Reported Visions of Virgin Mary Draw Hordes of Pilgrims to Bosnian Village


Are the 'Visionaries' Real?

The authorities were convinced the "visionaries" were part of some subversive plot, but the more they tried to suppress the story, the further it spread.

As support for the visionaries grew, the authorities tried to scare them into admitting it was all an elaborate lie, beginning a campaign of persecution.

"They were taken to the police, they were taken to the hospital, they were harassed, they were hunted for, they were given every hardship possible and they were willing to endure all that," said the Rev. Svet, a priest from a nearby village who was studying in New York when he first heard about the apparitions.

Mirjana said, "I was thinking, 'What they can do to me, kill me? I will go with Blessed Mary, forever.'"

Eventually, Mirjana and her family were forced out of Medjugorje, and she was placed in a school for troubled youth.

"They ask me, 'What you taking? You have always peace and smile. Cocaine? Heroin?'" Mirjana said, laughing. "I said, 'Jesus is my peace.'"

When the threat from the government faded with Communism's collapse, Church politics took over. There were power plays between the local Franciscans and the Vatican's bishop. Priests were punished for getting too close to the visionaries. The visionaries claimed Mary disagreed with the bishop.

Embarrassed by the turf wars, the Vatican stepped in last year. Pope Benedict XVI launched an unprecedented commission to look into Medjugorje. The process is highly confidential but Dr. Mark Miravalle, a leading Mariologist and Vatican insider who has investigated other apparition sites for the Church, thinks it's likely it will pass the Vatican's test.

"After 25 or 30 years ... the church can have a pretty good idea about whether this is of God, or whether it's of Satan. The message is very sound. The spiritual fruits are undeniable," Miravalle said.

The vast majority of Medjugorje pilgrims report renewed relationships and profound experiences of grace, healing and blessing, he said.

The Vatican has never approved an ongoing apparition for fear that the visionaries might prove themselves frauds or insane.

But the Vatican hasn't condemned it, either, so the faithful continue to come. Many believe that Mary called them through signs and miracles.

"I asked the Blessed Mother to show me a sign of whether I should come or not," one woman said. "And my rosary turned gold, so I took that as a sure sign. ... Well, it's gold color anyway."

Most rise before dawn to make the arduous hike up Apparition Hill. Each bears his or her own needs and burdens. To prove devotion and suffer in Christ's name, some even go barefoot.

We traveled there with the Trinity Pilgrimage, of Scottsdale, Ariz., and it was a return trip for many. One pilgrim, Flerida Gutierrez, was here 21 years ago.

But this time she needs a miracle; she is battling Stage 4 cancer.

When she and the others reach the top, the spot where the visionaries say Mary first appeared, their praying and weeping fill the morning air.

"I do believe that the only one who can heal really is Jesus," Gutierrez said. "But there are people … some are visionaries who can pray for you. And there will be results that you cannot imagine that will happen."

If Medjugorje is the "Catholic Woodstock," one of the favorite headliners is Vicka, another of the six visionaries who claim to see and talk to the Mother of Jesus. They claim Mary gave each of them a "specialty," and Vicka is known as "The Healer."

Vicka amid pilgrims
Vicka amid pilgrims

"Before Our Lady appears, I see a flash three times. That is a sign to me that she's coming," Vicka said.

"She wears a gray robe or dress, white veil, crown of stars, blue eyes, black hair, rosy cheeks, and she's flowing on a great cloud in the air, and she's never touching the ground."

Three days a week, the sick, the frail and their loved ones crowd her street, hoping for a glimpse, a word or, best of all, a touch. For three hours Vicka, 46, tirelessly attends to the pilgrims, and her handlers collect piles of prayer requests.

Flerida Gutierrez is hoping that here is where her cancer will disappear.

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