A spiritual battle is simmering between the Vatican and a popular shrine to the Virgin Mary in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the New York Times reports. The Vatican is investigating the shrine’s main claim to fame: that the Virgin Mary makes regular, in-person appearances. They are skeptical.
The Times reports that pilgrimages to the shrine, known as Our Lady of Medjugorje, have fallen sharply during the Vatican’s investigation of whether or not Our Other Lady really drops by. The shrine’s official website claims that the Virgin has been appearing regularly since 1981, when she appeared to six children to convey a message of peace, and that visiting the spot has offered heaven-sent healing to some pilgrims. (That is not an unusual claim for holy shrines; New Mexico’s Santuario de Chimayo is believed by many Catholics to have holy dirt with healing properties, which pilgrims say has cured their infertility and even cancer.)
But Medjugorje has also become a major tourist destination, with all the booming business that implies. In March 2010, the Vatican began investigating whether the shrine was in compliance with Catholic doctrine, and in 2013, an American archbishop warned U.S. Catholics not to participate in Medjugorje-related events, saying it was “not possible” to determine if the apparitions were real:
“The Congregation [for the Doctrine of the Faith] has affirmed that, with regard to the credibility of the ‘apparitions’ in question, all should accept the declaration … which asserts: ‘On the basis of the research that has been done, it is not possible to state that there were apparitions or supernatural revelations,’” Archbishop Carlo Vigano wrote in an Oct. 21 letter to the bishops of the U.S., sent to the general secretary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The investigation concluded some 18 months ago, but its findings have not yet been released. In the meantime, business has fallen sharply, aggrieved pilgrim-fixers tell the NYT:
Already, since the pope announced in June that a decision was imminent, the numbers of Italians — once the bulk of the pilgrims here — have fallen by half.
“Whatever the verdict turns out to be, this wait is creating a state of uncertainty for the pilgrims, and that affects the season,” said Sante Frigo, an Italian married to a pilgrim guide in Medjugorje.
“From the point of view of the pilgrimage supply chain,” he added, “it’s been a catastrophe.”
There’s also been a great deal of speculation about how the usually chill Pope Francis will respond (although, as the Times points out, the investigation was initiated by his predecessor, former Hitler Youth Pope Benedict). In July, Pope Francis gave a clue; he cracked a veiled joke about the shrine, saying that Catholics shouldn’t be looking for “visionaries who can tell us exactly what message Our Lady will be sending at 4 o’clock this afternoon.”
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Pilgrims pray at the hill where the Virgin Mary is believed to have appeared, Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, June 2012. Image via AP.