Prayer Groups in the Marian Prayer Movement
Dr. fra Slavko Barbaric, OFM, 1996
The fact is, without doubt, clear that many prayer groups that have started in the world have been founded by Medjugorje pilgrims. This has happened and is happening at the explicit desire of Our Lady to establish groups. It is difficult to find out the exact number, but there are already thousands of prayer groups (cf. Rene Laurentin, Eight Years, 1989, The Riehle Foundation, Milford OH, p. 56).
The first prayer group was founded July 4, 1982, that is, one year after the beginning of Our Lady's apparitions. That group is still alive today. It is still something special in itself. The visionary Ivan testified that Our Lady requested those who desire it, to come together and pray, and that she will be with them in a special way, and that she wants prayer groups to be founded in all parish communities to help her with their prayers to accomplish the plans that the Lord entrusted to her. In the beginning the group met three times a week on Podbrdo Hill, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. During the time of prayer, Our Lady appears and gives short messages. Ivan, Marija and Vicka see her. However, only Ivan is able to speak with Our Lady at that time and to hear her messages. When Ivan is hindered, Marija takes his place, and when she is not present, then Vicka takes her place. Sometimes the meetings are only for the prayer group, which counts up to forty members, and sometimes they are open to everyone. In recent times, the meetings take place twice a week, Monday and Friday, and more recently Tuesday and Friday.
The meetings are very simple: praying the rosary, singing, reading Holy Scripture and the messages. Most of the time they take place outdoors on Podbrdo Hill and from time to time on Cross Mountain, regardless of the weather conditions.
These meetings, accordingly, have their significance for the programs that the Lord has entrusted to Mary, his humble servant, but also for the personal edification of each individual member.
When asked the question, "What does participation in the prayer group mean to you?" Ivan answered, "Participation in the prayer group at this time is very important to me. I learn to pray in the group and I can not imagine my spiritual growth without the prayer group."
The second prayer group was founded by Jelena Vasilj in March, 1983. At that time she was a little ten year old girl who had, and still has the experience of inner locutions. According to her testimony, Our Lady speaks to her and teaches her. This prayer group used to meet in the parish hall after the evening mass under the guidance of Fr. Tomislav Vlasic and, from time to time, also other priests were with the group. During the meeting, which consists of simple prayer and singing, Our Lady also gave messages to the group through Jelena, teaching them how to pray. One of the two meetings was intended for the local bishop. The third meeting was for the sharing of experiences.
This prayer group was active until 1987. Those who had joined the group had to make the commitment that during the following four years they would not make any life decision whatsoever. When a part of the prayer group went to Italy with Fr. Tomislav Vlasic, the others continued to meet for some time, and then they discontinued the meeting. Now a community under the guidance of Fr. Tomislav is developing under the title "Kraljica Mira - potpuno Tvoji - po Mariji k Isusu," (Queen of Peace - Totally Yours - Through Mary to Jesus). The community has been juridically accepted by one bishop as an experiment. They have their postulants, candidates, novices, and those already professed, as well as a broad circle of external co-workers, organized fraternities and prayer communities.
In the beginning, Jelena brought the following message:
"Our Lady says, 'I want a prayer group here. I will lead the group and will give the group rules of consecration. Everyone else in the world can consecrate themselves according to these rules. Think it over for a month, but tell them about the conditions I am giving:
First of all, let them renounce everything and place themselves completely into God's hands. Let each one of them renounce any fear because, if you surrender yourself to God, there is no place for any fear whatsoever. All difficulties that they will meet, will be for their spiritual growth and for the glory of God. I invite the young and single people, because those who are married have their obligations. But anyone who wishes to participate in this programme can follow it at least partially. I will lead the group.'"
In addition to these weekly meetings, Our Lady also requested monthly nocturnal adoration from the group which the group did, mainly on the night of the first Saturday, ending adoration with the Sunday morning mass.
After a short statement of the facts, we shall try to briefly answer a simple question: what is a prayer group?
A prayer group is a fellowship of the faithful who meet once or several times a week or a month in order to pray. It is a group of friends, who pray the rosary together, read Holy Scripture, celebrate Mass, visit each other and share prayer experiences. It has always been counselled that it is better for them to be guided by a priest, but if that is not possible, to hold the prayer meetings in simplicity.
The visionaries always emphasized that the first and most important prayer group is actually the family and that it is only then that one can speak about a proper prayer education which is continued in the prayer group. It is requested of every member to be active in the group and to make the contribution of one's prayer and experience. Only that way can a group live and grow.
The biblical-theological foundation of the prayer groups is found, in addition to other sources, in the word of Christ: "Amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." (Matt 18:19-20).
The first prayer group actually took place in the first prayer novena after the Ascension of Christ when Our Lady prayed with the Apostles and waited in prayer for the Risen Lord to accomplish his promise and send the Holy Spirit, which actually happened on the day of Pentecost. (Cf. Acts 2:1-5). The practice was continued also by the early church as St. Luke recounts in Acts of the Apostles: "They devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles and to the communal life, to the breaking of the bread and to the prayers" (Acts 2:42), and "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their property and possessions and divide them among all according to each one's need.” Every day they devoted themselves to meeting together in the temple area and to breaking bread in their homes. They ate their meals with exultation and sincerity of heart, praising God and enjoying favour with all the people. And every day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved." (Acts 2:44-47).
Certainly there also exists a sociological reason for prayer groups, particularly at the present time. Every individual should take care of one's own spiritual growth, but in that growth, due to the psychophysical structure of the human person, fellowship is irreplaceable. It is particularly important today because the individual can easily get lost in the rhythm of these modern times. The group obliges and, therefore, it is easier to remain faithful to the rhythm of prayer. A group assists in the spiritual growth, but it also corrects and inspires it. The experience of one person enriches and illuminates the experience of another. The one who stays by himself is in danger of developing without any control. It is easier to overcome every difficulty in the group and they are transformed into rich spiritual experiences. The group aids in fostering and directing charisms.
The relationship of Marian prayer groups toward parish communities can easily be defined. It is clear that the prayer group is not the liturgical-pastoral supervisor of the pastor's activities. And this is a great temptation for groups that enter a difficult terrain with the parish pastoral personnel, a case that is not uncommon. Namely, there is a certain resistance from many priests who do not accept prayer groups in general, and then, in particular, those started through Medjugorje. If one doesn't take good care, a negative, criticizing spirit develops in the groups toward everything undertaken by the parish priest, and they alienate themselves and go to extreme limits where they are exposed to the direct danger of even excluding themselves from the parish community. I do not want to go into the problematic of the relationship between the parish community and prayer groups, but I certainly want to emphasize that a prayer group of Marian spirituality must never allow itself to be provoked and driven to extreme limits, from where it is easy to go left or right, or into a sectarianism that, in the end, is harmful both to the parish community and to the prayer group.
Certainly, another danger, which easily occurs with Marian prayer groups, is an apocalyptic, catastrophic atmosphere. It happens that such prayer groups know everything about future events, catastrophes, and cataclysms and they spread the spirit of fear and anxiety. They nourish their knowledge by continuously chasing after persons who bring such messages. It easily happens that these groups know much more than Jesus himself knew in the Gospel about future events. The fact of the existence of secrets contributes to such an apocalyptic, catastrophic spirit which imagination then, often unhealthy, transforms into definite news about the future.
If the group succumbs to either one of these two dangers, it does not correspond to the Marian spirit. Mary is a mother and a mother never spreads fear and anxiety among her children, but she educates them for peace and trust.
A prayer group must be in communication not only with the parish priest and pastoral personnel, but it should be the heart and soul of every parish community. Marian groups in themselves are the "the maternal cells" of each parish community, which, by living a life of prayer, develop maternal activity in the parish. From these "maternal cells" new believers with conviction are born, families are renewed and preserved, the youth are educated, religious vocations are fostered, activities develop in all spheres, in the liturgical-pastoral, just as in charitable deeds of caring for the elderly, the infirm, the forsaken, and imprisoned. All this can be expressed in the words of Pope John Paul II in his 1995 encyclical, The Gospel of Life, which we should "respect, protect, love and serve life, every human life!" (Cf. no 5). Marian groups, as maternal cells in the parish, function according to those criteria that Jesus expressed and St. Matthew recorded in Chapter 25:31-46, where one thing is completely clear, that all prayers, fasts, masses and confessions must serve the development of love toward each person and the courage to serve everyone. A maternal spirit and heart recognize the needs of her children and react tirelessly and invincibly to those needs, apart from all laws and regulations. Today such groups in the modern Church will certainly bring in a true renewal of Christian life and will show the true face of the Church, which is danger of being distorted.
If we briefly recount the activities that we know Our Lady requested from the prayer groups in Medjugorje, then one can say that, first of all, it is a fundamental decision for daily prayer and participation in holy mass, monthly confession, to become a witness, and to be active in the parish. Before Christmas, she requested from the group to do some good deed. They assisted the elderly and visited the sick and infirm, they helped poor families to repair their houses, prepare firewood for the winter and similar things.
On the spiritual level she requested them, in addition to the weekly prayer meetings, also to organize retreats of one or more days, to go out into nature and there to perform various spiritual exercises.
The rules for Medjugorje prayer groups that can be summarized from the messages are the following:
- To renounce everything and completely surrender into God's hands and to believe that everything that is happening will turn into the good;
- A call to young people to participate in prayer groups;
- To renounce all fear and anxiety, because in surrender to God there is no more place for fear;
- To love one's enemies and to expel from one's heart all hatred, bitterness and judgment;
- To fast twice a week;
- To participate in the group at least once a week;
- To decide for three hours of daily prayer, including morning and evening prayer, participation at mass, receiving Holy Communion, adoration and to extend the spirit of prayer into every day work;
- To pray for bishops and all those who have authority in the Church;
- To decide to stay in the prayer group for four years and to take advantage of that time for personal maturing, and for that reason not to make any new or fundamental life decisions;
- To have a priest in each group.
Through Jelena on April 25, 1983, Our Lady gave the message: "Tell my sons and daughters that my heart is burning for them. I seek only conversion, only conversion."
In her reports about a prayer group in Lima, Peru, Cecilia Batlle de Zavala describes:
- that they meet every Tuesday for prayer of the rosary, reading of a message, teaching, testimonies;
- that once a month the spiritual director, Fr. Angelo Costa, comes and spiritually directs the group;
- that they have a group of women whose number is growing, who have dedicated themselves to the imprisoned, who pray with them, bring them books, converse with and help their families;
- that one group visits hospitals and seeks out the most neglected sick persons and help them spiritually and materially;
- that yet another group visits the homes for the elderly with the same intention of helping them spiritually and materially;
- that they organize spiritual retreats for families and youth;
- that during the Peru-Ecuador conflict they organized a big project, "The Rosary for Soldiers," they gave information about it to all military centres, and received many touching letters from officers and soldiers. (A report submitted at the VI Meeting of Queen of Peace Marian Centres, in Quito, Ecuador. October 1995)
I would like to conclude with Our Lady's message of November 25, 1994
Today I call you to prayer. I am with you and I love you all. I am your Mother and I wish that your hearts be similar to my heart. Little children, without prayer you cannot live and say that you are mine. Prayer is joy. Prayer is what the human heart desires. Therefore, get closer, little children, to my Immaculate Heart and you will discover God. Thank you for having responded to my call."
fra Slavko Barbaric, 1996