Fr. Dermod McCarthy, ordained a priest in 1966, Editor of Religious Programmes in RTE, honoured for his lifetime achievement in religious broadcasting, a consultor of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications at the Holy See and former Administrator of the Pro-Cathedral of Dublin, was in Medjugorje in June 2006, together with a large group of about 300 Irish pilgrims. At the end of his pilgrimage, he shared with us his thoughts and experiences. (Interview by Lidija Paris)
Fr. Dermod, would you be so kind as to tell us about your first contact with Medjugorje?
Fr. Dermod McCarthy: This is my second visit to Medjugorje. When I first came here, 19 years ago, I was administrator of St. Mary’s Pro-Cathedral, which is the Catholic cathedral of Dublin. The archbishop, Dr. Kevin McNamara, was near the end of his life, he was quite ill, and I - as administrator - had received various requests from groups in Dublin who were connected with Medjugorje, to have gatherings and prayer services in the cathedral. I was aware that there was a difficulty about the recognition of the apparitions in Medjugorje, and that the local bishop had not given his assent, and I did not want to place the then or future archbishop of Dublin in an awkward situation vis-à-vis his episcopal colleague in Mostar. I had heard various stories about the sun spinning and rosaries turning to gold, and of course daily apparitions to the six visionaries… I said, I’d better go and see!
I came with a group to Medjugorje. I came rather sceptically, but I was immensely impressed. The sun did not spin for me, and my rosary beads stayed the same colour, but what I saw here was a tremendous outpouring of faith, of belief, of holiness. As I said in a homily during Mass with my group two days ago, the priesthood of the laity took on a completely new meaning for me, because I saw that ordained priests and lay people were supporting each other in a mutually powerful way. This is in accordance with what Our Lady said right from the start. It was also interesting that there was no unique ritual happening here, as in Lourdes, where you go and bathe in the water, you touch the rock of the grotto and walk in torchlight processions. You cannot do those things at home, but everything that happens here you can do at home. She was reiterating what she had said at Cana: “Do whatever he tells you!” That was very striking for me. The fact that people were cramming the church for prayer, a great well of volume of song, of outdoor queues of penitents for confession - the confessionals were not built at the time - all of that made a lasting impression on me.
Nothing extra was built back then… we stayed at a farm house about a kilometre from Medjugorje… I was very conscious of the fact that we were staying at somebody’s home. We were given a warm welcome. One of the other striking things about the apparitions here in Medjugorje at that time was the obvious support from the people of the parish for what was happening here. I did not sense any small town jealousy or hear any muttered comments like ‘why should her daughter or his son be given the apparitions, and not my children?’ There was wonderful support from all the people. That also had to be the influence of Our Lady in this parish.
I was very impressed. I went back to Dublin, saying to myself: we had better wait until the new archbishop is appointed, before we have any Medjugorje events in the cathedral, but I will actively support any such requests when he is appointed. And that happened in due course. Now, I am back, 19 years later…
In the meantime, you became the Editor of Religious Programmes in Irish television…
In 1991, I was asked to become head of religious programmes in RTE, Ireland’s national broadcasting organisation. I had already a long experience of working in the media. I was ordained priest in 1966, and from 1965 until 1982, I worked with three other priests in the documentary film unit RADHARC – the Gaelic word for ‘View’ or ‘Panorama’. We made television documentary films all over Ireland at first, and later around the world. It was a most exciting time for making documentaries of a religious nature. Our series, which was immensely popular on Irish television, was never narrowly focused; we covered the issues, initiatives, movements and interesting people that influenced the Catholic Church immediately after the Vatican Council. We went to Brazil, to Africa, to Japan, the Philippines, Korea, Hong Kong, and dozens of other countries. The programmes helped to open the eyes of people to the realities of the worldwide Church. We Irish have always had the idea that missionaries went out from holy Ireland, brought Christ to all these people, and gave them the faith… There is a certain amount of truth in that, but there is another truth: in many ways, our missionaries went and discovered Christ very much alive and active in those communities. Many missionary priests, brothers, sisters and lay workers were coming back to Ireland and bringing some of that energy, enthusiasm and fire of the Gospel into what was a rather traditional, and tired Church at home.
Many priests and Bishops speak about the tiredness of the Church in western countries… Many also appreciate what is happening in Medjugorje, because so many pilgrims come back home, and bring a new zeal to their parishes… Now, 19 years after your first coming, have you seen changes here in Medjugorje?
The spirit has not changed, and that is great to see. I find the same kind of enthusiasm, the same kind of welcome and warmth here, as 19 years ago. Of course, there are more cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops, larger houses and more plentiful places for pilgrims to stay. But even the simple thing – the fact that pilgrims can make themselves a cup of coffee or tea at any time of the day in their pansion, is hugely appreciated. I am here with a group of 300… it was the initiative of Heather Parsons, who has written three books about Medjugorje, to bring this group together – a big group to manage, but I have heard no complaints, apart from some about snoring room-mates! On the contrary, there have been many very positive comments. I don’t see any sign of a rip-off here and hope it never happens. Thankfully the same atmosphere inspired by the evident faith of pilgrims still obtains here. I like the new facilities for pilgrims – they have been added with quiet and practical efficiency. The church, of course, is far too small to accommodate everyone – there is no virtue in continuing discomfort! And the standing-room-only crowding breaks every modern health and safety rule! But I’m sure the authorities here are contemplating building a more spacious covered place of worship. It is long overdue.
How do you see the spirituality of Medjugorje - if there is a spirituality of Medjugorje at all?
I have been asking the question of myself and others if there is a distinct spirituality of Medjugorje. I do not think there is. I think it is more a call to deepen the spirituality that we already have. A new understanding of what we all received as children, in school and home; it is a reawakening of that, it is a renewal of that kind of uncomplicated faith, unembarrassed faith. As for the apparitions of Mary, at first you feel - if she is the Mother of God - her messages should be more theologically substantial. In fact they are deceptively simple. And I say to myself: I have been through theology courses, maybe this is the time for me to get back to the simple faith that we all have, and we grew up with. Time to look again at what Our Lady is saying, read the messages again, re-read them, and read between the lines, between the words.
She has to speak in words that are understandable to people of all ages, all races, all backgrounds. And here am I, coming with my theological training and an innate sense of clerical superiority in matters religious which I believe is more a hindrance than a help in understanding Our Lady’s messages? One has to be humble enough to start over and think it through again. The spirituality of Medjugorje is a spirituality that can apply to everybody. It is about returning to our homes, whatever country we come from, re-energised, re-enthused, finding anew the truth that has been there for 2000 years. And above all, She directs us back to Her Son all the time. Some of the things that She says are very challenging… Some of the things to which She calls us are not easy: fasting on bread and water two days a week, 3 rosaries daily and so on. I have to re-organise my time and look again at the schedule, and see, have I the bottle to do this? Am I willing to make the time to do it?
I think Medjugorje is very necessary at this moment in the history of Europe and of the world. It is a call back to a simpler faith, which is not simplistic, naïve, or disconnected from the realities of life. It is a daily recognition that there is a God, that we have a Saviour who saved us, that His Mother is constantly introducing Him to us and calling us to listen to Him, and that the Holy Spirit is there, surrounding and supporting us with divine love.
Our Lady is speaking about God the Father, about God the Creator, about the creation… While calling Herself “Queen of Peace”, she is touching the key issues of our time, in which there is a danger of destroying our resources… inner war within ourselves, between what is right and wrong for the whole humanity…
In a number of messages, she says: “Read the signs of the times.” What does she mean? It could very well be the global unease, the global fear, the global poverty gap, the societal greed in certain parts of the world, including, regrettably, my own country. The signs of the times – it is a very pregnant phrase… I think that Medjugorje is a recall moment for all of us to think about these things. But not to be despondent. Rather to find ways of bringing about the peace of which Mary speaks so often, in every area of our lives, private and public, according to our individual spheres of influence.
You have heard the visionaries speaking. They are most of the time saying the same thing. You are a man of the media, of television, of communication. How do you understand this way of transmitting the message? Pilgrims hear it again and again, and they seem never to have enough of it…
The visionaries do not play according to media rules. They don’t go along with the commandment “thou shalt be new all the time, thou shalt be different, thou shalt be colourful”. Everything must be “edgy” or ‘alternative’ according to the gospel of today’s media. I am reminded of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, who likewise said the same thing over and over. We cannot judge Medjugorje by the standards of most media coverage. We have to think for ourselves and not be influenced by trends or fashions in public opinion. It takes courage to withstand the constant pressure, especially on young people, to perform and conform to other people’s opinions – often the product of clever marketing. Medjugorje holds a mirror up to my own beliefs and challenges me to think again – for myself!
I am impressed by the way the visionaries speak. I was listening to Mirjana the other day; there was no sense of trying to shock, no sense that she was tired of talking about her experiences. She was as enthusiastic, as clear and as riveting as I feel she would have been 25 years ago. I met both Mirjana and Ivan this week. There was no self-opinionated sense of celebrity about them, which is a natural temptation, but obviously foreign to them. There is no sign that they want to draw attention to themselves. Attention all the time to what Mary is saying, yes, and to the messages that she is giving, not to themselves. That comes across very clearly.
All that you are saying are signs of authenticity. According to you, why is the Church still hesitant?
I find it amazing that the local Church has not yet confirmed what is happening here in Medjugorje. I am not a canon lawyer but whatever canonical reasons are being put forward to delay official recognition, it is scandalous that the official Church here in Bosnia and Herzegovina is so far behind the people of the world who, year after year, spend so much time, financial resources and energy to come and pray here on Apparition Hill, on Krizevac. That does not happen for such a long period because of some kind of deceit. I think of Gamaliel addressing the Sanhedrin in the Acts of the Apostles: ‘If this is a purely human invention, it will break up of its own accord, but if comes from God, not only will you not stop it, you could even find yourselves fighting against God’. I believe the official Church loses credibility for herself by not backing up what is happening in Medjugorje. It seems to me that Catholics throughout the whole world have given their blessing, their affirmation, their own recognition. People generally are not stupid and certainly not 25 million over 25 years! Any prelate who would visit incognito and watch for a day what is happening here in Medjugorje, the evident depth of belief, the spirit of true contrition and prayer, and join pilgrims struggling up Krizevac, some bare-footed, as they contemplate the Stations of the Cross, could not but be convinced that all this is clear witness to a divine presence in a uniquely powerful way, that Medjugorje is indeed a place chosen by the Lord himself for his Mother to appear.