I witnessed something truly astonishing, for which I could find no ready explanation...
This description of an apparition experience was part of a series of two articles on the Medjugorje phenomenon by the writer John Cornwell and published in The Tablet in March and April 1990.
I visited Medjugorje two years ago, not as a pilgrim, nor even as a practising Catholic, but as a journalist intent on examining the phenomena as one of a series of case-histories illustrating current “mysticism of popular opinion” (the phrase is borrowed from the philosopher W. T. Stace, and used, I think, advisedly). So Fr Slavko’s visit [to the UK] seems a suitable occasion on which to air some observations and reflections on the cult, and perhaps to raise, rather than to settle, some of the issues that it suggests.
As a result of my visit to the shrine I am convinced that Medjugorje has renewed the faith and spirituality of a great many pilgrims. I also believe that there are significant problems and difficulties connected with the cult, and that these have less to do with spirituality than with politics.
First I want to describe what I saw and felt when I was invited to witness the "children" experiencing an apparition in a small study bedroom in the parish house.
It began with a sense of bathos. Some 30 priests were in the “visions” room, crammed together in uncomfortable kneeling postures and praying the rosary in Latin. There was a table, a divan bed; the attention of the priests was focused on the wall opposite the window where there was a low bookcase. There in the blank space above, the Virgin would appear.
As the priests began to sing the Veni Creator Spiritus (stumbling uncertainly over the words, I am afraid to say), there was a commotion at the front door out in the hallway as the visionaries, Jacov and Marija, arrived. Jacov was dressed in a fashionable pink linen suit, his hair freshly spiked in punk style; he went down immediately on his knees in the doorway next to me and fetched out a rosary.
Marija, despite the heat, was dressed — for modesty I imagine — in a pale blue sweater, dark blue woollen stockings, and a calf-length woollen plaid skirt. Her oval face glowed in the heat; her nose was longish and strong, and she had a rather pointed jaw. She looked directly at those about her with tranquil grey eyes. There seemed to be nothing artful about her; she looked assured, like a strict novice mistress. She immediately took charge.
She knelt and began to recite the rosary in Croatian and the priests began to respond raggedly in various languages. I was standing no more than a foot away from her; once or twice she looked directly back at me and I felt a sense of peculiar excitation in the momentary eye contact.
The voice of Marija was dominant; she spoke slowly, enunciating each word clearly, recollectedly, quite unlike the gabble of the priests. And the longer she prayed the more she drew the attention of everybody in the room. Was it the highly charged intensity of expectation, the stirring of some barely understood, primitive undercurrent? Whatever the case, with every passing minute this plain peasant girl seemed to me more radiant, more mysterious, and more lovely. I found it impossible to take my eyes off her.
Just occasionally she would rest back on her heels in a swan-like movement, before resuming a graceful upright posture. In contrast, the sweating priests found their unaided kneeling positions excruciating; they fidgeted and grunted, and rolled their eyes, totally outclassed by Marija. Outside the great crowd could be heard saying the rosary and singing, and as time passed the responses became a steady, concerted roar. It was as if they were willing something to happen in the room by their fervent pleading.
When we reached the end of the complete 15 mysteries of the rosary, Fr Slavko, who had been crouching in a corner under his cowl, stood up. He pointed to the window and asked the nearest priest to shut it; then he switched on the light, a simple naked bulb hanging from the centre of the room. The crowd outside suddenly fell silent.
He said: “Let us pray now that Marija and Jacov will receive an apparition.” Jacov and Marija stepped forward, causing the priests to squeeze together even tighter. The two young people stood before the wall, their hands joined in an attitude of prayer. They began to pray out loud in unison.
Suddenly in perfect co-ordination, they went down on their knees and continued to pray some more; then, both together, their heads rose and they were now speaking silently, their lips moving rapidly, gazing intently as if at a real object. They had entered their ecstasy.
At this point I witnessed something truly astonishing, for which I could find no ready explanation. For about three minutes I saw Jacov and Marija speaking silently and in turn to the invisible figment that hovered in front of them; the extraordinary fact was that when one of them stopped “speaking”, the other, in that same split second would begin. Yet they were not uttering a sound, nor were they capable of seeing each other's lips; I could see no bodily movement whatsoever by which they could cue each other in order to achieve such a feat.
Marija, on whom I now began to concentrate, did not appear ecstatic in any melodramatic or histrionic way, but her face seemed to radiate a, striking innocence and wonder. Her gaze was steady, unblinking, tender; the whites of her eyes seemed to shine with an unearthly light. “Transfiguration” was a word that came to mind. And when I focused my attention on Jacov I saw that same transfiguring quality in his face, made all the more poignant by his youth.
While I stood watching them I became aware of the stunning silence and stillness, both inside and outside the room; momentarily a child cried a long way from the building, and the sound and the distance The cliché about seeing the whole of one’s life in an instant when on the brink of sudden death was not something that I had ever experienced personally, and I had always thought it an exaggeration; but I now believe that I have an inkling of what such an experience might be like. For as I stood in the apparitions room I recollected in my mind’s eye, with great clarity, each and every one of the images of Mary before which I had prayed throughout my childhood and youth — from the statue of Mary in my mother's bedroom in infancy to the carved stone Mary Queen of Heaven that adorned the lady chapel at Oscott College in my young manhood. And in a mysterious expansion of a single moment I was somehow aware of each and every prayer I had prayed and hymn that I had sung to Mary — from my earliest Hail Marys to the poignant Salve Reginas at the end of compline in later years.
As the experience faded, I found myself thinking that these memories gave new meaning to the phrase “full of grace”, and for a moment I had the impression of something unblocking inside myself. Somehow, unawares, I found my heart inclining.
Then the moment was past.
All this took, I believe, a matter of a few seconds. Then, without warning or any indication of a cue, Jacov and Marija both whispered the word “Ode” (Goodbye); they leaned back slightly, their faces awestruck; they gave a little sigh. They were now praying out loud and I noticed that Marija’s voice was thick and throaty. Then, in a trice, both of them stood up and the ecstasy was over.
A priest of my acquaintance who is a promoter of the Medjugorje cult has attempted to persuade me that I was in receipt of a genuine moment of grace in the parish house that evening. How can one possibly tell? I cannot deny that the experience was arresting and slightly uncomfortable. The same priest might also argue that it aided a process of a long return towards faith after many years of agnosticism.
What is certain is that in the strange otherworldliness of the place, and especially the peculiar psychic atmosphere that seems to attend the behaviour of Marija, my imagination was stimulated in an unusual way. It was no wonder that I felt touched: and during the time I spent there I met many people who had been affected in a similar way. I am suggesting that I can explain my experience rationally; and yet, I do not see any reason why a "genuine moment of grace" should not occur within the field force of the imagination. But even if I were convinced that I had been in receipt of that “genuine moment of grace”, I would have no desire to exploit it as a “testimony”. Despite the fact that I write about it now publicly, the experience was private. It was also temporary, and I have moved on. I put it on record here because it is an example of a “positive” experience among many negative ones that occurred to me in Medjugorje and thus an important element contributing to the depth of my ambivalence towards the Medjugorjean phenomenon as a whole.
This photograph by Ian McDougall was taken sometime in the 1980’s and shows two of the Medjugorje visionaries, Jakov and Marija, entering the parish offices where they received regular apparitions of Our Lady.