Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina - If anyone wanted to believe in the mysteries of Medjugorje, it was the Rev Philip Pavich.
The American priest turned his life upside down 10 years ago to wrangle an assignment at St James Catholic Church in Medjugorje, where millions of religious pilgrims from around the world have been drawn by reported sightings of Mary, the virgin mother of Jesus.
It was a dream job for Pavich, who had relatives in the former Yugoslavia - the birthplace of his Croatian parents. He began his new assignment with gusto, faithfully preaching the messages that Mary is said to deliver to local visionaries.
But somewhere along the line, Pavich's devotion has turned to disillusionment.
He has begun to see what he calls a 'flake dimension' to the hordes of pilgrims, some of whom go partially blind after starting at the 'miracle of the sun'. He has become uncomfortable with the 'cult leader' status of 'professional visionaries who are living off the profits' of the booming tourist trade, he said. He has even entertained serious reservations about the authenticity of the apparitions, he acknowledged.
In short, Pavich has become self-described 'Doubting Thomas' of Medjugorje.
"I was suckered into this country by my own desire," said Pavich, who worked for 11 years in Israel before securing a transfer to Bosnia. "I believed the apparitions when I came. If anybody wanted it to be true, I did.
"So I preached the messages. I have out tapes and talks and went to a couple of conferences. There are literally hundreds of Medjugorje conferences around the States."
It was at those conferences that Pavich began to realise the magnitude of the multi-million dollar industry that has sprung up around the village of Medjugorje since six youths claim they saw Mary on a rocky hillside in 1981. Some pilgrims who visit Medjugorje return to their home countries and claim to experience visions of their own.
"Medjugorje has spawned 400 visionaries in the United States," said Pavich, a balding, grey-bearded priest in a brown Franciscan robe. "They got 'em in every state. It's a ridiculous, pandemic situation. It's totally out of control.
"I mean, it is a sick visionary world. Canada, the United States, Australia everybody that has touched Medjugorje has spawned a whole new petri dish of visionaries."
Pavich has grown especially disenchanted with the six original visionaries, most of whom still live in Medjugorje. Two of them said they stopped having daily visions of Mary within a few years of the initial apparitions.
"The other four are active visionaries, so they travel the world," Pavich said. "Ivan (Dragicevic) married a Massachusetts beauty queen - was Miss Massachusetts twice - and basically lives in Boston. He's on a world tour.
"Oh man, they bring home lots of money," Pavich said of the visionaries. "People give unbelievably. It's like a cult. They're like little cult leaders, little cult characters. And they collect, man, bit time.
"They've got second houses; they've got perks," Pavich noted. "They're professional visionaries who are living off the profits."
Pavich complained that people 'just pour' money on Medjugorje visionaries.
Some wealthy Croat tour leader will put down 80,000 bucks, build a house for a visionary, and then she'll sucker her pilgrims into coming by saying "When you come you'll get to stay with a visionary," said Pavich, who noted the beauty of the visionaries' houses. "They're a scandal to a lot of people because they (the visionaries) are in on the take - big time."
There's no denying that the visionaries' well-kept, two-storey homes stand out in this largely peasant country that was ravaged by 3½ years of civil war. One visionary, Jakov Colo, has a stately, salmon-coloured house with a satellite dish and spacious yard.
Asked what he does for a living, Colo joked that he baby-sits his two young children. Pressed for his occupation, the 25 year old said he works at St James Church - a claim denied by Pavich.
"He's a professional visionary," Pavich said. "That's all fluff. They don't work, they never work. They just collect money."
Visionary Marija Pavlovic lives in an even more impressive house, although Pavich acknowledges that Pavlovic is the only visionary to have learned a trade - hairdressing. Pavlovic is considered the most important visionary because she is the one who first heard Mary's call for peace in 1981. She is also the one who reveals a seven-line message from Mary on the 25th day of each month.
"Little children, I am your mother and I desire to reveal to you the God of love and the God of peace," Pavlovic quoted Mary as having said on Christmas day. "I do not desire for you life to be in sadness but that it be realised in joy for eternity, according to the gospel .."
Pavich used to perpetuate these messages through his sermons at Mass. Now he dismisses "the idea that the mother of God comes and just gives a seven-line message once a month, but has daily encounters with four visionaries".
"In 31 days you got 124 encounters," Pavich said. "Now out of those 124 encounters we get a seven-line message? That don't stack up with me.
"It's too much of a spirit guide mentality; "I will lead you; I will do this. I will do that. Be messengers of my messages."
"I'm trained the other way. I'm not gonna be a missionary of your messages - sorry about that. I'm a missionary of Jesus Christ. I'm sent by him. I'm not sent by some dubious-claim apparition. I'm not an envoy of an unapproved visionary entity."
As a result, Pavich no longer preaches the messages revealed by Pavlovic.
"I have serious reservations about the authenticity of the apparitions," Pavich said. "I could not subscribe in a free-hand way to: 'Yes, I believe this is the mother of God' - although I came her with that idea." Still, Pavich stops short of calling the visionaries liars.
"Oh, I'm not saying that they didn't see something, that they didn't claim to see something," Pavich said. "I'm not saying that they're lying of hallucinating. They are in touch, definitely, with some entity and a powerful energy. Whether it's the mother of God - I'm not ready to say that."
Colo said he is not fazed by sceptics.
"There have always been such kinds of people, especially at the beginning," Colo said. "When I was just 10 years old, it was hard for me when people didn't believe me. But I know I saw something.
"Nobody can force you to believe. We can only pray for all non-believers."
Pavich's boss at St James, the Rev Slavko Barbaric, said he also believes in the visions. But Barbaric, who has written several books on the apparitions, acknowledges that the Vatican is waiting for more evidence before sanctioning Medjugorje as a bona fide pilgrimage site. He added that Pope John Paul personally endorses the site, although 'not officially'.
"That's all anecdotal evidence," said Pavich. "That's all nice wishful thinking. The Pope also personally put the toughest possible bishop in Mostar to be hard on Medjugorje. But you never hear them quote that. You only hear them quote: "Oh, the Pope said he would be in Medjugorje."
"Nice little anecdotal story, based on third-hand information. But he (the Pope) has never put his name to anything. No way. Nothing counts until its got a signature on it. Hearsay doesn't count except for nice, naïve people."
While the Vatican has not condemned Medjugorje, in 1984 it ordered Catholic priests and bishops to stop organising official pilgrimages to the village. It was a clear signal that the Vatican did not consider Medjugorje in the same league as officially holy sites, such as Rome, Lourdes and Fatima.
That same year, local bishops ordered the visionaries to stop meeting inside St James Church, where they had grown accustomed to gathering for their daily apparitions. The visionaries now claim Mary makes her daily apparitions to them wherever they happen to be.
Further doubt was cast on Medjugorje in 1991, when a group of 20 Croatian bishops in the former Yugoslavia issued a report on the apparitions.
"They said on the basis of evidence up to this point, it cannot be established that one is dealing with supernatural apparitions and messages," Pavich explained. "So all we can say is people are permitted to come. We are permitted to give them pastoral care, confession, counsel, prayer guidance."
The report reflected the regional church's long-standing wariness toward Medjugorje.
"The bishops have never been favourable to it because it's not got any church approval in any official sense," Pavich said. "The Croatian hierarchy and bishops are basically cool toward Medjugorje. The basic Catholic press in this country is cool toward Medjugorje It's too sticky, too problematic.
"This has no status as a pilgrimage place," Pavich said. "This is private religious tourism, basically. Faith-motivated tourism - or whatever motivates you - some worth, some unworthy."
One of the most intriguing attraction for tourists is the notion that Mary told the children - who ranged in age from 10 to 16 when the visions began - that she would impart to them ten secrets that cannot be revealed to the world until she gives them a sign. The two visionaries who longer see apparitions already know the ten secrets. The remaining four visionaries only know nine.
"They're playing a game," Pavich said. "Now they're on nine secrets for 10 years already. I don't like it. I mean, why don't they bingo out and finish the ten secrets? Because if they did, then the jig is up."
Pavich believes the revelation of the secrets, which some people expect to occur at the close of the millennium, will end the mysteries of Medjugorje. That will bring a halt to the flow of pilgrims causing economic disaster in the village, he added.
"If this thing falls apart, there's gonna be murder around here. They've invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in real estate that demands a flow of pilgrims and if they don't come" - Pavich whistles - "I don't wanna be around here."
Medjugorje, more than most Bosnian villages, is filled with immaculate inns and cosy cafes. Silk-linen restaurants served imported lobster. Scores of elaborate souvenir shops sell an astonishing assortment of religious merchandise, including rosaries, statues and paintings. Mary's visage is plastered on everything from candlesticks to key fobs.
"I wonder if the virgin mother of God would approve of all these souvenir shops," muttered a pilgrim from the United States.
"The locals have milked this thing for millions of dollars; therefore, they have a very big vested interest," Pavich said. "For them this is a lifeline, a boomtown, an industry driving the whole thing."
"I think I have a little more objective view. I have no vested interest, no books to sell, nothing to make."
Pavich's disillusionment peaked two years ago. "I decided to quit," said Pavich, who obtained a transfer to Chicago. "I'd had enough. People trashed me for my opposition to this stuff. I was kind of a pariah."
But as he was packing his belongings, a regional church official intervened, telling Pavich about numerous letters and calls the church had received from parishioners who wanted the American priest to stay. Pavich reluctantly agreed to remain a little longer, although he said he will probably leave soon. While other priests have their offices in St James modern rectory, Pavich is relegated to a battered orange trailer in the parking lot.
"So I'm in a sort of second life here," mused Pavich, one of eight priests in St James. I've died and haven't gone home yet. I'm still in the penalty box. I'm ostracised. Sometimes they don't talk to me. So my time is over."
Not exactly. Pavich still performs the various sacraments and is particularly devoted to hearing confessions. During Mass, instead of preaching the messages of Mary, he discusses such topics as the courage of demonstrators in Belgrade, Yugoslavia.
And despite his doubts about Medjugorje, he acknowledges that plenty of good is accomplished in the village. Regardless of the validity of the apparitions, millions of Catholics end up praying, fasting and generally growing closer to God, which is a tremendous achievement, Pavich said.
He cited the case of a young Wall Street millionaire who was so moved by Medjugorje that he gave away his fortune to become a priest who enthusiastically embraced a life of 'radical poverty'.
"I know the graces people have received through the sacraments, through confessions and so on," Pavich said. "I also know some of the flaky side that isn't complimentary - like guys who get their retinas burned while looking at the so-called miracle of the sun."
Perhaps because Mary appears only to a small group of select visionaries, some pilgrims seem desperate to witness any kind of supernatural even at Medjugorje. Many have taken to staring directly at the sun, which seems to dance and shimmer as their eyes become locked on.
"This is incredible!" said Kate O'Brien as she stared at the sun while descending Apparition Hill recently. "It's like a vision!"
When it was suggested she might be damaging her retinas, the 20 year old college student from Steubenville, Ohio, kept right on staring at the sun.
"That's a really spooky, sub-cultural spin-off - this craze to see the so-called miracle of the sun," Pavich said. "Ain't no more miracle of the sun than the man on the moon! The sun ain't doing nothing up there. Your eyeball's doing it!"
Pavich tells of one man who stared at the sun for an hour and 45 minutes, only to realise he had burned a permanent 'black spot' in his vision which made it impossible for him to do his job at a computer. Several ophthalmology magazines have warned of the dangers of the practice and specifically cited Medjugorje, Pavich said.
Other pilgrims claim their rosaries turned to gold when they reached the summit of Apparition Hill or nearby Cross Mountain, which Pavich calls 'two great stage props'.
"We get things like that," Pavich said. "Flying lights and bouncing balls and streaks of light flowing through the church. I never saw any of that stuff. I mean, where are these people coming from?
"There is a flake dimension to Medjugorje. There is a freaky, sub-culture aspect that isn't healthy, frankly. I've seen it, man, and I'm hard nosed on it. I've got a bad reputation because I don't put up with nonsense."
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