Prof. Dr. Mark Miravalle, professor of Theology and Mariology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville (USA) is a permanent deacon, a married man and a father of 8 children. Shortly after the beginning of the apparitions, while he was writing his doctorate in Rome, he came to Medjugorje to investigate the events.
Tell us about your first contact with Medjugorje, and about the consequences?
In September 1984, I was a PhD student at the Angelicum, the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas in Rome. At that time, the first two books about Medjugorje had been published, the first one by Fr. Laurentin and Fr. Rupčić, and the other by Fr. Robert Faricy. As I read these books in a Roman bookstore, I experienced a burning desire in my heart to come and investigate Medjugorje. My wife and I had two children at that time, and we decided to pray and fast in preparation for the four days that I would be gone. Therefore, if it was the case that it was not Our Lady, it would nevertheless be an opportunity to promote the holiness of our children, whereas if it really was Our Lady, there would be a double blessing!
So I came for the first time on the 7th of December, and I spent the night in the church of Saint James, without any heating, with ten other pilgrims from the area. The following day I was allotted to a family with whom I would stay. As I made my first prayer pilgrimage up Krizevac, I prayed about my Dissertation, the title of which was the Holiness of the Laity, in the light of the Doctors of the Church, Saint Catherine of Sienna, Saint Francis de Sales and Saint Alphonsus Liguori, and the more I prayed about it, the more I realized that it would be presumptuous of me to think that I could come up with a better model for the Holiness of the Laity than the Blessed Mother herself. It was at that point that I decided to write my Doctoral Dissertation on the Message of Medjugorje.
I returned to Rome, but since the first title I submitted was rejected, because it concerned a private revelation, I submitted a second title which was duly accepted. The theme this time envisioned an examination of the Message of Medjugorje in the light of Scripture, the fathers of the Church and the Second Vatican Council, and would include a comparison with Lourdes and with Fatima. On the 31st of May 1985, I successfully defended my Dissertation on the Message of Medjugorje.
At that point, I considered spending my whole life speaking exclusively on Medjugorje, but I was advised by a Jesuit priest that I would do more for Medjugorje by first becoming a professor in an established university. I took his advice and began teaching at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, where I have been teaching Theology and Mariology for the past 21 years.
That was my introduction to Medjugorje. I have spoken throughout the US on the Message of Medjugorje. I wrote the entry on Medjugorje for the New Catholic Encyclopedia, as well writing a book entitled “Introduction to Medjugorje” based on its messages, together with a text called “Medjugorje and the Family”. I wrote the second text because there were many families that said: “We tried to live Medjugorje for one day, but we gave up. We prayed, we fasted although we had never fasted before, we tried to pray the Rosary, and yet at the end of that one, single, Medjugorje-type day we as a family fought even more than ever before. We just could not do it, so we gave up.” As a direct consequence, I decided to write a book. Actually, I gave a series of lectures at the Franciscan University of Steubenville on Our Lady’s messages that were specific to the family, and the need to embrace them gradually and with true commitment and sensitivity according to the legitimate needs of the children and of family life.
Many are opposed to Medjugorje precisely because they think that what is asked here is simply too much…
But it is not too much! My evidence concerning one’s ability to live the Message of Medjugorje came from observing the local people do so. But they did so with wisdom and with pastoral sensitivity. The families prayed together in the evenings. There was always the prime concern to put one’s vocation first, which involved the education of the children, and appropriate spousal love. In practical terms that meant that some children would eat neither meat nor sweets on Wednesdays and Fridays, while the older children could do more fasting. Like a good shepherd, or a good pastor however, Our Lady suggested a sensible, gradual progression. For example, in the beginning there was the call to fasting just on Fridays. Similarly, the original call was for the recitation of just one Rosary a day. Later, there was the call for three Rosaries daily. During the harvest time, when the people said: “We cannot fast just on bread and water”. Our Lady said: “You may add fruit”. So, Our Lady gradually built up the message, which originally called for just the Creed and seven Our Fathers, Hail Mary’s and Glory be’s. It is unfair for the person beginning just now, to blame Medjugorje for the seeming severity of the demands, without allowing that there has been a gradual, pastoral and motherly build-up, over a 26 year period, to living a more generous love, enriched by prayer and fasting.
Are you living the messages in your family?
We try. We began, first of all, by going to daily Mass. We believe that Mass is the greatest gift of the day for the faithful, as Our Lady herself has told us. We believe that if nothing else at all is accomplished that day, we have done the greatest thing, because we have been at the sacrifice of the Mass, and we and our older children have received the Bread of Life. Whether there is no school or no work, if nothing else is accomplished, we believe that we have done the greatest thing for holiness, and the greatest thing for our children, by assisting at Holy Mass.
Secondly, we try to pray the Rosary each morning, but we most certainly pray the Rosary every evening. We try to pray two Rosaries a day, God willing, and we also recite the Chaplet of Mercy at 3.00pm each day. We also try to go to confession every Saturday. We feel that confession together as a family is very important, because family reconciliation demands the cooperation of all the members. If some members of the family go to confession, but one does not do so, one can bring discord into the family. We fast on Wednesdays and Fridays, observing at least a meatless and sweet-free fast by all members of the family.
When I was in Rome, I recall that at about 7.00pm one night, I said to my wife: “You take the children. I am getting too cranky, but I don’t want to break the fast”, and I went to bed. But I realized how wrong I was! I was putting fasting before the family, instead of using fasting as a positive means to holiness for the family. Typically, we have an evening meal. I try to fast until then on bread and water, while at the same time we try to cater responsibly for the particular needs of our children. Obviously, we are far from living the messages in a radical way.
Do you think that you are a “normal” family? Do you think that other people who are not working in as protected a context as you are at Steubenville, are called or able to live the messages?
I will answer the second question first. Our Lady gave one message for 6 billion people. When you give one message for 6 billion people, first of all, you give the grace for each one to be able to live it according to their individual capability. For example, if someone says: “I cannot fast on Wednesdays and Fridays because I am a diabetic”, then that person is called to a different form of fasting… to fast from television or from gossip, which may be far harder for many then fasting from food. We are certainly called to fast from sweets and such like. If you are a pregnant mother, you fast differently from a healthy young man. But, there is no aspect of the message that cannot be embraced by everyone. Fr. Jozo said in a recent talk that Our Lady has the prescription. We go to the doctor when we require medicine, and we take the medicine religiously. But Our Lady has given us the medicine for our needs today! If we don’t take the medicine, we can’t blame the doctor! The Message of Medjugorje is the medicine for everyone. If it is taken on board with prudence and with a sincere heart, then everyone can live the message.
Are we a “normal” family? I think it depends on what we consider normal. The question now is, “should we be a normal family”, if “normal” means being a secular family, a family that is dominated by television or video games? I think the family has never been under more attack than at present, and John Paul II says precisely that in his document on the Rosary. The crisis in the world today is a crisis of peace and of the family. So, I think, Jesus calls us to change. We should not be afraid to be different, realizing how important it is for our children to see us living the Message. Our children were aged 5 months and 2 years respectively when we first came to Medjugorje in 1984. Since then, our children have grown up with Wednesday and Friday fasting. They consider fasting normal. Even when they go away, they consider it odd not to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. It is second nature to them.
Do they have any problems with their friends, when they meet people who do not live in this way?
It is difficult. It is especially difficult for the adolescents. The younger children have fewer problems. They speak about it with a heroic honesty. “It’s Friday, I cannot have sweets today!” Why? “Because Our Lady said we have to give them up!” For adolescents it is difficult. I have a son who went to a Catholic boarding school, where even on Fridays during Lent the boys did not fast. He had some difficulties. He called home and said: “I am so disappointed that, in a Catholic school, they do not fast on the Fridays in Lent because they say they are only 13 years old, so they don’t have to fast!” With the adolescents, we have to be especially patient but firm. Even if they don’t understand it, fasting is a genuine source of grace for them nevertheless. Our Lady calls us to be faithful to the great graces for the protection of the Family, which is under attack. Jesus said that nothing protects us from Satan as powerfully as prayer and fasting.
After the Council, in the famous Aggiornamento, the Church gave up many old traditions. Some had the impression that “everything” was lost. Medjugorje has provoked a movement of zealous people who want to live their faith in a radical way. Some say that Medjugorje is a model that can be applied to every parish in the world, while others say the opposite. Is Medjugorje a catalyst for the renewal of the family and of the parish, or a call for some to “do more” than others?
In my Dissertation for my Doctorate, I divided the Medjugorje issue into various categories. The first of these involved the fundamental themes: faith, prayer, fasting, penance and peace. I found these foundational themes of both Scripture and the Fathers of the Church to be truly present in the Message of Medjugorje.
The second part of my Dissertation dealt with what I called developmental themes such as ecumenism, and I found those themes very much in evidence in the documents of the Second Vatican Council. I would say that the Message of Medjugorje is a contemporary call to holiness, and at the same time it is a call to return to the most deeply rooted traditions of our Catholic faith. In Medjugorje Our Lady is calling us to return to the original ascetical practices of the earliest believers! In the early Church, there was this zeal, even unto martyrdom! Our Lady calls us to have the same zeal today. Her message embraces the basics of the faith, entirely in accordance with the Magisterium, expressed in contemporary language. It is a new call to holiness and the radicality of the Gospel, but rooted in the deepest tradition of what it means to be a Catholic.
Why are many bishops so reluctant if everything is so good?
There is some fear regarding the whole domain of private revelation, allied to an occasional lack of understanding of the position of the Church regarding private revelations. I am currently reading the writings of Pope Benedict XVI regarding prophecy and private revelation. You find a beautiful balance between a proper caution regarding a reported message and an openness to the Holy Spirit, whether in relation to prophecy or to miraculous intervention. For example, at Fatima, the local clergy were prohibited from visiting Fatima from 1917 until it was approved in 1930. In the meantime, two of the visionaries died, a full 10 years before Fatima was approved. Yet, John Paul II beatified the only two children in history that were not martyrs, for living a reported private revelation even before it was approved by the Church! That tells us that the true position of the Church involves caution, yes, but also an openness to the Holy Spirit.
What would you say about the holiness of the visionaries? We have read about various visionaries in the past, but we do not really know much about them. Information about them is very much limited. In our times, the visionaries of Medjugorje are openly exposed to the eyes of the whole world… what about their holiness?
Examining the visionaries, we again have to return to what the Church considers to be the true criteria of authenticity. The Church does not require sanctity of a visionary. The Church requires basic integrity from the time the apparitions began. There are cases of visionaries and saints who have had a very secular past. There are cases where both saints and visionaries who, prior to the time of the apparitions, had led lives that were not reflective of the Gospel.
Such as Saint Augustin…?
Certainly, and many others besides such as Mary Magdalene and Matthew! So it is not fair to measure the visionaries of Medjugorje by a higher standard than that which Jesus had for his apostles! At the same time, there should be a basic authenticity and a basic integrity of lifestyle of the visionaries, but exceptional holiness of the visionary is not required for authenticity. For example, one of the visionaries at Knock in Ireland left the Church some time after the apparitions, because he got into a fight with a parish priest! On his deathbed, he said, “Those apparitions were true”, and “I am still mad at this priest”! It is also well known that Saint John Vianney said of the visionary of La Salette, “This cannot be authentic, because the visionary does not radiate holiness to me”. As soon as the Church did approve La Salette, Saint John Vianney changed his position and said: “I accept what the Church says”. So, the ultimate criteria of authenticity, as the Church examines it, are not based on the holiness of the visionary, but on the visionary’s integrity and straightforwardness. That said, I personally find the visionaries of Medjugorje to be exceptionally generous in terms of their offering of their private lives to Our Lady. I think there is a genuineness about them that bespeaks authenticity. There are no errors. There is a clear down to earth tone that they maintain. They do not try to impress anybody, which is most impressive in the case of these visionaries… their authenticity.
Many pilgrims, and Catholics in general, would like to have the visionaries as their own little idols. In Medjugorje, the visionaries clearly reject this.
There is always the danger of visionary worship which can enter even into authentic apparitions. But the primary responsibility for that should not fall on the visionaries, unless the visionaries are deliberately promoting such behavior. I see no evidence of that here. If the people inappropriately put the visionaries on a pedestal, I think they have to examine whether the visionaries are pointing to themselves, or to Jesus, to the Eucharist and to Our Lady. Padre Pio encountered a woman who once came and said: “I have to confess that I maybe love you too much”. He said: “Be at peace, it is not me that you love, it is Jesus that you love”. Ultimately it becomes a matter of the heart. The visionary is a tool of God. As saint Benedict said, “I am a tool of God. When you are done with me, put me in the corner”. That should be the attitude both of the visionaries and of those who accept the Message.
You have been to Medjugorje several times…What developments have you observed over the past 26 years?
I have been here four times. I came twice in 1984. I returned again in 1992, and this current visit is my fourth. Over the years I have observed much development. There is always the objection concerning the shops… “The shops have surrounded Medjugorje”. As you enter Fatima, or indeed Lourdes, they are surrounded by shops! Once again, it is not the shops, but our hearts that should be examined! There is nothing wrong with bringing home a Rosary that was blessed by Our Lady, but if we are spending more time in the shops than on Apparition Hill, then our hearts are disordered! In 1984, when there was no possibility of distraction, it was a time of holy simplicity, but the Mother that came then is the same Mother that comes now. We have to be a little more protective of our hearts. We should remind ourselves, or the priests should remind us, that we are not on a shopping tour but on a pilgrimage. However, I see developments as positive in general. I see the 35 million pilgrims as testimony to the fruits. Controversy will always ensue where Our Lady appears. I think the spiritual fruits are self evident, and they are the ultimate criteria that Cardinal Ratzinger said should be examined when you are assessing a reported Message.
What about the Church’s criteria of discernment?
When the Church examines the apparitions, it examines three areas:
1. The Message content. Is the message in conformity with the faith and teachings of the Catholic Church? It was the object of my PhD to prove that there is not one single Medjugorje message that in any way conflicts with the official teaching of the Church’s Magisterium. Look at the message and you will see the three words that are used more than any others: Peace, Love and Prayer. The Message is a sound, orthodox, catholic message which is open to all people.
2. Secondly, the Church examines what we call the “Phenomena”. These include matters such as the reported ecstasies of the visionaries. The Medjugorje visionaries have been tested by two medical teams. One team came from the Montpellier University in France, and the other came from Milan in Italy. Both concluded that the visionaries are communicating with a being outside their own time-space limitations, and the commissions also ruled out any possibility of hallucination.
3. The Church examines the spiritual fruits based on Jesus’ own words, “You know the tree by its fruits”. The Church looks for lasting spiritual fruits - not just a temporary conversion, but rather a return to the Church after 40 or 50 years estrangement from it. Look at the queues for confession! How many bishops, priests and religious have come on pilgrimage to this place! People are so convinced by Medjugorje that they are returning to prayer and the sacramental life of the Church, and this more than at any other apparition in the present era. The queues for confession, the Mass attendances and Rosaries are everywhere in evidence. All of these are rock solid, Scripture-based testimony to the fact that indeed it is Jesus who sends his Mother to Medjugorje. As one author said, “If Satan is behind Medjugorje, he has made the greatest mistake of his existence”.
So, as the Church examines a reported Message, for which the relevant criteria were put in place in 1978, Medjugorje scores the highest conceivable scores on all three levels both from the theological and the scientific perspectives.
How long do we have to wait for Church approval?
The purpose of private revelation is to renew our commitment to Scripture, Tradition and the Magisterium. As we look at the Church in the world today, we see endless signs of the need to be renewed. Why does the world need a message of spiritual peace, leading to family peace, leading to global peace? We have only to read the newspapers to observe the lack of peace, the terrorism in the world and the terrorism in the womb. As long as those terrorisms prevail, we will not have peace in this world. We should be grateful that Our Lady continues to come. And how long do we have to wait? I always think of Sister Lucia of Fatima. She waited 70 years for the Consecration to take place. We have to be patient and do our part to expedite matters. That’s the only thing we can be certain of… the more we pray, fast, and respond to the Message of Medjugorje, the sooner will the universal approval of Medjugorje come about.