Medjugorje and the New Evangelisation

Fra Ivan Dugandzic

1. The context of Medjugorje in the Church and in time

Medjugorje, in other words, that which is understood when the name of that small parish in Hercegovina is mentioned today, has already for seventeen-years a long and stormy, but above all, an unpredictable history. Because who seventeen years ago could have anticipated that the claim of the children to have seen Our Lady would reach to the furthermost parts of the world, and that the parish of Medjugorje would grow into one of the most distinctive shrines and develop such a dynamic spiritual movement before which no one can any longer remain indifferent. The experience of the group of children on Podbrdo hill in Bijakovici, accompanied by numerous messages and their tireless witnessing, has long ago outgrown both them and the parish, as well as the local Church and has become a spiritual phenomenon of world wide proportions. The children have long ago grown up. Most of them today are family people. And the small parish has become the meeting place of millions of pilgrims from the whole world. Among them are many who witness to having again found in Medjugorje a lost faith or to have quickened an already dormant faith. So many have again discovered the value of the sacrament of reconciliation, the depth and beauty of a live celebration of the Eucharist, and hearing of the word of God. Others again testify to physical healings for which medicine has no explanation. Inspired and animated by the Medjugorje events, numerous prayer groups as well as even completely new religious communities have originated in the parish itself and elsewhere. Meanwhile, many young men, who claim to have received the seed of their vocation precisely in Medjugorje, have found their way into the priesthood.

If we take all of this as the good fruits of Medjugorje, then the word of the wise Gamaliel that a work of God cannot be destroyed (cf. Acts 5:39) has already been fulfilled here. The fact is that both the visionaries and their parents, as well as the parish with its priests, have from the very beginning been exposed to pressures and threats by the authorities who wanted to extinguish everything, but they, even at the price of persecution, did not yield. In the beginning the bishop was well disposed to the events only later on incomprehensibly to turn against them. Pressured by public opinion rather than by the real will to authenticate which spirit is operating in Medjugorje, the Bishops' Conference attempted to be even-handed by accepting Medjugorje as a shrine, while at the same time emphasizing that it is necessary to continue studying the phenomenon still further. Such a position of the bishops is logical only on the presupposition that at the current stage of events and investigations they are still not able to render either a positive judgment or much less so a negative judgment because if they had real reasons, they would have at least had to render a negative judgment immediately. Confusion was later on introduced by statements of individual members of the Bishops' Conference which might have been understood in the sense that there is nothing at all supernatural in Medjugorje. That had as a consequence that Christian lay people in great numbers have been attracted to Medjugorje, but not also the hierarchy. And so the question of recognition by the official Church has been continuously brought up by the media. It should be said that this question is most often asked by those who know nothing at all about the nature of such phenomena, nor how the Church should relate to them. For the present time this is the ecclesiastical context in which the Medjugorje events are unfolding.

In order to comprehend the significance and far reaching quality of these events, the context of the time in which these events are unfolding is equally important. When the apparitions started, the end of an almost century long dictatorship of atheistic communism was on the horizon and it did soon happen. That presented one of the greatest spiritual challenges to mankind today, not only because of the collapse of the illusion of a happy classless society and the equality of all people, but still more so due to the condition of mind and spirit of hundreds of millions of people who were for generations brought up without God and without true spiritual values. On the other hand, the part of mankind that was beyond the range of communism had in the second half of this century been overtaken by a never before seen wave of hedonism which in a flood of drugs and pan-sexualism, free of taboos and boundaries, brings deadly fruits for the whole of mankind, even endangering its further survival. That is the context in time in which the Medjugorje apparitions are unfolding. These are warning signs. And Jesus already warned his contemporaries how important it is to recognize the signs of the time (cf Mt 16:3). That, to be sure, the Church of our times is also on principle doing at the highest level, in the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et Spes, no. 4), but it seems that there are not enough people in the Church to take these warnings seriously. But people keen of spirit have in Medjugorje recognized God's response to the needs and anxieties of our times. That is valid also for the numerous theologians, priests and bishops who, having recognized here the work of God, were not afraid also to openly give witness to that, some even with very solid studies and books.

Consequently, we must not look at Medjugorje as some isolated island to which we will retreat escaping from the world in which one can no longer hold out, looking for a substitute for the Church which is failing to orientate itself to a world the way it today is at the end of the twentieth century. On the contrary, Medjugorje is happening in the midst of a modern world which needs God in order to have any future at all. It is happening in the Church in order to startle it from being confused in face of the great modern challenges and to animate within it the spirit of its beginnings. It seems that the profound meaning of the Medjugorje events is not in just one more spiritual movement originating in the Church in addition to many others, but to set the Church as such into motion and that it recognizes its mission in the world of today, to comprehend its responsibility for the future of the world, which for various reasons has been brought into question. Naturally, that will be the reaction only of the one who understands that something good can come even from insignificant Nazareth (cf John 1:46) and that God always acts through the little and insignificant ones.

2.Medjugorje and spiritual movements in the Church

The Church of Jesus has from the beginning been aware that it owes its existence to the working of the Holy Spirit which He had promised and sent in His time (cf Lk 24:49; Acts 1:4 ff; 2:1 ff; John 14:16 ff, 26; 16:7-14). That holds not only for the original community in Jerusalem which had Jesus' promise, but also for any other. Thus Paul reminds the Galatians that they "began in the Spirit" (Gal 3:3), but he invites the Thessalonians "not to extinguish the Spirit" (1 Thess 5:19). When he invites the Christians in Rome "not to conform to this world" but "to be transformed by the renewal of your mind, so that you may judge what is God's will" (Rom 12:2), Paul again proposes the Holy Spirit as the renewing force which through baptism is already present in Christians (cf Rom 8:9 ff). That, it is true, is not a definitive, completed salvation, but only the first fruits of the Spirit, but sufficient for a Christian, together with all creation, to endure the birth pangs through which one must yet pass (Rom 8:23-27).

Based on that, throughout the centuries the Church has formed an awareness about itself as "the Church that must always be renewed" (Ecclesia semper reformanda). The Holy Spirit has in different times always found new ways for that internal fervor and life to come to expression in ever new forms. "The word on the Church that it must be constantly renewed throughout the centuries has essentially characterized the history of the Church. Again and again within the Church have emerged movements which endeavored radically to live the gospel, such as the religious communities founded by Benedict of Nursia, Bernard of Clairvaux, Francis of Assisi and Ignatius of Loyola".1 It must be admitted that all the above mentioned orders, and also many others, have in their times meant a profound renewal of the Church. Their charism has shed light throughout the centuries, strongly characterizing the spiritual life of the Church and the world in general. For that reason the very term "imitation of Christ" in spiritual doctrine and theology was limited only to the religious state, something certainly not in the spirit of the New Testament. Because the New Testament does not admit a double moral standard, for some only the way of the commandments and for others a very high set of demands to be followed. There is only one, and it is a common ideal of the Christian life, and that is the imitation of Jesus Christ. It pertains to the whole Church and that everywhere and at every time. That this ideal is able to be realized in different ways is another issue.

The Second Vatican Council made an effort to correct that, emphasizing the dignity, importance, and mission of Christian laymen in today's world. In the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church we read: "Therefore the laity, since they are consecrated to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are wonderfully invited and instructed for all the more abundant gifts of the Holy Spirit to be brought forth in them" (LG, no. 34). Thereby the Council then confirmed what was already happening in the Church, and at the same time gave a still greater impetus to new movements. Besides the already existing lay movements such as Focolarini, Cursillo, Opus Dei, Communione e Liberatione, Marriage Encounter, other different forms of renewal in the Spirit also appeared after the Council. Some were about individual renewal, or the various states of life through the renewal and the enlivening of the grace of the respective sacrament, or about renewal of parish communities. What is common to all these movements is the endeavor to create a style of spirituality suitable to our time, "spirituality as an impetus for the renewal of human ways of thinking and willing in the spirit of the Gospel, connected with an aspiration for experiencing faith in communion which opens up new approaches to prayer, the word of God, and the sacraments."2

Thereby, we may say, coordinates are given within which we are easily able to place Medjugorje as a special spiritual phenomenon of our time. In Medjugorje from the very beginning an explicitly lay spirituality has been created, since the visionaries are lay people, and their messages have to the greatest measure found a responsive chord in Christian lay people, inspiring them to an ever greater renewal out of the spirit of the gospel and to be open to prayer, the word of God, and the sacraments. From the very beginning in the church of Medjugorje it is the Eucharist, the proclamation of the word of God, the sacrament of reconciliation, and prayer that hold the central place, but all that experienced in a new and powerful way. In that sense Medjugorje cannot be placed within any already known spiritual movement, but it is a movement that, to a great extent, is contributing to the renewal of the Church throughout the world. In fact, Medjugorje's spirituality is not some spiritual movement in the Church, but is rather the Church in movement, since it is equally interesting and attractive to everyone, from the most ordinary lay believer to the highly educated theologian, many priests, bishops, and cardinals. When the above mentioned essential elements of the Medjugorje spirituality are put together, then it seems the best way to describe and define them is by what is understood today as the so frequently used term "The New Evangelization".

3. The New Evangelization and Medjugorje

The first Christian communities had a strong awareness of being sent out with a mission. Toward the end of the oldest gospel, the one of Mark, is this word of the Risen Lord to the disciples: "Go into the whole world and proclaim the good news to all creation" (Mk 16:15). After he very briefly reports on Jesus's ascension into heaven, the evangelist concludes: "They went forth and preached everywhere. The Lord continued to work with them throughout and confirm the message through the signs which accompanied them" (Mk 16:20). This is certainly not only a confirmation that the disciples fulfilled Jesus's command, but a still ever greater new impetus to the readers of the gospel to continue to do the same. Nor did Matthew omit finishing his gospel with the same command, although he somewhat modified it in keeping with the spirit of the theological concept of his work: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations. . ." (Mt 28:19). An additional promise shows that this is an unlimited mission for all times, which the disciples need not be afraid of: "I am with you always even to the end of the world" (Mt 28:20). In light of his view of salvation history, Luke interprets that proclamation as the fulfillment of Scripture which has to take place beginning from Jerusalem. And since according to his theology the Holy Spirit is the principal agent of everything happening, the disciples must remain in Jerusalem until He comes and then they will be His witnesses (cf Lk 24:45-49). Acts of Apostles begins by recalling that promise (Acts 1:4 ff) and by recounting its fulfillment on the day of Pentecost when the Good News resounded, not only in Jerusalem, but also among representatives of some fifteen nations that happened to be in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-13).

His great work, which we may call the history of the early Church, Luke finishes with a glorious affirmation about the triumph of the gospel in Rome, in spite of Paul's imprisonment: "For two full years Paul stayed on in his rented lodging. . .where without any hindrance whatever, he preached the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ" (Acts 28:30). That ending was consciously left open that way to be the ongoing perspective of the gospel. But one should also say that such a quick and successful advent of the gospel throughout the huge Roman empire and the arrival at its center in Rome, has by no means been without resistance and great difficulties. Judeo-Christians had difficulty being reconciled with the evangelization of Samaria (cf Acts 8; Jn 4) and with Paul's persistence in proclaiming the gospel to the gentiles without imposing the prescriptions of the Mosaic law (cf Gal 1 - 2). Under such conditions, as if the activity of the promised Holy Spirit was insufficient, God also made use of extraordinary interventions, such as Peter's vision in Cornelius' house (Acts 10), and also of a completely human effort like Paul's conflict with Peter in Antioch when they were dealing with the very important question of the relationship of the gospel to the law of Moses, which for the Church had far reaching significance (Gal 2:11-14), or through the assembling of the apostles at the Council of Jerusalem and its conclusions (Acts 15).

Throughout the long history of the Church God always acted in a similar way. Whenever the Church got weaker or faced problems difficult to solve, God sent special people or made use of unordinary interventions, most usually through the apparitions of Our Lady in those of Medjugorje should also be included. The intention of Pope John XXIII in convoking the Second Vatican Council was to find an adequate way of proclaiming the gospel to modern man. The council fathers in the greatest detail analyzed the state of the modern world, its needs and hopes, and also its anxieties and fears in the face of the future, emphasizing that the great progress in every field has not resolved the most important human questions regarding man's true happiness and future. Thus our time has an equally both good and bad prospect. The council sees the principal causes for this in the division of the human heart and in its unquenchable need for God which the Church wishes to satisfy (cf GS no. 4 - 10). One cannot say that after the Council the Church throughout the world has not undertaken with great diligence the implementation of its conclusions, but there have been no true fruits. And while some say that we should not lose patience, pointing out that some other councils also needed a lot of time for their fruits to appear, there are, it seems, critical spirits that are pointing the finger at the right place. They emphasize that the Church in all that huge conciliar renewal did not reckon with the Holy Spirit and, not having gathered in prayer with Mary like the community of Jesus's disciples in the beginning, it did not give Him the chance to renew the Church and give hope to the world. Pope Paul VI summed it up the best in one of his speeches: "After the Christology and especially after the ecclesiology of the Council, a new phase must arrive and a new cult of the Holy Spirit as the inescapable supplement to the teaching of the Council" (General Audience July 6, 1973). And Yves Congar, one of the most outstanding theologians of this century, resented that the Council in developing its doctrine, forgot pneumatology, that is, doctrine of the Holy Spirit, and he immediately explains that it is possible only when and where the Spirit is already active: "Pneumatology as theology and a dimension of ecclesiology can be developed completely only thanks to what the Church is already actualizing and living. And it is precisely in that area that theology depends strongly on practice."3 Thus it has been since the beginning of the Church. Liturgy with the celebration of Eucharist and the proclamation of the word of God was the locus theologicus, the place where New Testament theology was created. I dare say that Medjugorje has already thus far given a lot of impetus to modern pastoral theology to be able to overcome fruitless rationalism and give more space to the activity of the Holy Spirit.

The New Evangelization, announced and being prepared already for fifteen years in numerous papal documents, has been actualized in Medjugorje throughout that time. There the gospel is proclaimed with all the seriousness that it demands from the proclaimer and it is precisely because of this that millions of listeners have experienced it as the good news about God who loves and forgives. In it they have found the treasure hidden in the field and the pearl of great price that is worthy of sacrificing everything to obtain (cf Mt 13:44-46). If the main points emphasized in the program of New Evangelization are considered, then they are in strong agreement with the Medjugorje messages. We shall only compare some of the most important ones.

The Apostolic Letter of Pope Paul VI Evangelii Nuntiandi (December 8, 1975) emphasizes as the chief and decisive way of the New Evangelization is witnessing to authentic Christian life, which presuppose the new man, who is possible only by conversation and internal transformation in the spirit of the gospel. In that line is also the Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II, Catechesi Tradendae (October 16, 1979) as well as the extraordinary Bishops' Synod of 1985. The same is also expressed in the final document of the extraordinary synod for Europe (1991) under the significant title: To Be Witnesses of Christ Who Has Set Us Free. Today it is no longer enough merely to proclaim the gospel. Authentic witnesses are demanded because in the eyes of modern man the Church to a large degree has lost its credibility. One of the bishops, having at heart the future of Christianity in his own country and the destiny of the New Evangelization, warns: "What the Church has to say can indeed be correct, but it does not necessarily make man joyful and free."4 In other words the gospel lost the strength of conviction because the proclaimers are not sufficiently joyful and free, they are not witness. The above mentioned Apostolic Letter says the testimony of Christian life should be characterized by "surrender to God in a communion that must not be destroyed by anything and at the same time by surrender to one's neighbor in unlimited availability. . ." (Evangelii Nuntiandi, no 41). It is nothing else than remembering the realization of Christ's twofold commandment of love in the conditions of the modern world, which is obviously at work in Medjugorje. Medjugorje's spirituality from the very beginning has an emphatic quality of charity. It makes people sensitive to the needs of their fellow man, something that has been demonstrated in so many wonderful examples of unselfish generosity during the recent war in Croatia and in Bosnia-Hercegovina.

4. Returning God to human life

All the above mentioned Church documents are profoundly aware of the real condition in the world and especially in Europe. With the collapse of the Marxist atheistic ideology, practical materialism did not disappear. It characterizes the way of life of a huge number of our contemporaries. Bygone bitter discussions whether God exists or not were replaced by an indifferent way of life in which people think and act "as though there were no God". Still it seems that people have not turned their backs on the true God, but on the one that the Church is proclaiming in an unconvincing way. Therefore, despite the sea of practical materialism, a silent longing for God is alive in many people. It is evident also in the increasing number of various sects and esotericism in the most possible variety of forms. The gospel, in spite of everything, always has a chance if it is a genuine answer to the longing of the human heart, that is, if it is proclaimed to it as the Good News which sets free and only people of the gospel can do that.

The previously mentioned bishop laments that the proclamation of many priests is ineffective because when a living God is not abiding in our hearts, our word also does not give any evidence of passion for God. Apologizing for the sharpness of his words, he asks himself: "Is it not because many live "off" the Church and not really "in" the Church, in its real mystery?"5 And indeed, it is not only individual truths or particular areas of concrete Church life that are in question, but God Himself, and that, among those who are supposed to show others the way to God. This is why the above mentioned extraordinary synod for Europe says without any hesitation: "Indeed, all of Europe today is facing the challenge of a new decision for God."6

If the Medjugorje messages are considered from this point of view then it is not difficult to discover a great agreement. In spite of having the concrete messages of peace, faith, conversion, prayer, fasting in the first plan at the beginning, in time to an ever greater degree it was God as such who was becoming central to these messages, as well as man's relationship toward him, and this in very different variations. There are here repeated calls for man to decide for God who is offering Himself to man; to give God the first place in man's life because that place belongs to Him, but in the same way also to abandon everything to Him, especially the burdens of life. Man is called to thank God for His gifts and to glorify Him in his life. Numerous messages warn that it is possible to get to know God only in prayer and that, only in prayer which comes from the heart. There are various messages that speak in this way about God revealing Himself to man so one should understand it in the sense that actually God's revelation to man is the main purpose of these events: "Dear children!

Today I call you to the way of holiness. Pray that you may comprehend the beauty and the greatness of this way on which God reveals Himself to you in a special manner" (January 25, 1989). On another occasion: ". . .therefore, my dear children, open your hearts to me so that I may guide you more and more to that splendid love of God, the Creator, who is revealing Himself to you day by day. I am with you and I want to reveal and show to you the God wholoves you" (August 25, 1992). Therefore, we could say that Medjugorje is much more than a place of prayer and conversion. It is first of all, a place where God wants to give a sign that man's longing for Him is not in vain and a way to God is possible also today because He comes half way to meet men.

5. Role of the Local Church

Considering what the New Evangelization ought to look like concretely in order to be successful, a well known German bishop and theologian, Karl Lehmann, says: "In the future we need places, groups, movements, and communities in which people with a determined will for life come together, learn together, and mutually help each other. That strengthening of faith, hope and charity is becoming ever more necessary today when Christianity is finding itself in the condition of diaspora. Only that way is faith able to become recognizable again and obtain a clear profile."7 Medjugorje for almost two decades already has been such a place where people gather from all over the world to pray together and to deepen their faith, creating communion in numerous prayer groups, movements, and new forms of community life. All that would, of course, be far stronger and more convincing if the condition in the local Church in Hercegovina were different, if it were not divided in itself. This condition affects many people, at least by confusing them. Therefore, they are ready also to call Medjugorje in question.

May I be permitted to express my own opinion about that. It has grown out of the experience of these seventeen years of Medjugorje, theological reflection, and prayer. During this time the words of Jesus about the sword have often crossed my mind: "I did not come to bring peace, but the sword" (Mt 10:34). The way to real peace leads through a decision for Jesus. That decision does not tolerate any compromise. He is more important even than the closest family members and especially more so than any personal interests. On the way to real peace with oneself, one's neighbor, and with God one must go through numerous trials which Jesus metaphorically characterizes as a sword. Does not this word of Jesus refer also to Medjugorje and its position in the local Church?

The fact is that Medjugorje is taking place in a Church in which the so-called Hercegovina Case, which put unity and charity in that Church to a great test, happened a long time before. Because of that case it is not only unity and charity that suffer in the relationship between the bishop and his priests on one hand, and the Franciscans on the other hand, but also within the Franciscan community itself. Therefore, before the beginning of the apparitions the Church in Hercegovina was disunited on various levels. Medjugorje was only a new occasion for this disunion to be exposed even more painfully. Some Franciscans have never even visited Medjugorje, not because they might be convinced on the basis of serious observation and studies that there is nothing supernatural there, but only because some of their brothers with whom they disagree on other matters and especially on the Hercegovina case, happen to be there. When Bishop Zanic turned against Medjugorje, those same Franciscans imposed themselves on him as being of the same mind, but only for the condemnation and rejection of Medjugorje. The Hercegovina Case, however, they did not move forward from its dead end. On the contrary, it is at this time reaching the peak of its absurdity in Capljina.

Is this perhaps at the same time a sign that the Church in Hercegovina has had enough of the sword and that the time has come for peace to reign? The Franciscans who are in Capljina, contrary to the will of their superiors, and those who support them, ordinarily base themselves on reasons of righteousness: 'with the help of the law the Bishop is doing injustice!' This is how the main argument sounds. But obviously it is not working, and unity and charity in the Church are being put to an even greater test. The very essence of the Church itself is called into question. What then to do? For the man who takes the gospel seriously to the end, even when it seems that all possibilities have been exhausted, there still remains one more possibility, indeed the most difficult, but the one on which Christianity itself is based and that is, the sacrifice of total self-surrender. Sacrifice is always hard, especially if no kind of dignity is seen in it. The sacrifice of Jesus was like that, but it bore the fruit of the greatest victory, the resurrection. A great number of Franciscans, the ones who for all these years as believers have lived with Medjugorje, are ready for this sacrifice so the administration of the Province accepted it. Still, due to the complexity of circumstances, as already said, a great amount of wisdom is necessary on the part of all responsible agents in the Church, so that everything may serve to increase the unity and charity in the Church of Hercegovina, which will then be a powerful testimony for Medjugorje in the world, and then also a great contribution to the so necessary New Evangelization of the world.

Fra Ivan Dugandzic

Dr. Fr. Ivan Dugandzic - Franciscan priest, member of the Hercegovina Franciscan province. Born 1943 in Krehin Gradac, country Citluk, Hercegovina. After graduating in Dubrovnik in 1962, he entered the Franciscan Order. He completed theological studies in Sarajevo and Koenigstein, Germany. Ordained priest in 1969. Postgraduate study and doctorate in biblical science in Wuerzburg, Germany. Since 1990 he lives and works in Zagreb. He is professor of New Testament exegesis and biblical theology at the Catholic Theological Faculty and its institutes. He has published works in technical theological reviews. He publishes in religious newspapers in a contemporary style on various biblical themes. He has lived and worked in Medjugorje on two occasions: 1970 - 1972 and 1985 - 1988.