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My heart will triumph

November 12, 2013

“Since 1981, millions of people, have traveled to a little town on the border of Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina because 6 children claim to have visions of Mary, the Mother of God. Are they all crazy?” That’s the question asked by the trailer of The Triumph, a new documentary film by Sean Bloomfield.

In August 1987, my eldest sister gave me a book. It’s titled, Reina de la Paz: Seis Años de Apariciones Marianas en una Aldea Yugoslava (Queen of Peace: Six Years of Marian Apparitions in a Yugoslavian Town). It’s written by Fr. Francisco (Paco) Verar, a Panamanian priest I had got to know when I was much younger. He had gone to the small Yugoslavian town of Medjugorje where reportedly, Mary had been appearing to a group of six children since 1981.

The book begins with a very clear disclaimer note saying that with the book the authors do not pretend to anticipate the Church’s ruling on the apparitions. I guess, at the time, it was not expected that the visionaries would still claim to be having apparitions 30 years later. In fact, in the prologue Fr. Paco writes that when he first heard about Medjugorje he thought, “how is it possible that the Virgin Mary has been appearing daily since 1981!” Needless to say, Fr. Paco went to Medjugorje and, although, already a priest, had a conversion experience. He’s been back many times.

Let me say, at this point that I also don’t wish to anticipate the ruling of the Church on Medjugorje. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has been very clear that the current protocol has not changed since the CDF issued a statement in 1991. It’s a bit complicated, but the way I understand it, the local Bishop, Ratko Perić, like his predecessor, Pavao Žanić, who was the bishop when the apparitions allegedly began, is against the apparitions. Bishop Perić wrote a personal letter saying that nothing supernatural was occurring in Medjugorje. However, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, at the time Archbishop Bertone, who was the Secretary of the CDF (presided over at the time by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Pope Benedict XVI) wrote in a letter that “what Bishop Perić (local Bishop of Mostar-Duvno since 1993) said in his letter … is and remains his personal opinion.” Furthermore, part of the 1991 CDF statement read, “As regards pilgrimages to Medjugorje which are conducted privately, this Congregation points out that they are permitted on condition that they are not regarded as an authentication of events still taking place and which still call for an examination by the Church.” I think that’s clear.

In 2008 Cardinal Bertone, still secretary of the CDF, re-iterated the previous statement of the CDF with the following; “Bishop Peric’s statement expresses a personal opinion of his own. It is not a definitive official judgment on the part of the Church. The Church defers to the Zadar statement issued on 10th April 1991 by the bishops of the former Yugoslavia and the statement leaves the door open to further investigations of the affair. So the process of verification needs to move forward.” This 2008 statement is the last official Vatican statement that I remember. At the time I understood it to mean that people could go on private (individual) pilgrimages, but should not go on official Church pilgrimages that made it look like the Church officially approved of the apparitions. I should add that another way to look at this is that Medjugorje has never been officially condemned by the Church (despite what the local ordinaries have said), and so that means that people are free to discern and to come to their own conclusions until an official ruling is made. In the meantime, private pilgrimages are OK; official pilgrimages are not. As far as I know that is still the official position on Medjugorje. (If I am mistaken, perhaps someone can clarify this.) It is also important to note that even if the Church does approve an apparition, no Catholic is required to believe it. It is not necessary to our Faith.

And so, this is where we are: A lot of confusion. Supporters (and there are many) claim that it’s just a matter of time until the Church rules in favour of Medjugorje. Skeptics are quick to say that very soon we will hear that the Church does not approve of the supposed apparitions. It is doubtful, however, as long as apparitions are still reportedly taking place, that the Church will make a ruling. In the past, apparitions have to have ended for the Church to either approve or disapprove them; the Church can’t be seen as “pre-approving” future apparitions. Still, there have never been apparitions that have lasted 30 years.

What we cannot deny is the fact that a great majority of pilgrims who’ve gone to the small town of Bosnia-Herzegovina have had a conversion experience. You can’t deny that Medjugorje (despite any number of weird and possibly unethical things that may have gone on there because of the apparitions) is a prayerful place: A place that is centred on Christ and that many people who’ve gone there, believers, non-believers, skeptics, doubters, have all returned to the Church. If you judge by its fruits, Medjugorje is a fruitful place.

And, without taking one side or another, or without challenging the authority of the Church in the matter, this is the message of The Triumph. Both, director Sean Bloomfield and producer Zaid Jazrawi (founder & director of IHS312.ORG) had a conversion experiences in Medjugorje). Still, they do not try to push their experience down your throat.

The Triumph follows a young man, Ben, whose parents send to Medjugorje with the hopes that it will help him with some addictions and lifestyle choices. As we follow Ben’s journey, we also meet various pilgrims, villagers, priests, religious, experts, scientists and politicians, including Muslims and Orthodox Christians who express their thoughts and opinions on what’s happening in this little-known town. (Of particular note is Fr. Dominic LeFleur, who has one of the best lines: “Mary is a mother. But before she changes your heart, she has to change your diapers.”)

As we follow Ben, we also learn about the history of the apparitions and meet Mirjana Dragicevic who in 1981 was 15 years old. Mirjana claims that still today, Mary appears to her and gives her a message for the world, on the 2nd of every month.

Turns out that I went to see The Triumph on November 2nd. On that day, the message that Mirjiana claims to have received from the Mary was the following:

“Dear children; Anew, in a motherly way, I am calling you to love; to continually pray for the gift of love; to love the Heavenly Father above everything. When you love Him you will love yourself and your neighbor. This cannot be separated. The Heavenly Father is in each person. He loves each person and calls each person by his name. Therefore, my children, through prayer hearken to the will of the Heavenly Father. Converse with Him. Have a personal relationship with the Father which will deepen even more your relationship as a community of my children – of my apostles. As a mother I desire that, through the love for the Heavenly Father, you may be raised above earthly vanities and may help others to gradually come to know and come closer to the Heavenly Father. My children, pray, pray, pray for the gift of love because ‘love’ is my Son. Pray for your shepherds that they may always have love for you as my Son had and showed by giving His life for your salvation. Thank you.”

I have to be honest. Since I read the book in 1987, I have not really doubted that Mary is appearing in Medjugorje. However, even though I know many people who’ve gone there (and all have had conversion experiences) I haven’t really given it much thought. But the few messages that I have read are all the same. There is nothing in them that goes against Church teaching. They all begin the same way, “dear children” and they all invite us to the love of the Father and to pray. Many invite us to pray for priests. Most invite us to pray for peace. If we can say that there is one single Medjugorje message it is to pray.

And that is what I felt watching the film: that I was being invited to pray. There is a moving sequence (it was moving for me) about the priesthood, the shepherds. It tries to explain the relationship between the priesthood and Mary; between the Church and Mary. It’s very hard to explain, but when studying Ecclesiology I had the same insight, that without Mary, the Church does not make sense. Without priests the Church does not make sense. We may not understand the priesthood (nor Mary or the Church for that matter), but the three are intricately united. We must pray for these shepherds and Mary does love her priests.

There was another fairly moving (again, at least for me) sequence where many other Marian apparitions (approved) are introduced: Our Lady of Lourdes, Fatima and others including Our Lady of Kibeho, where Mary appeared separately to three young women in Rwanda between 1981 and 1989 before the 1994 genocide – It’s important to note that 10 years after the Medjugorje visionaries claim the apparitions began, the war in Bosnia broke out.). Why does Mary appear? What’s the point? These are all valid questions.

I have to say that even though I thought in general the film was well made and the story well crafted (despite the several false endings) the film does have some technical difficulties (mainly the fact that so many of the interviews are out of focus). For me this is especially frustrating because if we want to compete in a secular world with a Catholic message, we have to make better films than secular filmmakers. No documentary that has out-of-focus interviews will be nominated for an Academy Award. And it’s too bad, because, I think this film could be screened at the Toronto International Film Festival or at Cannes. It could receive awards. But not with the technical issues it has.

Having said that, I do believe the film has its merits. I watched it and enjoyed it. I laughed. I cried (I did. No joke). I found it moving and I found the character of Ben compelling. I very much enjoyed the fact that we see Medjugorje through his eyes, through his experience. If he doubts, if he struggles, if he jokes around, if he fails, that’s what we see. In the film, Ben has the opportunity to be present during one of Mirjana’s apparitions. Bloomfield could have made the choice of focusing on Mirjana to try to make a point. Instead the focus is on Ben and how he sees the experience. I think it’s a good choice and it works for the film. All in all, I found the film engaging and emotional and I can even say that it was a spiritual experience. This is why I would encourage every Catholic, doubters and believers alike, to go see it.

At Fatima, in Portugal in 1917, when Mary appeared to the three shepherd children, Lucia, Francisco and Jacinta she told them, “In the end, my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, and she will be converted, and a period of peace will be given to the world.” I’m not sure if anyone knows what the period of peace refers to, and no official papal consecration of Russia has taken place (more controversy here). Can we say that a period of struggle will precede the consecration and conversion of Russia (and the world) before this period of peace? Can we say that we are in the midst of this struggle? Perhaps. But what I do know is that when we consecrate ourselves to Mary and offer ourselves to Christ we experience all kinds of small triumphs. And, we do know that Jesus Christ has already triumphed. Maybe that’s what this movie is about. Go see it and pray, pray, pray. Pray for peace and pray for love.

There are undoubtedly thousands of articles and resources both for and against Mejugorje online. I encourage everyone to do their research before coming to a conclusion (not that you have to come to a conclusion; the Church will conclude something), but I did find this article by Glenn Dallaire of Mystics of the Church, which I found would give you the right background that may be missing from mine.

And to learn more about apparitions and Church teaching, read Our Lady of Lourdes, Pray for Us that I wrote in February 2012 for the Salt + Light Blog.

From → English, Opinion

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