By Charlie Johnston
“In necessary things, unity. In undecided things, freedom. In all things, charity.” – St. Augustine
As we approach a decision from the Vatican on guidelines for Medjugorje, I am increasingly disturbed by the frantically growing triumphalism of some. I have heard some advocates of Medjugorje say that they don’t care what the Church says, they know it is real. That kind of talk shakes me. Did anyone at Medjugorje die for our sins? Did the One who did die for our sins promise to give us Medjugorje to guide us faithfully, or did He promise to give us a Church to do that? Don’t you know that when you proclaim you will defy the Church in its lawful authority you are defying the very Founder of your faith? Have you not read where Jesus says, “He who hears (my apostles) hears Me and he who rejects (my apostles) rejects Me and he who rejects Me rejects Him who sent Me.” – Luke 10:16? If you say you will reject something the Church says in the course of exercising its lawful authority you are just an exotic form of Protestant. Take care.
Some critics of Medjugorje have gone around the bend, not content to make their point, but determined to decry anyone who believes it authentic a heretic. Some of them have become Pharasaically unhinged. There is a good fellow in my own Archdiocese who has, occasionally contacted credible people who speak well of me, to try to discredit me. Sometimes he states different “problems,” but the real issue is that I have stated I believe in the fundamental authenticity of Medjugorje. Thus, in his mind, I must be a witch – and stopped by whatever means possible. Why would anyone be so eagerly obsessed with dismissing a site which has produced hundreds of thousands of conversion and thousands of vocations? I cannot but think it an intellectual vanity, a form of godliness that denies Christ could have any power He might express without going through them first. Sadly, I am encountering this sort of shrieking, rather than reasoned, opposition to it more and more of late.
At first I was just a bit bewildered by how deeply people at opposite ends of the poles were digging their heels in. Now I am becoming fearful that it could become a very serious source of division in the Church. I have spoken clearly when I have disagreed with the Bishops or the Pope on political, economic and scientific matters. Some don’t like that, some think I am not blunt enough. In each case however, the disagreement is limited to the point in question. I am getting the nagging feeling that some critics are jumping on the Pope’s occasionally brash statements to lay the groundwork for rejecting what his commission says on Medjugorje if it does not coincide with their personal beliefs. Several things are coming together, forming a perfect storm, that could cause an explosion of dissent and division in the Church. The unhinged aspects of the debate over Medjugorje is becoming part of that.
I ask everyone, particularly if you feel strongly one way or another about it, to step back and contemplate this in your heart a little more. Whatever guidelines come out must, of necessity, be provisional until the phenomenon is finished. A favorable finding would not suddenly make it all true, nor would a significant tightening of the reins make it all false.
I think it is fairly well known around here that I did NOT believe in Medjugorje until my angel told me, in March of 1993, that “Lourdes, Fatima and Medjugorje are all manifestations of a single event.” I briefly argued that Medjugorje seemed more like Niagara Falls, a gaudy tourist trap to me. He chuckled and said that it bore the barnacles of modern times, but is authentic at the heart of it. Those who are the most ardent advocates of Medjugorje get offended by the barnacles comment – but it was not my comment. Those opposed to it completely skip the implications of the barnacles comment in their rush to condemn me over the matter.
The authenticity of an apparition is no more dependent on the worthiness of all its participants than the validity of a Mass is on the worthiness of the priest who celebrates it. With six seers at Medjugorje, all may have started well. Some may have gone off the rails…some may have gone off for a time and come back or any combination of fidelity and confusion – without affecting the central issue of the authenticity of the phenomenon, itself. Neither Fatima, nor Lourdes, nor even the ministry of Christ, Himself, would survive that standard. In fact, such grounds were often used by the Pharisees as proof that Christ was false. At the heart of it all must be the messages themselves and the fruit they bear. I like to think that, on those grounds, I would have come to esteem it on my own, but I can be a bit stubborn at times, so I can’t say for sure.
Even if it is authentic, that does not mean that every action of every seer is at all times pure and holy. To think so is to substitute a cult of personality for a steady faith. My angel told me that the barnacles of modern times are attached to it. The Church has an obligation to set up guidelines. None who support it complained when the Church properly exercised its authority by revoking authority over it from a local Bishop who was publicly hostile to it. (All local matters are under the jurisdiction of the local Bishop. The Vatican can reverse him if there is a matter of error – or if the subject has become significant to the whole Church. It was for the latter reason that the Vatican took jurisdiction from the local Bishop.) The Vatican exercised its legitimate authority there in a way that pleased advocates. How can any consistently complain that the Vatican may exercise its proper authority in a way that puts some constraints on it? Either you must oppose both or support both to be intellectually consistent.
I must confess that, despite my belief in its authenticity, I have sometimes found some practices to be more like a patent medicine show than a show of faith there, though I have generally kept that to myself. When one of the seers started traveling around doing visitations by the Virgin Mary on demand, as it were, I found it very distasteful – and theologically offensive. Psychologically, it felt like a street organ grinder with Mary reduced to the role of…well, not the role of organ grinder. Far more dangerous, though, was the implication that having the seer present was necessary to have Our Lady close. It is important to me that everyone I see and speak to know that God, the angels, and the saints are close at hand to each of them, not just to me. I may be able to help give people heart, but I am not necessary to anyone. To say – or even act in a way that suggests otherwise is an abuse that would eventually lead people away from faith rather than towards it. So I am glad the Vatican is establishing some guidelines to refine everything. It is its proper duty and proper authority. Those guidelines may be too strict or they may be too loose. Sadly, in this world, we often respond to one set of abuses by going too far to the other side. But either way, it is its proper responsibility and, for now, can be no more than a matter of discipline. Please do not let it become a cause for division.
I have friends who believe in the authenticity and friends who do not believe in it. I have had some very fruitful and deep discussions with both skeptics and advocates from which I have learned much. I am grateful for all those perspectives, for it is how we grow ever closer to the fullness of truth. But for those who insist that their point of view is the only valid point on the matter, I have a warning from the Master. You are not propounding the faith, you are indulging in a vanity. You must neither bind what the Lord, through His apostles, has not bound, nor disobey the disciplinary authority set up by the Lord Himself. Should you do either, it is the Lord, Himself, who you defame.