We really could not see Her very clearly, not as distinctly as we can see Her now. We could see Our Lady beckoning to us to come to Her, but we did not dare. It was not only that we were scared; we just were not relaxed and open enough to go to Her. Then we turned around and left the place.”
Mirjana and Vicka both agree on a very curious point involving the second apparition. It should have taken about 12 minutes to climb the hill, then covered with thorn bushes and stones, to where the apparition was, but the six visionaries seemed to effortlessly fly up the hill until they found themselves standing in front of the woman. “It was as if I simply glided—or something carried me—to the place where the woman was standing,” Mirjana recalls, while Vicka remembers it more like flying. They dropped to their knees as the beautiful woman said in perfect Croatian, “My children, be not afraid.” Mirjana describes the voice as having a resonant, melodic tone that no human could ever duplicate.
So in shock were the six visionaries that little was said beyond the prayers at that first meeting, although Ivanka asked about her mother, who had died a month or so earlier. “She is with me,” was the reply.
While the six visionaries had already guessed the identity of Gospa, it was the next day that she said, “I am the Blessed Virgin Mary and I come here because there are a lot of faithful people here.” (This is the English translation. She likely identified herself as Gospa.) Even though the communist regime, with its atheistic ideology, had made every effort to stamp out religion, Mirjana remembers that, “the great majority of people in the parish of Medjugorje lived for God.” The government realized that it could not completely eradicate such a deep-rooted mindset and was content to treat religion as a necessary nuisance, permitting Franciscan priests to run the parish of Medjugorje.
Mary began appearing daily, often giving short messages, primarily petitions to love, pray, forgive, overcome, fast, live in peace, and expect eternal life. “Our Lady asks us to return the Word of God to our homes,” Mirjana offers in her recent book. “Do not let it sit in a dusty corner like a decoration, but put it in a place of honor where it will be seen and touched.” She quotes a typical message given to her on August 2, 2015: “With a simple heart accept His word and live it. If you live His word, you will pray. If you live His word, you will love with a merciful love; you will love each other.” (The visionaries would write down the messages as soon as the apparition disappeared, and the words may not have been exact.)
Word of the phenomenon quickly spread, and on the third day, hundreds of villagers gathered to observe, though none could see what the six children claimed to see. By the sixth day, thousands were coming every afternoon. The government made every effort to discourage gatherings and to silence the children, even having Mirjana expelled from school, resulting in her being sent to a school for delinquents in Sarajevo, but the apparitions continued and the crowds grew.
Seemingly more significant than the regular messages received over the past 35-plus years are the “10 secrets” entrusted to the visionaries individually. All 10 have been received by Mirjana, Ivanka, and Jackov, but the other three have not received the tenth. The secrets will not be revealed until Mary tells the visionaries that it is time to do so. The visionaries were told not to compare notes or discuss the secrets with each other or anyone else. Indications are that the secrets deal with future events. Mirjana and Vicka will say only that after the first two secrets come to pass, Mary will leave a permanent sign on Apparition Hill, where she first appeared, and it will be evident that human hands could not have built it. It will be permanent and indestructible.
To this day, the Catholic Church cautiously sits on the fence relative to the apparitions, neither affirming nor denying their supernatural character, but the judgment of the Church is that there is no evidence of fraud, mental illness, or the demonic. It encourages its members to participate in events, which presumes the authenticity of Medjugorje, but it forbids its clergy from officially sanctioning such events.
Seeing how the six visionaries are now revered by the many pilgrims to Medjugorje, the skeptic can easily surmise that it started as a prank or a collective hallucination by the six children and was perpetuated by the celebrity status that each quickly gained and enjoyed in spite of the harassment by government authorities and even indifference and some resistance by Church authorities. Why else would it continue for more than 35 years? Certainly, an advanced spiritual being, if such a being exists, should have been able to communicate whatever she had to say in a much shorter time frame. Considering that three of the six are still experiencing daily apparitions and the other three periodic ones, the messages should fill at least a dozen thick volumes by now.
The skeptic will also note a strong Catholic bias, with Mary asking for rote prayer for the souls in purgatory, fasting on bread and water, mentioning devils with horns and tails in a Dante-like inferno, and describing heaven as a place where one apparently does nothing but praise God. While the petitions for love and peace are paramount and have a universal appeal, transcending orthodox Christianity, the humdrum heaven and horrific hell are all too much for any rational person, skeptic or believer, to accept as truth. Such twaddle as devils with horns and tails seems to have contributed significantly to the impeachment of religion in the first place.
And yet, a number of studies by scientists—neurological and psychological, including polygraph (lie detection) tests and hypnosis—have ruled out deception by the visionaries. They have undergone electro-encephalographs, electro-oculographs, eye reflex, and auditory tests while they are in what researchers call a state of “ecstasy” communicating with the apparition. “Suddenly their gaze, already fixed on the location of the apparition, becomes more intense,” Monsignor René Laurentin and Professor Henri Joyeux report of their studies with five of the visionaries during 1984. “There are hardly any movements of the eyelids. Their faces become almost perceptibly brighter and turn toward the invisible speaker. They kneel down very naturally, all at the same time… Their lips can be seen moving, but no voices are heard, just as it was with Bernadette at Lourdes. They were not conscious of this and were surprised when we questioned them about this unusual phenomenon. They believe they are speaking normally.”
Close observation by the researchers has given no indication of play-acting or any attempt to follow a leader in the group or otherwise coordinate their movements. The visionaries seem to lose contact with the surroundings and remain insensitive to stimulation, even pinching and prodding. At the beginning of the ecstasy, eye movements cease almost simultaneously and the eyes remained immobile.
Laurentin makes special note of the humility and sincerity of the visionaries. “The visionaries, with all their strengths and admirable naiveté, do not behave as magicians or fortunetellers, or guardians of the absolute,” he offers, “but rather as beneficiaries of a unique encounter that transcends them and is responsible for the light and benefits that accrue to them and others.”
Dr. James P. Pandarakalam, a London psychiatrist, has been to Medjugorje 70 times during the past 30 years to study the visionaries and agrees with Laurentin. He says that he has confined himself to observations without equipment and of a non-quantifiable nature. “I went as an investigator and returned as a pilgrim,” he writes in a 1995 book, Medjugorje and Theistic Parapyschology, adding that he cannot explain the apparitions without the presence of Mary.
Pandarakalam, a Catholic since birth, sees the rote prayers of the rosary (repeated recitation of the “Hail Mary” prayer), as often recited by the visionaries, as an element of self-hypnosis and mindfulness—a preparation for spiritual communication with higher dimensions. Others have said that it leads to a meditative state, more “mindlessness,” which opens one up to a deeper awareness. Nor does Pandarakalam see such prayers as a need for adoration on the part of Mary. Rather, it is a more of a matter of her not being able to help unless humans ask to be helped through her intercession.
As for fasting, Pandarakalam explains that it generates hypoglycemia in the brain, causing it to become less active and for psychical powers to thus become more active. “A fasting person becomes spiritually more attuned with the higher dimensions if he also prays,” Pandarakalam says. “Prayer is seeking God, a dialogue with God, a surrender to God.”
A difficult conundrum presents itself from all of this, especially for those who believe they have achieved a reasonable degree of spiritual consciousness. If they accept that the visionaries are actually communicating with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and further accept that all the messages involving love, peace, forgiveness, and charity have value, and that the world does need to become more spiritual and less materialistic, must they also accept a return to more primitive ideas, such as devils with horns and tails in a fire and brimstone environment, and a heaven with angels doing nothing but singing praise to God for eternity? Can they be selective, choosing to believe what appeals to reason, while discounting the twaddle? Or is it possible that such twaddle is really truth?
Based on revelation coming to us through various mystics, visionaries, mediums, near-death experiencers, and others able to penetrate the veil into a greater reality since the time of Swedenborg, many “believers” have discovered a more intelligent afterlife, one in which hell is really a “fire of the mind,” like a bad dream, and a state from which there is an escape. Above that lowest level are a number of realms through which souls advance and progress toward Oneness with the Creator while retaining their individuality. Those realms, the believers come to understand, involve much more activity than strumming harps for eternity. Have such believers been misled?
As Laurentin suggests, the communication strikes the sense faculties of the visionaries, as well as the many pilgrims, according to their ad modum recipientis. In effect, this means that they comprehend it based on their limited knowledge and understanding of things. Much of it is beyond their comprehension and vocabulary, and they do their best to convert it to words and symbols familiar to them. That would account for devils with horns and tails, but one is left to wonder why an advanced spiritual being would not realize that her communication would be significantly distorted and confuse those who have discovered a more intelligent afterlife. Could it be that Mary was and is focused on reaching the masses—those who had lost simple faith, as was the case in communist countries, and needed to be brought back to at least a basic level of spiritual consciousness, one from which they might later advance? In other words, did she find it necessary to begin with Religion 101, not 301?
Could it also be that those who believe they have achieved a higher spiritual consciousness than the limited one with the primitive ideas and symbolisms of the visionaries are expected to reason and understand Mary’s tactics, at the same being reminded of the essential teachings of love, peace, forgiveness, and charity?
Perhaps it will all make more sense if and when the 10 secrets are revealed. Stay tuned…
To witness Mirjana in ecstasy during a very recent apparition, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nrfbl3AKeOo
CAPTIONS: The visionaries, as they witness an appearance in early 1980s (photo: courtesy of James P. Pandarakalam). In The Song of Bernadette (the 1943 movie), Jennifer Jones played St. Bernadette of Lourdes, to whom Mother Mary often appeared. Medjugorje visionaries in 2000 (photo: courtesy of James P. Pandarakalam).