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What does the Holy See’s statement that “Pilgrimages to Medjugorje are authorized” really mean?  

By Snježana Majdandžić-Gladić, on 12 May 2019, translated from Croatian, Vjera i djela (Faith and Works, portal of Catholic theologians)



On 12 May 2019, at the morning Mass in Medjugorje (and then during the other Masses throughout the day), as reported in the audio recording and interpreted by the media, the Holy See’s statement on the authorization of pilgrimages to Medjugorje was read out. Archbishop-emeritus Henryk Hoser, Apostolic Visitor to Medjugorje, together with the Apostolic Nuncio to Bosnia-Herzegovina Archbishop Luigi Pezzuto, read the statement and the declaration states the following:

“Pope Francis has decided to authorize pilgrimages to Medjugorje, which can now be organized, always taking care to prevent these pilgrimages from being interpreted as an authentication of known events, which still require examination by the Church. Therefore, care must be taken to avoid creating confusion or ambiguity from the doctrinal point of view regarding such pilgrimages.

This also concerns pastors of every order and level who intend to go to Medjugorje and celebrate or concelebrate there even in a solemn way”.

Medjugorje, 12 May 2019.

Luigi Pezzuto, Apostolic Nuncio to Bosnia-Herzegovina

Henryk Hoser, Apostolic Visitor with a special role for the parish of Medjugorje”.

Although the faithful have been informed though this message that Pope Francis has declared that pilgrimages to Medjugorje can be organized, the declaration itself remains unclear in many segments, since one cannot comprehend who actually brought it about, what novelties it brings in the pastoral and doctrinal sense, as well as whether or not Medjugorje has now become a shrine. Hence, the entire purpose of the communication remains unclear.


Is this a statement from Pope Francis or the two Prelates?


First of all, the statement that was read is very brief and we are interested in knowing why Pope Francis’s direct decision was not read as is usually the case, but instead its interpretation by the Apostolic Visitor and the Apostolic Nuncio? We ask ourselves whether Pope Francis made a written decision on the matter at all, since it is not quoted either directly or through a link? Or have the two signatories by their own authority interpreted some of the Pope’s words spoken to the public or to them privately? Although we believe in principle that they faithfully conveyed the words of the Pope, yet by doing so in this manner, they have left space for doubt, since it is well-known that both, especially Archbishop Hoser through his authority, is trying to bring about a swift declaration of Medjugorje as a shrine. So, the fundamental question is whether this is a statement by Pope Francis or the two Prelates?

In view of the above, we ask ourselves what weight and meaning this statement holds? We believe that on such matters a written decision of the Holy See and an interpretation by its ministers cannot have the same legal force, especially if the written decision may not even exist. Citing the words that Pope Francis has decided and then at the same time not presenting his decision, leaves certain questions unanswered.

Yet if we put aside the incompleteness, inconsistencies and ambiguities, one can notice them in other parts of the statement as well, and in this light, we wish to highlight a few. That which is especially questionable we are placing in bold print.


Are organized pilgrimages to Medjugorje allowed or just possible?


First of all the statement says that Pope Francis has decided to authorize pilgrimages to Medjugorje, which can now be organized. When decisions are usually made at any level and in any area, they do not declare that something is possible, but that it is to be carried out. Hence, the meaning of this sentence seems truly strange. According to the way this complex possible decision was formulated, we cannot conclude whether the Pope has truly allowed for official pilgrimages or not. In other words, we do not see the reason why such a decision, which should be totally clear and unambiguous, i.e., which should clearly state whether organizing official pilgrimages to Medjugorje are allowed or not, remains so blurred and has left space for different interpretations.

On the other hand, contrary to the decision of the local bishop Ratko Perić and instructions of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, pilgrimages were organized to Medjugorje up until now, so we do not see anything new in this part of the declaration. Indeed, the statement (in the Italian and Croatian originals) does not mention official pilgrimages, but only pilgrimages, i.e., it does not state that bishops all over the world can allow, encourage and organize pilgrimages from their local Churches. Though this will be mentioned further down, we believe that this authorization should have been clearly emphasized here. Hence, we ask once again why was the decision incomplete and insufficiently precise, and why did it leave room for a diversity of interpretations? It seems to us that the statement could have been very clearly and unambiguously announced, but was not done so intentionally.


The contrast between allowing pilgrimages to Medjugorje and the inadmissibility of connecting this to the apparitions


What is even more confusing is the contrast evident in the next part of the sentence, which seems to deny everything said before. Although (non) official pilgrimages to Medjugorje can (even further) be organized, one must take care to prevent these pilgrimages from being interpreted as an authentication of known events, which still require examination by the Church. We ask ourselves what is the purpose of specifically approving pilgrimages if one must be particularly careful not to bring them into connection with the possible apparitions (which in the statement are indeterminately called known events) and if one must still wait for new investigations and the verdict of the Holy See? Especially if, as stated in the next sentence of the communication, care must be taken to avoid creating confusion or ambiguity from the doctrinal point of view regarding such pilgrimages.

We have pointed out many times in previous articles on the Medjugorje phenomenon, that it is dangerous to separate the doctrinal and pastoral questions. This means that in order to preserve the orthodoxy of the pilgrims, a firm belief that the apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary really occurred would be mandatory and not that these events involve falsehoods or possibly diabolic apparitions. Yet in the statement, it is obvious that preserving a balance between the pastoral and the dogmatic sides is not considered necessary.

This yielding to the pastoral side while leaving the doctrinal side in the sidelines, looks like a great sin of omission and impetus not only for scandal, but also for schism. This is because the Medjugorje phenomenon with its worldwide expansion has contributed to a split within the Church into two irreconcilable camps, those who are fully convinced of the credibility of the Medjugorje apparitions and those who are fully convinced of their lack of credibility.

We ask ourselves consequently, what would happen if a future Church investigation of Medjugorje were to confirm with absolute certainty that the apparitions are not authentic? It would be obvious then, that all the dangers arising from this and similar insufficiently thought-out and insufficiently clear statements would be plainly revealed, while in the meantime the Church suffered irreparable harm. Therefore, we believe that pastoral and doctrinal issues can never be separated, and that a healthy pastoral ministry can only be built on a healthy dogmatic background. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Medjugorje, so the warning made in the statement that care must be taken to avoid creating confusion or ambiguity from the doctrinal point of view regarding such pilgrimages, seems like a dead letter on paper, since these misconceptions and ambiguities are the permanent parasites of the Medjugorje phenomenon that are growing together with it.


What criteria should those pastors who want to go to Medjugorje follow?


The statement points out in the end, that this also concerns pastors of every order and level who intend to go to Medjugorje and celebrate or concelebrate there even in a solemn way. Although this part seems to be the most logical and clearest, it still has some ambiguity.

First, the criteria as we have seen, are far from healthy and clear principles, and in essence do not provide anything new. If they were to be strictly followed, according to what was actually stated rather than presupposed, one would more than likely conclude that organized official pilgrimages to Medjugorje are not allowed.

In addition, the probable form is utilized once again, i.e., it states that the same criteria can be applied (in the Italian and Croatian original), and not that this has been decided. So once again, we ask ourselves whether this is an actual approval of official pilgrimages to Medjugorje or not, since everything except the word decision is written in a plausible form.

In other words, all this leads us to the conclusion that the statement has been deliberately formulated unclearly, giving the impression that something appears to have changed, yet it remains essentially the same as up to now. In fact, so far many pastors around the world have not waited for the Pope’s approval to lead pilgrimages to Medjugorje, taking matters into their own hands, thereby ignoring the authority of the Holy See and the recommendations of Bishop Ratko Perić, hence, this statement means nothing to them. The others who are in the majority, who have not yet led their faithful to Medjugorje, will probably not do so in the future either, because they are aware of the meaning of the doctrinal issues and do not want to take their faithful to a place of only apparent apparitions.


The statement of Pope Francis approving pilgrimages to Medjugorje in the light of his words on the canonization of Blessed Alojzije Stepinac


In view of everything written thus far, it seems that the biggest problem lies the fact that the statement came at the wrong time, since it has been received largely with disapproval even among those who acknowledge the Medjugorje apparitions as well as those those who reject them. This is particularly visible in the numerous comments that readers have written below the published articles on this statement by Pope Francis.

The Pope’s words that he requested the help of the Serbian Patriarch Irinej in order to discover the truth about Stepinac, was naturally received by the Croatian faithful as another case of rubbing salt in the wounds of the Croatian nation, which in turn has led to a more intense rejection of his authority as the Vicar of Christ and head of the Catholic Church. By seeking the opinion of someone who does not belong to the Catholic Church, who shares the same ideology that led to Stepinac’s rigged accusations and his sufferings, that is, from one who is on the opposite side of the canonization process, truly appears to be an imprudent act that deeply hurt many who are convinced of Stepinac’s holiness. Given that the Pope’s statement on Medjugorje came only a few days after his words on Blessed Aloysius Stepinac, one can understand that many connected these things together, leading them to express their pain due to the Pope’s lack of knowledge of the essence of the Blessed Stepinac question, and therefore, they expressed their indignation regarding the decision on Medjugorje.

The majority of the comments are very negative in tone and directed against the authority of Pope Francis, which predominantly invite Pope Francis to ask Patriarch Irinej to advise him on Medjugorje as well, or they claim that the Pope by authorizing Medjugorje has given Croats some crumbs as compensation for the pain and insults inflicted on them.

This of course is not good and this attitude towards the Pope is obviously far from the devotion and the subjection to the Holy See exemplified by Blessed Alojzije Stepinac. Yet on the other hand, one should keep in mind that the Pope himself oftentimes, regarding both of the mentioned interventions: the statement on pilgrimages to Medjugorje and his statement on Stepinac, due to his insufficient knowledge of the essence of these issues, has contributed to the deepening and not the resolution of the problems.


Conclusion


Given all the above, a fundamental difficulty seems to arise regarding the question whether it is justifiable, rational and purposeful for a believer to publicly criticize individual papal viewpoints and decisions, or should one for the sake of the greater good, refrain from this and always try to speak well of today’s successor of Peter?

Specifically, the papal statements we are discussing here, as well as a series of his other positions, do not evoke much confidence, nor do they seem useful in building up the faith we have inherited from the Apostles and which we firmly believe should also be preserved untarnished. As many point out, it seems to us that Pope Francis often pushes the limits of orthodoxy and that he even crosses it, yet on the other hand, we realize the importance of showing deep and sincere respect for the earthly leader of the entire Catholic Church. Hence, we ask ourselves how can we find the right way that will encompass both?

While acknowledging that we would accept with far greater respect and take to heart for instance, the words of Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller or Cardinal Robert Sarah or Pope emeritus Benedict XVI (all of whom have always spoken with great respect on Blessed Alojzije Stepinac and who directly or indirectly questioned the authenticity of Medjugorje), as well as numerous other bishops all over the world who are increasingly raising their voices to defend the purity of the Catholic faith, contrary to the imprecise positions of Pope Francis, we still realize that the current Pope speaks from the depths of his heart and that what he does, he is doing with good intentions.

That is why we want to point out that the criticism above was not intended to undermine Pope Francis, neither Archbishop Hoser nor the Nuncio Archbishop Pezzuto, but instead that it is an expression of our most sincere desire that orthodoxy and true faith flourish always and everywhere in the Catholic Church, and that they never be choked by Medjugorje or any other thorns.