Our lady of lies

Stunningly politicized, painfully banal and too fraudulent for the pope to recognize, the Virgin of Medjugorje stands for the bloody ethnic hatreds in the former Yugoslavia

Published October 4, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Before you ask, I should say that it's pronounced med-you-gorey. This is worth stressing, because it's almost the only thing about the place that is complicated in the least.

The non-facts are these: On June 24, 1981, a 14-year-old peasant girl, unoriginally named Ivanka Ivankovic, unoriginally came across a light that she took to be the Virgin Mary. Not many hours later, three other girls and two boys claimed to have had the identical experience, or sense-impression. Within a matter of weeks, thousands of the credulous had started to appear at the site, and it has now been trampled by millions. Those who turn up have emanated a number of false claims, such as the ability to stare calmly and without harm at the sun (a pointless achievement even if verifiable) and the more acquisitive and medieval capacity to turn their rosary beads into pure gold. Every sort of foolishness is indulged, and every green acre of this once backward village has been transmuted into a knick-knack mall.

Three things, however, distinguish Medjugorje from the average racketeering religious hub. First, the children claimed to go on seeing the Virgin Mary every day, and some of them keep up this claim to the present moment. Since she exists in their imaginations, and is not a weeping or bleeding statue of the traditional sort -- smeared with pig's fat or otherwise rigged -- she is harder to expose than the more palpable frauds at the shrine of San Gennaro, say. Second, the Vatican and the local hierarchy will not, as they have with similar hallucinations at Fatima or Lourdes or Knock, bestow recognition on the supposed miracle. Third, the political element of this miracle is so obvious as to do what no cowled blue lady can do: make a non-believer catch his breath in wonder.

Part of the fraudulence of Medjugorje is manifested in its political opportunism The site is in the territory of Bosnia-Hercegovina, but it also lies within the area claimed and occupied by Croatian irredentists. In the unbelievably awful souvenir shops that pollute the entire landscape, the accepted local currency is the Croatian kuna, supposed by the Dayton accords to be illegal tender in these parts.

Here, the wreckage of an entire city and the ruin of an entire society is still open to view. The bridges are down, the minarets are amputated: In many parts of town there is still not one stone piled on another. And all this was done, in plain view of NATO, by Croatian government forces who had pictures of the Virgin taped to their rifle-butts. While the pilgrims chanted only a matter of miles away, and gave out stupid and cupiditous yelps about their rosaries turning into gold, the soldiers of Christ were methodically leveling every sign of the existence of another monotheism -- Islam. They were also killing, deporting and torturing those of their fellow citizens who professed the wrong faith, or who didn't profess the right one, or who professed no faith at all.

This episode of atrocity weighs still on the meditations of serious Catholics. It doesn't weigh quite enough, or his holiness the pope would not have beatified the late Cardinal Alojzije Stepanic, who was the clerical face of the wartime Croatian Nazi regime led by Ante Pavelic. (If Pat Buchanan were a mere "isolationist," rather than someone soft on fascism, he would not be such a strong supporter and endorser of the Croatian extreme right, past and present.) Still, even on that dismal occasion the holy father was constrained to utter a few words against genocide and sectarianism. And I imagine that it is this atrocity -- unstated yet inescapable -- that moves the church to speak softly but skeptically to its over-eager Medjugorje flock. Bad as things are, they are not so counter-ecumenical as to make us bow down before Our Lady of the Ustashe.

There is a principle or saying in the world of Catholic scholasticism: "Whatever is received is received in the manner of the receiver." An alternative, or looser, rendering of the Latin would be: "Garbage in -- garbage out." The children were asked excitedly and often, and understandably, what the Virgin had said to them. They replied that she recommended prayer, Bible study, fasting and the rosary. The dullest Croatian parish priest could have said as much, a message worse than the pointless burblings from the beyond that are produced at spiritualist seances. A pretty young guide took me to see a statue of Our Lady outside an ugly new basilica in the center of town. "This one," she breathed reverently, "is the one which the children say looks most like the apparition." I gazed. The banal stone figure precisely resembled every wayside mass-produced Virgin I had ever seen. Perhaps this is why, from Guadeloupe to Knock, she only ever manifests herself to people who have been trained to recognize her.

By contrast to the reverence of Our Lady's followers, the hostility of the local church hierarchy and (thus far) even of an extremely Marian pope is more difficult to explicate. But -- as with the Vatican's denunciation of the supposed apparition at Garabandal in Spain in the 1960s -- we can make a good guess. People "channeling" the Virgin of Medjugorge have interpreted her as preferring the Franciscans to the Jesuits. None of her purported "healings" has survived even the scrutiny of the clerics at Lourdes. Pagan conduct and superstitious ecstasy has been observed at the site, as has the grossest commercialism. And anyway, as Aaron's Old Testament competition with Pharoah's sorcerers can attest, the ability to conjure is not in itself proof of a Christian or even monotheist God, because otherwise the polytheistic sorcerers wouldn't be able to do it. (The latter point is not made by the pope, but it ought to be.) So holy mother church has reached a compromise, whereby the faithful are neither enjoined to worship at Medjugorge nor discouraged from doing so. On the verge of the millennium, Rome does not need another embarrassing bogus revelation.

By Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

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