There is something special in the air as they prepare for Christmas in the village of Medjugorje.
Gangs of workmen put up brightly decorated fir trees in the streets, shops and cafes are covered in tinsel and twinkling lights. A blanket of snow lies across the valley, shrouding its dark pinewood forests, and outside the parish church, a giant crib is near completion.
Tonight, the hotels and guesthouses are packed with pilgrims drawn by the sort of holy scene that might grace a Christmas card – and by something more, besides.
Life changing: The six young visionaries – from left to right Vicka Ivankovic, Jakov Colo, Mirjana Dragicevic, Ivanka Ivankovic, Marija Pavolic and Ivan Dragicevic – who first claimed to have seen an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1981
The visitors, old and young, are not here for cut-price festivity or for a Balkan break. They are here to witness one of the most controversial acts of faith in Christendom – and the six ‘visionaries’ of Medjugorje, who claim to see and speak to the Virgin Mary daily.
Since she first appeared in 1981, the Madonna of Medjugorje has attracted countless devotees from around the world. One-and-a-half million pilgrims pour into the village every year, hundreds of thousands from Great Britain. Many millions more remember the shrine in their prayers. And in their devotion they have split the Catholic Church.
The majority of those here tonight are hoping to get close to one or more of the visionaries or, better still, see them at work.
A few – the infirm, the desperate, the incurably hopeful – have travelled in search of a miracle. And who is to say they will not find it in a place of such passionate belief?
Take, for example, the ‘miracle of Manchester’. Roberto Mancini, manager of Manchester City Football Club and a repeat visitor, is certain that Medjugorje brought about one of the biggest sporting upsets in living memory. This was the long-hoped-for, last-gasp victory in the race for last season’s league championship.
Worshippers kneel in front of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the grounds of St James’ Church, Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina
As Mancini explains: ‘When I think about it, I wonder how it was possible, because I think that in Heaven they have other problems to solve,’ he says, recalling his third pilgrimage to Medjugorje, in March. A few weeks later, his team scored twice in stoppage time to snatch the title from United.
‘However, when I pray, I understand that something impossible became possible on that day.’
Mancini is by no means the only famous follower. Mandy Smith, once the teenage bride of The Rolling Stones’ Bill Wyman, says a visit converted her to God, declaring that: ‘Things kept happening that I can’t explain. We were having dinner when an image of Mary appeared on a white tablecloth ten feet away. We all saw it – everyone in the room.’
Medjugorje is damned as childish and vulgar by a snootier class of Catholic. Certainly, it has become a religious Costa del Sol of hotels and souvenir shops, with everything from Jesus clocks to Virgin Mary lampshades, the flashing mementos merging with the Christmas lights.
More seriously, Medjugorje sits uneasily with a Church unused to such uncontrolled, spontaneous displays of faith, and over time it has become an open wound of acrimonious allegation and counter claim. Even the local bishop has denounced the visions as lies, banning the visionaries from public displays.
Believers: Manchester City’s manager Roberto Mancini with a priest during his pilgrimage to Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in March this year
Yet as Christmas approaches, it seems increasingly certain that Medjugorje and its millions of believers are to get an unexpected present. A Papal Commission is getting ready to do something the Church has refused for more than three decades – and announce, finally, that the visions are authentic. At a stroke, the most controversial shrine in the Western world will become ‘official’. It is in its own way a miracle.
Medjugorje was an obscure tobacco-farming village in communist Yugoslavia for much of its history, but the scorching-hot summer of 1981 changed everything.
Five teenagers and a child – Vicka Ivankovic, Mirjana Dragicevic, Marija Pavlovic and Ivan Dragicevic, all 16, Ivanka Ivankovic, 15, and ten-year-old Jakov Colo – burst through the doors of the parish church and told the priest they had seen the Virgin Mary.
They explained they had been playing on a steep hill when they saw a woman, wearing a long, flowing dress and a veil, beckoning them towards her.
The children’s first reaction was that they were seeing a ghost, but when they asked who she was, the woman had apparently described herself as ‘the Blessed Virgin Mary’ and ‘the Queen of Peace’.
They returned to the hill every evening and, regular as clockwork, they reported that the Virgin Mary reappeared at the same time as the first apparition, 6.40pm precisely. Soon crowds began to follow them and pilgrims from across the globe descended on the ‘village of miracles’.
Rapture: Visionary Mirjana Dragicevic-Soldo has an apparition in front of thousands of pilgrims
Recriminations followed, too. First, the communist authorities banned all talk of the visions. Then the Church took up the cudgels; Medjugorje could not be further removed from the pomp and ceremony of the Vatican. Yet the visions have continued, even to this day.
Tonight I’m with 47-year-old Vicka Ivankovic, the eldest of the six, and the one who met Mancini. She certainly has the aura of a saint, even if she says she’s no such thing.
Despite three major operations on a painful back, she hugs and kisses every pilgrim, touching their heads and praying with them. She pays particular attention to the sick, listening to their every concern. Many leave sobbing with emotion.
Minutes turn to hours as she tends to those who have travelled from across the globe to meet the woman they believe has a direct line to Heaven.
A shrine in Medjugorje marks the spot on the top of the hill where the visionaries claim to see the Virgin Mary
In a rare interview, she explains that she was chosen to spread an important message: ‘The Virgin Mary revealed herself to us so we could go out and inspire people to love and care for others.’
Vicka still claims to have daily ‘meetings’ with the Mother of God, and watching one is quite surreal.
Vicka couldn’t look more ordinary, dressed in jeans and wearing no make-up. She closes her eyes, bows her head and begins to pray. Suddenly she looks up, opens her eyes and crashes to her knees in a trance-like state. For around ten minutes, there is an eerie calm as she engages in animated but silent conversation with thin air.
So what is she seeing? Her sincere, enthusiastic answers only seem to add to the mystery.
‘Every apparition starts with three flashes to warn us she is coming. It’s just the same as talking to a real person, except it feels different because you exclude yourself from everything, as though you are not on Earth any more.
‘For example, at Christmas time the Virgin Mary holds the newborn baby Jesus in her arms and you can see his little feet and hands moving. She keeps covering him with her veil – but it’s not just an image, I can reach out and touch them.’ Vicka grabs my hand to demonstrate: ‘It’s like this, I can touch them as though they are real human beings.’
Vicka says she and her fellow visionaries are not concerned about the Papal deliberations: ‘The Virgin Mary has told us to live one day at a time and not to worry about the future.
‘Concerning the Commission and the Church, the Virgin Mary said, “Leave that to me!” ’
If the village has been transformed since the first visions in 1981, it is as nothing to the changes in store when, as expected, they are acknowledged in the New Year. Rome will effectively take over Medjugorje, already one of the fastest-growing small economies in Southern Europe, creating a Lourdes of the Balkans with a huge rise in visitor numbers, and building to match. The locals are sitting on a gold mine.
More extraordinary still, the six visionaries, still only in their 40s, could find themselves on the path to living sainthood. With one exception, they already concentrate on their religious work full-time. Soon, they could be parted from the last vestiges of normality.
They are well-used to scrutiny, much of it hostile, but nothing quite like this. For example, they have been flown to Rome and grilled for up to three days.
Followers: Vicka Ivankovic blessing the crowds outside her house in Medjugorje where she was one of six children who saw a vision of the Virgin Mary on a hillside in 1981
For the first time in such a case, the Vatican has considered the results of scientific tests using some of the most high-tech equipment, as well as hypnosis.
The visionaries have been wired up as they undergo their trances, with some experts concluding that they are indeed in a state of ecstasy. None of the evidence is conclusive, but nor is there any evidence of deception or trickery, despite years of allegations.
‘They drive nice cars, have large homes and wear designer clothes,’ claims one website called Medjugorje Unmasked. This is untrue. Some have built annexes to house pilgrims, but the rooms are basic, the food is home-cooked and, at a cost of £20 a night, it covers the costs and affords only a modest living.
Other critics point out that some of the visionaries travel the globe on sponsored trips to carry out public ‘meetings’ with the visions and talk about their experiences.
Those who know them well say they are remarkably ordinary. Certainly, few of them are as comfortable as Vicka with their religious celebrity. By his own admission, Jakov Colo, the youngest, is painfully shy. He spends much of his time as a prisoner in his own home, anxiously glancing round the net curtains to see how many pilgrims have gathered outside.
He still feels obliged to attend planned public appearances, but devotes much of his time to his burgeoning singing career, proudly showing off his appearance on a Croatian TV show on his iPhone.
He hands over a copy of his new CD of religious songs, containing tracks entitled Medjugorje Ave Medjugorje Maria and the title track A Mia Madre (to the Holy Mother).
‘Some people think we should become priests and nuns, but we are just ordinary people. The Virgin Mary told us we should never feel under pressure to enter the clergy.’
When I tell him that the Duchess of York wanted to come to Medjugorje, he giggles and responds, ‘Bring Kate Middleton instead . . . and her sister!’
Visionary Ivan Dragicevic did consider the priesthood. But he says his short time in a Franciscan seminary in Visoko near Sarajevo was not a success. ‘I was bullied there,’ he says. ‘It may have been jealousy, I was made to feel like I didn’t belong in the priesthood; I was needed more in Medjugorje.’
He now spends some of the year in the United States, where he met his wife Laureen, a former beauty queen.
The political background is sensitive, too, in a country shared by Croat Catholics, Serb Orthodox Christians and Bosnian Muslims. Towns and villages that surround Medjugorje are a haunting reminder of the war. Many buildings are still peppered with bullet holes. Unconfirmed reports suggest that extremist Muslims are training in abandoned American bases.
Out of the tens of thousands of apparitions of the Virgin Mary reported throughout history, only 295 have been formally investigated and just 12 have ever been authenticated, the most recent being the apparitions of Our Lady of Laus in France, approved in 2008.
What’s more, it would be unprecedented for the Pope to authenticate apparitions before they have stopped. In such a context, Vatican approval of a contentious Catholic shrine might seem unlikely.
A Vatican source says: ‘It is considered safer to wait until claimed apparitions have ended to avoid any evidence emerging that could damage the credibility of such claims.
But this is a shrine that has divided opinion within the Church for more than 30 years and, says the source, action is now inevitable. ‘The controversy leaves the Holy Father feeling vulnerable; he likes to be in control.’
Awkward as it might be for the Vatican, Medjugorje has become impossible to ignore.
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