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Apparitions of the Virgin Mary
A Protestant Look at a Catholic Phenomenon:
(Part Two)

by Kenneth R. Samples

In Part One I presented a descriptive survey of the unusual Catholic phenomenon known as Marian apparitions. I explained how the Catholic church specifically defines an apparition and described its method of evaluating these elusive, ethereal visions. I also surveyed some of the more important and popular alleged apparitions of Mary at such places as Guadalupe, Lourdes, and Fatima.

In the present article I will conclude my description of this extraordinary phenomenon, discussing in detail the currently reported apparitions in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia. I will also examine how apparitions in general have influenced Catholic piety. Finally, I will respond to some of the difficult theological questions this phenomena raises, addressing them from an evangelical Protestant perspective.


apparition: The sudden appearance of a supernatural entity which directly manifests itself to a human person or group (a supernatural vision).

encyclical: A letter of instruction from the Pope which circulates throughout the church.

indulgence: The partial or complete remission of the penalties still due to be paid for sins which have already been forgiven in the sacrament of penance.

Mariology: (1) The totality of Catholic dogmas, beliefs, and speculations regarding Mary, the mother of Jesus. (2) That branch of Catholic theology concerned with the study of Marian doctrines.

papal bull: An official document, edict, or decree from the Pope.

purgatory: In Catholic theology, a state of purification and/or maturation one may experience after death for the purpose of preparing one's soul to enter the presence of God.


As the decade of the 1980s began, few people outside of Yugoslavia had heard of Medjugorje (pronounced Med-ju-gory-ah): a small and remote farming community nestled between the hills in the province of Hercegovina, in southwestern Yugoslavia.[1] In the summer of 1981, however, events transpired that would transform this once-obscure community into an international pilgrimage center. In fact, over a ten year period, some 10 to 15 million people from five different continents have journeyed to Medjugorje.[2] This is even more significant when it is recognized that Yugoslavia is a Communist country.

What could attract so many people to this out-of-the-way place? It is the startling claim of six Croatian youths that, for the past decade, they have communicated almost daily with an apparition that identifies itself as the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Beginning of the Apparitions

On Wednesday, June 24, 1981, two teenage girls -- Ivanka Ivankovic (15 years old) and Mirjana Dragicevic (16) -- had gone out to a hillside behind their homes to smoke cigarettes. While walking down the rocky slopes of Podbrdo (Pod-bre-do) hill in the late afternoon, Ivanka looked up and saw the luminous figure of a young woman in a grey robe, hovering three feet above the ground. "Look, Mirjana," Ivanka said excitedly, "it's the Gospa" (the Croatian word for Madonna, or Virgin Mary). Mirjana, seeing that her friend was genuinely startled, replied: "Don't be an idiot. Why on earth would the Gospa appear to the likes of us?"[3] Both of the girls were gripped with fear and ran down the hill to the village.

About an hour later, the two girls reluctantly agreed to go back up the hill to help a friend round up a small flock of sheep that had been grazing on Podbrdo. When they reached the spot where Ivanka had seen the apparition, all three girls saw a figure of a woman holding a child in her arms. Just then a fourth teenage girl joined them, Vicka Ivankovic, who had come looking for her friends. Vicka was especially terrified by the woman and ran down the hill seeking help. Two teenage boys were summoned and they also witnessed the apparition. The radiant figure beckoned the youths to come toward her, but all six were shaken and ran down the hill to their homes.[4]

The next day, four girls and two boys encountered the apparition again at the same place on the hill. This group was slightly different than those who had seen the apparition the previous day. It included from the first day Ivanka, Mirjana, Vicka, and Ivan Dragicevic (16). The young people who joined the group on the second day were Marija Pavlovic (16) and the young boy, Jacov Colo (10). These six Croatian youths would become Medjugorje's permanent group of "visionaries" or "seers." They are the only people who can see the apparitions.

On this second day, it was again Ivanka who first saw the figure. As before, the luminous woman beckoned the children to come toward her. Still fearful, but nevertheless feeling strangely drawn to "the Lady," the children rushed toward the glowing apparition, knelt down in front of it, and began to pray. Still grieving from her mother's recent death, Ivanka was the first to speak: "Where is my mother?" The Lady told the girl that her mother was well, that she was with her, and not to worry. Ivanka asked if her mother had left a message for her children. The Lady responded: "Obey your grandmother and be good to her because she is old and cannot work."[5] Mirjana, being concerned with what others would say, complained: "Dear Gospa, they will not believe us when we go home. They will tell us that we are crazy." The Lady merely smiled and promised to return the next day. "Go in the peace of God," was her salutation as she disappeared from sight. The apparition had lasted some ten to fifteen minutes.[6]

News about the apparitions spread like wildfire throughout Medjugorje and its surrounding areas. By Friday, the third day of the appearances, two or three thousand people joined the visionaries on the hill awaiting the apparition. A bright light flashed three times on the horizon just before the apparition appeared. The young people were much bolder now in approaching the mysterious Lady. Vicka, the most outspoken, brought forth some holy water mixed with salt. She sprinkled the apparition, saying: "If you are really Our Lady, then stay with us. If not, leave us!" The Lady only smiled in response. Then the following dialogue ensued:

Visionaries: "Who are you?"

Apparition: "I am the Blessed Virgin Mary."

Visionaries: "Why have you come here? What do you desire?"

Apparition: "I have come because there are many true believers here. I wish to be with you to convert and to reconcile the whole world."

Visionaries: "Why are you appearing to us? We are not better than others."

Apparition: "I do not necessarily choose the best."

Visionaries: "Give us a sign which will prove your presence."

Apparition: "Blessed are those who have not seen and who believe."[7]

Following the dialogue, the Lady joined with the young people in reciting several traditional Catholic prayers. Seven times they recited the "Our Father" (also known as the Lord's Prayer), the "Hail Mary" (with the Lady not participating), and the "Glory Be to the Father." At the Lady's insistence, they also recited the Apostles' Creed.[8]

The apparitions were drawing so much attention by the fourth and fifth days that the communist police immediately cracked down on the new movement. They dispersed the large crowds (15,000 present on the hill during the fourth day of apparitions) and interrogated the visionaries. All six youths were submitted to rigorous medical and psychiatric examinations. But when the tests showed no sign of maladjustment, they were allowed to return to their homes. The police also ordered the priests of St. James parish (the Catholic church in Medjugorje) to ban the apparitions. Ten days after the appearances had begun, Yugoslavian television condemned them as "a Croatian nationalist plot."[9] The communists suspected that the apparitions were really a front, intended to cover a politically motivated uprising.

The local Franciscan priests were initially very skeptical about the apparitions. Father Jozo Zovko, the newly appointed pastor of St. James Parish, at first thought the youths were using drugs. Zovko gradually grew to accept the visionaries' claims, and sought to protect them from the police. In a private interview he informed me that he himself witnessed a silent apparition one night during mass. Shortly after his acceptance of the apparitions, Zovko was arrested for "inciting the crowds." He ended up serving 18 months of a three year prison sentence.

The police did their best to stop the phenomenon, but to no avail. As the visions continued, most of the villagers in and around Medjugorje began to be convinced of their authenticity. Because the communists do not allow religious services outside the church, the visionaries asked the Lady if she would appear to them in the church. Soon after their request, they began receiving apparitions in the church rectory of St. James Parish. Except for a few apparitions in the visionaries' homes, the appearances have remained in the church.

What Do The Visionaries Claim To See?

The young people all attest that three flashes of light almost always precede the coming apparition. They also claim they see the Virgin Mary as a real, external person, occupying three-dimensional space. They describe her as a young woman wearing a grey robe, with a white veil, having a crown of stars around her head, and having blue eyes, black curly hair, rosy cheeks, and floating on a cloud. They say Mary speaks to them in their native language of Croatian, and that they can both hear and touch her. While they all see the same figure, sometimes the messages to particular visionaries are individual and private. They also claim that other persons have appeared to them, including: various angels, Jesus, the Devil, and certain deceased relatives. They have also reported seeing visions of heaven, purgatory, and hell.[10]

Twenty-Five Hund