06/10/2015 01:23 pm ET | Updated Jun 10, 2015

Why The 'Apparitions' Of The Virgin Mary In This Small Bosnian Town Are So Controversial

ELVIS BARUKCIC via Getty Images

The Vatican will soon rule on the validity of a series of alleged apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the Bosnian town of Medjugorje, Pope Francis announced on Saturday. The site has become a booming tourist destination for the more than 1 million pilgrims who visit the town each year with the hopes of receiving a message from the blessed figure.

But the alleged apparitions are controversial within the Catholic Church. Here's why:

What is an apparition?

An apparition is a sight or vision that may be unexpected or even supernatural. In the Catholic sense, apparitions are considered to be supernatural visions or revelations, typically of the Virgin Mary, saints or even God.

There have been more than 1,500 visions of Mary reported around the world, according to Catholic News Service. But these visions are only accepted by the church once the local bishop determines their veracity.

In 1978, the Vatican distributed a set of procedural rules to bishops for weighing alleged apparitions, which included determining a subject's psychological state and curtailing any devotional cults that might arise out of the event.

What's the story behind the Virgin Mary "apparitions" in Medjugorje?

The reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Medjugorje are among the most famous in modern times. In 1981, six children began reporting visions of the Madonna clad in white and holding a child in her arms. Several of the individuals claim that the apparitions have continued regularly over the years and contain 10 "secrets" describing events that will occur on Earth in the future.

Why are they controversial?

Although the church has approved other Marian apparitions in the past, the ones at Medjugorje are widely contested. The local bishop has stated that he does not believe the visions to be authentic, descrying the "lies that are at times put into the mouth of the 'Madonna.'"

According to the official website for the Medjugorje pilgrimage, apparitions of Mary told the children that a sign will appear in the place where she first appeared to them. The site says the "visionaries" reported her as saying:

"This sign will be given for the atheists. You faithful already have signs and you have become the sign for the atheists. You faithful must not wait for the sign before you convert; convert soon. This time is a time of grace for you. You can never thank God enough for His grace. The time is for deepening your faith, and for your conversion. When the sign comes, it will be too late for many."

What is the Catholic Church's position?

In 2010, then-Pope Benedict XVI launched an international commission to study the apparitions at Medjugorje. On Saturday, Pope Francis said the commission has submitted its report to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for review.

Among the church's chief concerns is the fact that the alleged visions have continued for more than 30 years, which proved difficult for the commission to verify.

What is Pope Francis's position?

In his homily on Tuesday, the pope appeared to dismiss the apparitions as "novelty-seeking," chiding those "who always need novelty in their Christian identity."

"This isn't Christian identity," he said. "God's last word is called Jesus and nothing more."


  • Chimayó - Santa Fe, New Mexico
    William Aranda/Wikimedia Commons
    Located roughly 30 miles north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, El Santuariò de Chimayó is called the "Lourdes of America." Legend holds that a wooden crucifix appeared on the hillside in the early 19th century where the chapel now stands, several times mysteriously returning to the same spot after being transported to a nearby church. A chapel was built on the site as a result, and thousands of pilgrims now visit it every year. Many come particularly for the healing dirt that sits beneath the church, accessible by a small well in an attached hermitage.
  • Lourdes - France
    DigitalImagination/Getty Images
    The southern French town of Lourdes is a popular site where Catholics celebrate the 1858 apparition of the Virgin Mary to shepherd girl Bernadette Soubirous. Millions of pilgrims visit Lourdes every year to bathe in and drink from the spring believed to have curative powers. Visitors can also attend Mass, which is observed every day, and visit the home of Bernadette, who was canonized in 1933.
  • Naag Mandir - Fiji
    Naag Mandir/Blogspot
    Naag Mandir is the temple for a Hindu snake god and houses the mysterious "growing stone." First discovered over a century ago, according to legend, the stone was originally just two feet tall and continued growing over the years. The stone now stands at about 15 feet tall. Devotees come to the temple to pray for fertility, health and good fortune.
  • Medjugorje - Bosnia
    Elvis Barukcic/Getty Images
    Medjugorje has been an important pilgrimage site since 1981 when six local "visionaries" began seeing apparitions of the Virgin Mary. The apparitions delivered messages to each of villagers over the years that followed, though the Catholic Church has been divided over the authenticity of these visions. Nonetheless, over 30 million pilgrims have visited the site in search of miracles, visions and spiritual healing.
  • The Ganges River - India
    The Ganges River, known as Ganga Ma or "Mother Ganges," runs from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal coming to a feat of 1,560 miles. To the many people living around it, and those who believe in its majesty, this river represents life, purity, and a goddess. It is believed that anyone who touches these purifying waters is cleansed of sin.
  • Mount Kailash - Tibet
    Rijko Ebens/Getty Images
    Though not as highly visited by pilgrims as other holy sites, Mount Kailash is a sacred place for Hindus, Jains and people of the pre-Buddhist Bön tradition. Hindus believe it to be the home of the god Shiva, and Jains believe it to the place where Rishaba attained liberation. The pilgrimage to Mount Kailash involves an arduous multi-day walk around the base of the mountain with the hope of increasing psychic awareness and moving from ignorance to enlightenment.
  • Char Dham - India
    Garry Weare/Getty Images
    Char Dham, meaning "Four Abodes," actually refers to four sites - Yamunotri, Gangotri, Sri Kedarnathji and Sri Badrinathji - that make up one of the most holy pilgrimages for Hindus. Undertaking the journey to these sites is believed to ensure the pilgrim's release from the cycle of reincarnation. The pilgrimage was reportedly initiated in the 8th century by philosopher Adi Shankaracharya and has since been completed by millions of pilgrims.
  • Western Wall - Jerusalem, Israel
    Kommersant Photo/Getty Images
    The Western Wall is one of the most sacred sites in Judaism, as it is all that remains of the Second Temple of Jerusalem, believed to have been destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Visitors of all religions are able to approach the wall, and many pilgrims slip pieces of paper with prayers and petitions into the cracks between the stones. As a remnant of time past, many see the Western Wall as a symbol of hope and regeneration in the face of adversity.
  • Glastonbury - England
    Flickr/Wikimedia Commons
    Glastonbury Tor is the name of a English hill atop which sits a 14th century church tower. Now a place of spiritual importance for Christians based on legend that Jesus once visited the site, ritual surrounding the Glastonbury Tor is believed to date back to ancient times. The ancient Druids named the hill the Island of Glass, and some modern pagans believe the Tor to be enchanted. Christians and pagans alike make pilgrimage to Glastonbury, whether to observe Mass, drink from the healing Chalice Well or climb the famous Tor.
  • The Golden Temple - India
    The Golden Temple is located in Amritsar, India and is historically a central religious site for the Sikh faith. Representing a strong Sikh foundation and distinct identity and heritage, the Golden Temple averages fifty thousand visitors daily. However, anybody, despite cast or creed can come to this open pilgrimage spot to seek spiritual comfort, solace, and perform individual prayers.
  • Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica - Mexico City, Mexico
    Getty Images
    Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica is the most popular Marian shrine in the world, visited by pilgrims from around the world praying for the Virgin's intercession. According to the Catholic News Agency, the "Lady from Heaven" appeared to a poor Indian named Saint Juan Diego and identified herself as the Mother of the True God. She told him to build a church on the site and left an image of herself on his tilma, a low-grade cactus-cloth. According to this source, the tilma could not have stayed in tact for more than 20 years but remains in place even after 470 years.
  • Vaishno Devi Temple - India
    Dinodia Photos/Getty Images
    The Mata Vaishno Devi temple is located in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir near the town of Katra. It is one of the most revered sites for Hindus, visited every year by over eight million devotees. It is believed that pilgrims will first hear a call from the Divine Mother to visit the shrine, after which they will embark on the journey to receive her love and blessings.
  • Madron Well - Cornwall, England
    David Clapp/Getty Images
    One of several reputed holy wells throughout Cornwall, Madron Well stands near the remains of a 12th century chapel and is named for the Christian Saint Madern. The well's significance as a holy site is believed to derive, however, from pre-Christian pagan worship. To this day pilgrims visit Madron Well in pursuit of spiritual and physical healing, ripping pieces of clothing near their afflicted areas and tying them to the branches of nearby trees.