Although I lost touch with this friend after college, I never lost my devotion to Our Lady; indeed, it has been a mainstay of my life ever since, particularly the praying of the Rosary and the wearing of the Brown Scapular of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (which has become, since July 16, 2021, a more poignant symbol of our pleading for, and hope of, heavenly help).
I did, however, grow increasingly cold towards Medjugorje and the MMP. My love for the liturgy was growing, and as I immersed myself in it more, I found it to be the most substantial nourishment the Church offered. Moreover, as my intellectual life opened up through the reading of the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, the contrast between their spiritual wisdom and the often puerile content of popular private revelations did not reflect well on the latter.
I would sometimes wonder about the phenomenon of Medjugorje. Why were so many “into it” in such a passionate, even obsessive way? Why did the repeated condemnations of the local bishop have so little effect? Why couldn’t the Vatican reach any decision in the face of an embarrassing flood of messages (now over 70,000) lasting for decades and characterized by sheer banality and imbecilic theological errors? What was really going on? But I did not have the time or take the opportunity to dig deeper.
A comprehensive history
Enter Donal Anthony Foley’s new book, Medjugorje Complete, published by Angelico Press, which I was invited to proofread. Thoroughness is the one word that best describes the author’s painstaking approach, as of one engaged in a forensic investigation. Foley is not one who leaves any stone unturned, any avenue unexplored, any evidence unexamined. The main part of the book weighs in at 430 pages, written in a fluent narrative style that moves quickly. The additional pages in the count are for introductory material and the copious endnotes.
Foley’s book serves multiple purposes. On a first level, it is simply a comprehensive history: it tells you about the persons (lay, religious, clerical, episcopal), places, dates, interviews, interventions, investigations, reports, political influences, and so forth. This painstaking and sober examination of the Medjugorje story does not begin, as many do, with the mysterious events of June 1981. Crucially, Foley looks into the pre-history: one cannot understand the unfolding of the events without knowing the region’s dark backstory, its wars and ethnic tensions, and the alternately heroic and disturbing role of the Herzegovina Franciscans over the decades.
Foley does something that (as he shows) almost no one else in the literature does: a close reading of the transcripts of the taped interviews done with the visionaries at the start of the events. Drawing on the doctrine of classic spiritual authors, Foley argues that the evidence points not to a heavenly origin of the visions but to a diabolical one. This key premise provides Foley with a powerful explanatory principle for the subsequent history of disobedience, subterfuge, manipulation, lying, profiteering, and other unsavory conduct on the part of the visionaries and those who have accompanied them at various times in their careers.
In the third chapter, Foley establishes all the details of the first apparitions, and then points to the telltale signs of their demonic origin. The “Gospa” in the vision gradually emerges from an indistinct light, and appears and disappears—things that never happen in the approved apparitions; its dress is gray, a color not associated with the Blessed Virgin; it lets the visionaries touch it and kiss it, and laughs outright (again, never recorded of any other apparition); it covers up the baby that it’s holding, or risks dropping the baby; it says nothing, or if it does speak, the words are banal and hesitant; most eerily, its hands at first were trembling. Msgr. Farges, author of the classic Mystical Phenomena, notes that:
God occasionally allows him [the devil] to assume the most majestic forms, such as those of our Lord, the Blessed Virgin, or the saints; nevertheless—for God could not otherwise permit it—the diguise, no matter how bold, is never complete, and he always betrays himself in some particular which cannot escape an attentive and prudent observer. (32)
Fr. Manfred Hauke notes that “the form of the apparition must correspond to the work of God, which is always perfect. Any physical or moral defects in appearance, attitude, or movements of the Mother of God are to be excluded” (32). Or rather, if they occur, it is not the Mother of God. Msgr. Farges also notes that a divine vision produces initially fear and later joy, and prompts the development of the virtues, especially humility and a desire to hide the visions; in contrast, a diabolical vision produces an initial delight but “ends in anxiety, sadness, fear, and disgust…[and] develops feelings of vanity, vainglory, and a wish to parade the visions” (36). St. John of the Cross observes: “The devil rejoices greatly when a soul desires to receive revelations, and when he sees it inclined to them, for he has then a great occasion and opportunity to insinuate errors and to detract from the faith in so far as he can…” (182). The later history of the seers of the “Gospa” offers ample confirmation of these classic principles.
Early picture of the "visionaires"
Messages that contradict Church teaching
One sign of the non-heavenly origin of the visions is the acknowledged existence of messages that openly conflict with Catholic doctrine, showcased in chapter 8. For example, on one occasion the seers were told “they do not have to pray for themselves, because she has rewarded them in a better way. Let them pray for others” (100). Another time, they spoke of God permitting souls to suffer hell because of sins He could not pardon. They stated that everyone in hell suffers in the same way, and that those in heaven are present already in their souls and bodies (ibid.). On July 24, 1982, however, this message was received: “The body, drawn from the earth, decomposes after death. It never comes back to life again. Man receives a transfigured body” (ibid.): this is exactly contrary to the Fourth Lateran Council, which teaches: “They will arise with their bodies which they have now.”
On October 1, 1981, a seer posed the question: “Are all the faiths good? Are all the faiths identical?” The “Gospa” responded: “Before God all the faiths are identical. God governs them like a king in his kingdom” (101). Another time: “In God’s eyes there are no divisions and there are no religions. You in the world have made the divisions” (293). Perhaps this sort of problem explains why, after a time, messages were “checked thoroughly for adherence to Scripture and church doctrine” (207) before being transmitted to the world. Foley exclaims: “Had the Blessed Virgin Mary become so deficient in scriptural and doctrinal knowledge that her messages now needed to be vetted by Fr Barbaric?” (ibid.).
Most tellingly for readers of The Remnant, an enthusiastic Fr. René Laurentin concluded that the “Gospa’s” messages “fit in with the pastoral life of the post-conciliar Church. The Virgin encourages openness and ecumenism” (145). He also said, remarkably, “the apparitions of Medjugorje are without any of the historical particularities of Catholicism and thus have a better quality ecumenical dimension” (146)!
Some messages defended the rebellious Franciscans in their opposition to the bishop (108). The seer Marija related that the “Gospa” recommended the reading of Maria Valtorta’s The Poem of the Man-God (“that book is the truth!,” she is purported to have said)—a book John XXIII ordered to be placed on the Index in 1960, and which, in 1985, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger said had “not been condemned lightly.”
Foley also looks at the opposite problem:
Apart from all that, there is also the rather puzzling aspect of what the messages haven’t been saying. Given the situation of the Church and the world, and the fact that these alleged messages have been promulgated now for forty years, one would have expected them to be somewhat more relevant than is actually the case. A search of a concordance of Medjugorje messages from 1984 to 2009 [that would be tens of thousands!] reveals that words such as abortion, contraception, pornography and homosexuality are missing. The same is true of adultery, divorce and fornication. Likewise, drugs, murder, lying, lust, and impurity don’t get a mention, nor stealing, theft, idolatry, wrath, despair or greed. One exception is “pride” but that refers to the sin of Satan, and not to a human sin. (107)
The author also critiques a number of “scientific” experiments, showing how they failed to follow correct methodology. He responds convincingly to objections that have been made against his arguments (earlier editions of this work appeared in 2006 and 2011), and shows repeatedly, with concrete examples, that the “good fruits” to which so many triumphantly point are, as it happens, mingled with much that is problematic or bad (see, inter alia, chapters 19–20). God can indeed draw forth good from evil, but that does not mean that evil ceases to be evil. Foley cites Fr. William Most: “The devil is willing to tolerate some real good, so long as he has hope of accomplishing greater evil out of the affair in the long run” (145).
A guide to interpretations
On a second level, Foley skillfully weaves into the narrative an account of the many and varied interpretations of Medjugorje that have been offered by proponents and critics, in that way providing a much-needed summary of the abundant and often contradictory literature on the subject.
Foley is able to demonstrate that popular spiritual writers and theologians who have supported the authenticity of the apparitions frequently ignore important contrary evidence, hold ecclesiastical judgments in contempt, and resort to ad hominem arguments. He is not naïve about the extent to which some ecclesial authorities have allowed prejudices and pragmatism to color their viewpoints. For example, he notes how certain figures have supported the visions (and the building of pilgrimage centers, etc.) for no other reason than that they like the fact that people are coming for Confession and Mass. Obviously it is a good thing to seek out the sacraments in general, but it is not a matter of indifference if this is being done in connection with false messages and in an environment characterized by an almost uninterrupted record of flagrant disobedience to local Church authority.
Fatima vs. Medjugorje
A thread runs through the book: By what criteria do we (or does the Church) recognize a legitimate apparition? What are the telltale signs and qualities? What are the good or bad fruits we should be looking for?
On a third level, Foley pursues the overarching thesis that the Marian message God intended for modern times is, above all, that of Fatima. He argues convincingly that, in terms of evidentiality, content, and fruitfulness, the contrast between Fatima and Medjugorje is very much to the former’s credit and the latter’s disparagement. The same can be said of the contrast between other approved apparitions, such as Lourdes, Knock, La Salette, Banneux, and Beauraing, and false apparitions such as Garabandal, Necedah, Bayside, the Army of Mary in Quebec, etc., all of which Foley discusses.
My sole criticism of the book pertains, in fact, to the Fatima chapters (particularly chapter 24). Foley has an understandable desire to believe that the consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart has been accomplished and that the text of the Third Secret has been published in full, but the extensive work that has been done on these matters indicates at very least that there is room for doubt about one or the other or both. This should have been taken seriously, as it does not detract in any way from the message of Fatima, but rather underlines the urgency of adhering to it.
The very fact that Foley is compelled to criticize the composition, motives, methods, and results of the Vatican’s “Ruini Commission” on Medjugorje—which failed, for example, to look at the transcripts of the first interviews in 1981, the most revealing of all the documentation (373)—shows that Foley is under few illusions about the good faith and competency of the current ecclesiastical regime. One illusion that may still be left is Foley’s conservative view that the problems in the Church since Vatican II are due to the hijacking of a good Council by “various liberal groups…distorting the true meaning of conciliar documents” (273). The problem, of course, is that the bad implementation was either promoted or tolerated across the world by the same bishops who wrote and voted on the documents.
I find Bishop Athanasius Schneider’s response on the question of the consecration of Russia more nuanced and more realistic:
Sister Lucia was asked about this act [of John Paul II in 1984, when he consecrated “all mankind” to the Immaculate Heart]. She said: “Heaven accepted it.” But this phrase of Sister Lucia, or other similar phrases, do not mean for me that this act was the most perfect. Of course, when a pope makes such a beautiful prayer and consecration, heaven accepts this. Heaven accepts every sincere and beautiful prayer. But it does not mean, in my opinion, that in the future a more perfect act of consecration could not be made, which heaven will also receive and accept…. It has not yet been made in the manner Our Lady requested. In my opinion, the consecration has to be made more perfectly, and this means with the explicit mention of Russia along with the other conditions, as Our Lady specified. I hope and believe that one day, by a perfect act of consecration of Russia to the Immaculate Heart by a future pope, heaven will pour out many abundant graces for the Church and mankind, and for the full conversion of Russia. (Christus Vincit, 299–300)
Bishop Schneider believes that even if the text of the Third Secret has been disclosed, it is quite possible that Sister Lucia may have been given an explanation of its content that has not been shared on account of its explosive nature (ibid., 300–4). Others have different views. It seems to me that if the Third Secret as read aloud by Cardinal Ratzinger is the full text, there was little reason for earlier popes to have acted as if paralyzed by fear and foreboding—so much so that they refused to share it earlier, although Our Lady had specifically asked that it be shared by 1960 at the latest. The aura of this terrible secret seems to correspond rather to an announcement of some ecclesiastical cataclysm that brings unimaginable destruction. It seems to correspond, in short, to the event of the Second Vatican Council and the tsunami of theological and liturgical deviations that came in its wake.
A Book Worth Having and Reading
This one weakness aside, I unhesitatingly recommend Medjugorje Complete as truly being what its subtitle proclaims: The Definitive Account of the Visions and Visionaries. It is a rich goldmine of historical information, presented in a chronological and logical manner, and doubles as a judicious evaluation of the rambling literature on the subject. Not least, it offers an inspiring presentation of the message of Our Lady of Fatima, in which Foley rightly recognizes a culmination of Marian interventions to date.
I will admit that reading the book left me saddened at how easy it is for unwary and unstable human beings to let themselves be carried away, and led down a dangerous road, at times into cult-like behavior; how readily Church authorities who attempted to critique or control the Medjugorje enthusiasm were ignored; and what a mess other authorities have made of the volatile situation. If the truth will set us free, as Our Lord said, then falsehood, with its origin in the enemy of mankind, will surely do the opposite.
There is one final question that will be on the minds of many as they read this review. Can we say that Medjugorje Complete is the right book for convincing a die-hard devotee to step away from Medjugorje and take up a sounder, safer path of Marian devotion?
The answer is ambivalent. The book is long and hard-hitting. If the recipient you have in mind is an avid reader with an open mind, then yes, reading this work would almost certainly result in the abandonment of Medjugorje. Sadly, as Foley himself admits, many devotees are so “locked in,” so convinced of the heavenly origin of the visions, that they would consider a book like this one to be a temptation or a form of persecution.
It seems clear to me that this book will most of all benefit those who, having no particular stance, simply want to learn the truth about the affair; those who are pastors of souls and must give spiritual guidance; those who want to see their own strong Marian commitment purified and nourished; and those who study the history, theology, and discernment of visions, apparitions, and revelations.
For hard-core Medjugorje advocates, on the other hand, I would suggest that the author prepare a 100-page synopsis that contains only the most essential information, distilled to its simplest form. It seems to me that the analysis of the original interview tapes, the story of the visionaries’ lives and the lives of the Franciscans who helped them, the contrast between Medjugorje and Fatima, and an appeal to embrace the Fatima message would be the core of this synopsis.
Donal Anthony Foley and Angelico Press are to be congratulated for this highly readable history and analysis of a major phenomenon in modern Catholicism. As a scholar, as a Catholic, and as a grateful child of Our Lady, I believe this book gives glory to God and vindicates His most holy Mother.