Monday, July 04, 2011

Queen of Profits

Medjugorje Draws Thousands of Pilgrims and Dollars

By James Martinez


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Medjugorje. Few topics evoke greater passion than the alleged apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary to six visionaries in the remote village of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But the effects of these reported visions are not limited to the local region. Medjugorje devotees are found worldwide, most notably in the country known for its rich living and equally rich generosity, the United States.

Medjugorje has local significance because each fall since 1990, the Bren Center at the University of California, Irvine, has been the site of one of the largest annual Medjugorje Peace Conferences in the U.S. The event is sponsored by the Medjugorje Peace Conference Committee, based in Brea. Its chief organizer, Joan Housack, refused to talk with any member of the media, but there's no question that the conference has been large from the start, initially drawing about 3,500 attendees according to a co-owner of Huntington Beach-based Follow Me Ministries, which promotes Medjugorje. It now regularly attracts an estimated 5,000 attendees annually. The 2002 conference took place October 25-27 and conference attendee numbers are expected to be similar to last year's.

For most attendees, the Irvine conference is a much-anticipated event; a spiritual revival of sorts where devotees can meet and mingle with like-minded, devout Catholics and take advantage of adoration and reconciliation, daily Mass, dynamic speakers and singers, and a small booth area jammed with Medjugorje-related products, magazines, tapes and travel arrangements for sale.

"It gives you a spiritual uplifting to be here. It's a peaceful feeling and the speakers are good," said Leo Garcia from Huntington Beach, a six-year Irvine conference veteran. "I've been to Medjugorje three times," added Monica Chin from Upland. "This is my first time at the conference and I came to feel Medjugorje again. So far it's what I expected. I feel the same intensity as I did at Medjugorje."

Another first-time conference attendee, Marie Chyong, agreed. "We're all here because we all are being called to be close to God. I feel like I'm back home [in the Philippines] or at Lourdes here. It's so solemn and peaceful. I feel safe here."

Lori Baker of Ventura came with Iris Reznick of Filmore. "I came to hear what the visionary has to say," explained Baker, "and to be around people with the same feelings as I have of wanting peace." Two years ago she was with one of the visionaries during an alleged apparition. Baker was hoping for the same opportunity this time. "I'm looking for the same kind of peace and spirituality as I experienced last time. Today is a special time for me."

Reznick, a fourth-time attendee, added: "I don't come for the speakers, but more for the adoration chapel and the apparition room. We went into the room, prayed the Rosary and after the Rosary, they said Our Lady was here. Everyone was quiet. We heard and felt something come through the room, some people cried and some passed out. For me, it was a very comfortable feeling. Everyone experienced something individually."

At least one visionary is slated to attend the Irvine conference each year, but last year Ivanka, now married with children, cancelled. The September 11 terrorist attacks had occurred about a month and a half before the conference. When asked why that year's scheduled visionary did not show up, one conference co-organizer at the ticket table explained: "Ivanka is understandably nervous about flying right now."

When conference attendees were randomly asked if they minded the visionary's cancellation, the overwhelming response was "not really, I'm here for the whole spiritual aspect. It would be nice to have had a visionary here, but it's not essential." However, when these same attendees learned that Ivanka cancelled because of her nervousness to fly after the terrorist attacks, their response was vehemently incredulous. "Oh, NO, that doesn't make sense! That couldn't be the reason she's not here!" was the consistent response.

Serious questions about the Medjugorje subculture run deep. For one thing, how many apparitions of now canonized saints occurred at conveniently predictable times? According to the Medjugorje seers, who currently range from age 38 to 31 -- Marija, Vicka, Ivan, Mirjana, Ivanka, and Jakov -- the apparitions of Gospa (as Our Lady is referred to in their native language) are ongoing to this day; 21 years of nonstop messages from Mary, with no end in sight. As one priest who requested anonymity observed, "The Mother of God sounds like a Chatty Cathy doll." Marija, Vicka and Ivan report daily visions from Mary, while the others claim to see her at regular intervals; to Mirjana, Our Lady comes on the second of each month and on March 18, Mirjana's birthday; to Ivanka, on June 25; and to Jakov, on Christmas Day. Medjugorje devotées point to literally thousands of messages from Our Lady to the modern world.

But what of the fruits of Medjugorje? There is no question that lives have been changed at Medjugorje. "The reality of grace-filled response of pilgrims and of those associated with the reported revelation.is a deeply moving and a genuine religious experience in its own right," writes Father Benedict Groeschel in his book A Still, Small Voice. Not speaking of Medjugorje or of any reported apparition in particular, Father Benedict continues: "I am sure that even in the case of a false revelation -- even if it be fraudulent -- many people have had genuine religious experiences that may even have been a source of healing.The fact is that we cannot judge the reported revelation by its fruits. You would be required to take Joseph Smith and the Mormon doctrine very seriously if you went simply by the effects of his revelation. It is responsible for several billion dollars in religious donations every year -- and yet very serious questions have been raised by Mormon scholars about the moral life of this 'prophet.'"

Medjugorje devotees can't say enough good things about their visionaries. But do their lives exhibit extraordinary holiness and self-sacrifice for God? Were they radically transformed by what they saw and heard?

If we compare the lives of the Medjugorje visionaries with those of Church-approved apparitions, the differences are striking. Newsweek magazine, in its January 17, 2000 issue, ran a short article on Ivan Dragicevic relating to his speaking engagement in Boston. Dragicevic, who makes his home in the Boston area and reportedly drives a luxury car, married a former Miss Massachusetts and still travels about the U.S. speaking of the Medjugorje apparitions. Other visionaries are reported to have connections with hotels and other real estate in the Medjugorje region. Vicka, for example, claimed that the Blessed Virgin Mary wanted a "pastoral center" constructed in Medjugorje, consisting of a 100-bed hotel with a chapel for pilgrims. She insisted on its construction in 1995.

According to a well-documented and foot-noted article, "Medjugorje: Old Lies, New Admissions," by Craig Heimbichner, Vicka, Ivanka, Mirjana and Ivan are exposed as having lied -- or at least as having offered boldly conflicting testimony -- regarding serious matters involving the content of various Medjugorje messages.

More widely known are the repeated and scathing investigations and testimonies by the long-time bishop of the area, the late Bishop Pavao Zanic, regarding the blatant disobedience of the seers and the dubious nature of their reported apparitions. His successor has expressed similar concerns, as had a bishops conference in 1991 that declared there was no evidence of anything supernatural at Medjugorje.

On June 19, 1996, Vatican press secretary, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, said, regarding Medjugorje, that "a healthy Marian devotion in line with the teaching of the Church" had to be promoted. He stressed that, according to the investigations that had already taken place, it could not be affirmed that there was anything supernatural about the apparitions or revelations of Medjugorje. Rome repeatedly referred to the local bishop as the competent authority in this matter.

Another disconcerting element of the Medjugorje apparitions is the well-documented power struggle between the Franciscans who run the parish where the visions take place -- and who are the recipients of much of the Medjugorje money raised locally and abroad -- and the local ordinaries.

In a letter from the late Bishop Zanic to an inquiring priest from Panama as to one of the more than 20 reasons the bishop claimed to have for denying the authenticity of Medjugorje, Zanic cited the sad ordeal of one Franciscan, Ivica Vego. This priest "was expelled from his order, released from his vows and suspended ab divinis from the Pope," wrote the bishop, "and yet.continued to celebrate Mass and dispense the sacraments." The priest eventually moved in with his girlfriend, although the visionary Vicka's diary cites more than nine times that Vego was innocent and the bishop unjust. When Sister Leopolda got pregnant, Vego left the order. The couple now has two children, yet thousands of this ex-Franciscan's prayer books continue to be sold in Medjugorje.

The Franciscans who run the Medjugorje parish have not displayed a humble and obedient spirit. On May 12, 1996, when the local bishop ordered the Franciscans to hand over the parish and the rectory to the diocese, the Franciscans refused and cinder blocked the church doors in a stand-off. In November 1998, both the current bishop, Ratko Peric, and the general of the Franciscans, Father Giacomo Bini, met in Rome with the prefect for the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. As a result of that meeting, Peric and Bini issued a jointly signed letter announcing that the Franciscan fathers would be withdrawn from Medjugorje and other parishes of the diocese as of February 21, 1999 and replaced with diocesan priests. On the same day, the two priests most actively involved in the 1996 standoff were expelled from the Franciscan order per the order's general.

Another such incident was reported in 1988 in a German newsletter, Der Schwarze Brief, published by Claus Peter Clausen of Lippstadt, Germany. Clausen, a German photographer who was familiar with the seers and parish Franciscans, claimed to have observed and photographed the Franciscans in the act of fabricating the messages. When he was observed in this act, he said he was threatened by the seer Ivan, who later came up to the photographer and "made a gesture which indicated that his throat would be slit" if he continued. The photographer said he was later told by a taxi-driver that anyone who opposed Medjugorje would be murdered.

The January 6, 1999 issue of Der Schwarze Brief reported that the former state of Yugoslavia took in $100 million by 1988, seven years after the first Medjugorje apparition. This represented five percent of all tourist income for the entire country and 45 percent of the total income of the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. According to a Katholische Nachrichten Agentur report filed July 15, 1989, the income from pilgrims in 1989 was estimated at $150 million and at $200 million for 1990. In 1988 alone, more than a million pilgrims, mostly from Western Europe and the U.S., visited Medjugorje.

"Medjugorje used to be a very small town," said Irvine conference attendee Mate Vrdoljak, who grew up 15 miles away from the village and moved to America in 1975 at the urging of his brother. "Tobacco and grapes used to be the big businesses in Medjugorje. There was nothing else. I worked in the tobacco fields after school." When Vrdoljak returned to the region in 1999 to be with his father who was sick, it had been 26 years since he'd been back. "It was very different," Vrdoljak explains. "It was like being in a foreign country, there were so many changes. Now it's a booming town with people coming and going, restaurants, transportation, businesses. There's very little of the tobacco and grape industry left now." Even more interesting is the staggering amount of money raised from various Medjugorje-related activities, such as travel agency commissions, speaker honorariums, magazine subscriptions and advertising rates, U.S.-held conferences and retreats.

Even the most frugal of Medjugorje enthusiasts spend plenty of money in Medjugorje. They buy many religious articles sold locally, stay in rented lodgings, purchase food and use taxis and shuttle services when needed. The small region's economic boon is understandable and its sole cause is the widely reported Medjugorje visions.

What is true of Medjugorje is true of Medjugorje conferences in the U.S. At the Irvine conference, for example, organizers paid $4,100 per day to rent the arena, plus $700 daily to rent the Koll and Stewart rooms, according to Jeff at the Bren Events Center. This means an estimated $14,400 for the three-day conference. Although free to clergy, conference admission otherwise costs between $34 for an adult single, $15 for a youth and $64 for a married couple. An estimated 5,000 average attendance rate would easily generate more than $150,000 for the organizers. This amount does not include the thousands of dollars generated by Medjugorje-specific publications such as Medjugorje Magazine, whose subscription rates are boosted by devoted conference attendees and by numerous large ads paid for by the multitude of Medjugorje-bound pilgrimages and travel agents.

"This is a profitable place," conceded Slavko Barbaric, a Franciscan who has ministered in Medjugorje for more than 15 years. "And of course, we, too, sell our souvenirs and our rosaries and so on. But it hasn't made us millionaires, and it hasn't distracted us from our real mission; the care of people's souls."

Money is raised not only in the name of Medjugorje, but in the name of its various off-shoot and equally sensational apparitions, visionaries and stigmatists. One apparent Medjugorje spin-off, for example, is a young priest, Father Zlatko Sudac, who bears a bright, blood red cross very prominently on his forehead. It is a striking and sensational mark of Christ, so unlike those borne by the Church-approved stigmatists of the recent past such as St. Rose of Lima and St. Padre Pio. The editor of Medjugorje Magazine said that as of Fall 2000 she had already rented one of the largest facilities in the Chicago area to hold a retreat to be given by Father Zlatko. "It cost $50,000 to rent the facility," the editor explained confidently. "But I'm sure we'll more than fill it and have at least $90,000 left over." The expected $90,000 or more profit from the Chicago suburb retreat with the alleged stigmata-bearing priest retreat leader will go to orphanages around Medjugorje. "They wouldn't be able to function if it weren't for all the money we've raised in the States," added the magazine editor. But, according to someone who answered the phone at the DuPage Marian Center in Westmont, Illinois in November 2002, the money from Sudac's conferences does not go directly to orphanages, but to Sudac's bishop. (With Medjugorje Magazine, the DuPage Marian Center is owned by Larry and Mary Sue Eck.) This money is untracked except that some of it goes to fund Sudac's schooling in the United States (to learn English) and to his mission. Some of the money raised also goes to help a priest friend of Larry Eck in El Salvador with his missionary work.

Meanwhile, a local bank founded by several Franciscans and leading local businessmen raises a question as to who has or will have legal title to the financial contributions now sitting in this bank, which have been made by pilgrims.

Any discussion of Medjugorje must include a brief overview of the region's tumultuous history. Our Lady of Medjugorje appeared 40 years to the day after a gruesome massacre of 600 Serbians, who were taken from their villages in Prebilovci and western Herzegovina at gunpoint in June 1941 by members of a group of Croatians who called themselves "Ustasha," "insurgent." The group had allied themselves with the Nazis in a short-lived attempt to run an independent Croatian state. These kidnapped Serbian old men, women and children, who were loaded in train cars, disembarked at the village of Surmanci and marched to the deep pit above the town. They were hurled in, alive, with hand grenades thrown in after them. This massacre site is located just on the other side of the hill now known as apparition hill, where Our Lady of Medjugorje first appeared. The names of the perpetrators of the Surmanci massacre include villagers from Medjugorje, according to a summary of the massacre recounted by E. Michael Jones in a well-documented article, "The Ghosts of Surmanci: Queen of Peace, Ethnic Cleansing, Ruined Lives."

The communists sealed the pit with a concrete lid in 1980, in an attempt to quell chaos in this ethnically diverse region. In 1989, a delegation of Serbs broke through the lid, exhumed the Serb remains and ceremoniously processed the coffins draped with Serbian banners, back to Prebilovci, to be re-interred.

Even so, Surmanci remains the town's dirty little secret. Perhaps Our Lady's timely appearance 40 years later marked a welcome relief for guilty consciences. One thing is certain, the historical and political components of the story are especially significant in considering Our Lady's appearances in Medjugorje (or, now, wherever the "visionaries" happen to be).

But how important are events like Medjugorje to the spiritual lives of Catholics? "The fact is that God does make his presence known to us in innumerable ways," writes Father Benedict Groeschel in A Still, Small Voice. "He gives us his word in Scripture, his presence in the Sacraments, his appeal in the needy. Christ assures us that he is present with us till the end of the world. What we really need is not extraordinary signs of this presence in visions and revelations, but a sense of reverent attentiveness to this religious experience as it comes to us in ordinary ways."

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