Book - Medjugorje: What's Happening?

 Medjugorje: What's Happening? By James Mulligan (Dusty Sandals Press Ltd, £12)

Since a group of children first claimed to have witnessed apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the summer of 1981, the Bosnian village of Medjugorje has become not only one of Europe's top pilgrim destinations but also a centre of controversy. Fr James Mulligan has set himself the task of disentangling fact from rumour and myth to find out the real truth of this extraordinary story.

After providing a detailed account of the early visions in 1981, Fr James identifies the core messages in them: prayer, fasting, reading the Bible, confession and the Eucharist.

He then goes on to chronicle the subsequent events: investigations, reports of images in the sky, accusations of fraud, an astonishing attack from an Italian bishop, and bad blood between the local bishop and the Franciscans, who have always supported the visionaries, and alleged secrets, as they did at Fatima.

As with most shrines, there are always those who treat it as a holy theme park and make bizarre claims. When I visited Medjugorje I met people who claimed their rosaries had turned to gold. God as a jeweller was a new one on me.

And some maintain that the Virgin Mary protected Medjugorje during the Balkans War in the 1990s. That might have good news for the Catholic Croats who lived there but not for the thousands of other Croats, along with Serbs and Muslims, who were killed or injured across Bosnia in the fighting. Perhaps claims such as these need a bit more theological reflection before being made.

I also remember seeing a group of excited middle-aged Irish women pursuing an alarmed young nun dressed in a blue habit across the piazza in front of St James' Church. "Doesn't she look like Our Lady!" they exclaimed loudly to each other.

The Holy See has still not made its mind up about Medjugorje. Some say that Pope John Paul II accepted the apparitions as authentic; others that Pope Benedict XVI has expressed deep scepticism about them.

Whatever the private views of popes, the Church is quite rightly cautious about giving definitive decisions about apparitions. Fr James tells us only 10 apparitions have been declared authentic, among them Guadalupe, Lourdes and Fatima.

Nevertheless, thousands of priests and hundreds of cardinals and bishops have visited the shrine. Those that do have to conform to the strict clerical dress code of the Franciscan sisters - this means that trainers are banned.

Fr James points out that when the Church investigates reported apparitions it looks for evidence of moral integrity of the individuals claiming the apparitions. But it doesn't require that those who claim to experience the visions had led lives of exceptional holiness.

One of the most interesting sections of the book deals with the lives of the visionaries since the first apparitions. None of them have become priests or religious. All six have married. And by all accounts they lead very normal lives.

Medjugorje has expanded to meet the needs of the coach loads of pilgrims who arrive each day. Hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops now line the road to St James' Church.

That locals are making money from the shrine is to be expected and in no way should be taken as evidence that the whole thing has been invented to boost tourism, as some suggest. Pilgrims will always need somewhere to eat and sleep, and some will want to buy Virgin Mary tea towels or statues of Jesus that glow in the dark.

Among the shrine's well-known devotees are Hollywood actor Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in the movie The Passion of the Christ, opera star Andrea Bocelli, ex-gangster John Pridmore, now an international youth evangelist, and Sister Elvira Petrozzi, founder of the Cenacolo Community, which transforms the lives of drug addicts and alcoholics.

If you are a fan of Medjugorje, you'll find much to enjoy in this book, not least the dozens of photographs that illustrate it (including one of the Croatian national football team praying before the statue of Our Lady on Apparition Hill). And if you just curious about it, then you'll have many of your questions answered and also find much to ponder and puzzle over.

Whatever you think of Medjugorje, the fact that each year so many people from all over the world travel to a remote corner of Bosnia to simply pray and feed their soul rather than lounge on a beach somewhere is truly remarkable.

Lourdes has a reputation as a place of healing; Medjugorje as a place of reconciliation and new beginnings. That, not whether or not the Virgin Mary has appeared there, is really what is important about Medjugorje.

Medjugorje: What's Happening? By James Mulligan can be purchased on ICN through our Link to Amazon on the Home Page. Proceeds are going to Mother's Village orphanage near Medjugorje.

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