A Book that Brings the Beauty of Medjugorje to Life

I’m re-posting this review of Fr. James Mulligan’s phenomenal book, Medjugojre: What’s Happening? This review originally appeared on my first blog at CatholicDaily.

The old saying goes that a picture is worth a thousand words. It is this proverbial wisdomMulliganMedjugorje that speaks to the power of Fr. James Mulligan’s book Medjugorje: What’s Happening? Mulligan’s book constitutes a pictorial tour de force. It is one of those rare works that captures the poignant beauty of the Madonna’s apparitions in Medjugorje, its spiritual and transformative prowess, by taking the reader on a (stunningly) visual journey to the heart of Medjugorje.

I know a man who, after reading Fr. Mulligan’s book, was converted to a deep Catholic faith and started a Medjugorje prayer group just outside of Chicago. That is high praise for any spiritual author – that one’s work can have such an effect on a person’s life, leading not only to interior transformation and a deeper relationship with God but also to an active life in spreading the Gospel.

Dostoevsky once famously remarked that it is beauty that will save the world. In many ways, his timeless words were speaking to a reality that surrounds Fr. Mulligan’s book: how the beauty of a work can bring salvation to another’s life. Beauty, in its most sublime form, is – after all – nothing more than a reflection of the Divine; it is (therefore) sacred. Dostoevsky’s fellow countryman and literary heir, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, advanced the same notion, dedicating his Nobel Prize lecture to the topic of beauty and aesthetics as a salvific and spiritual force. It is an idea that the great Catholic Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar tackled, dedicating his life-works to the study of beauty and its relationship to God, who is the personification of the Beautiful.

I muse on these details because it is beauty that is at the center of Fr. Mulligan’s book. The importance of beauty in conveying a deeper element to life – especially its spiritual dimension and depth – should never be overlooked. It is one thing to hear that Medjugorje is the greatest confessional in the world. It is another thing to hear this fact alongside moving photographs of penitents from all over the world, and all walks of life – young and old alike – confessing their sins to earnest priests in front of St. James Church in the parish of Medjugorje. A visual image can help bring the reality to life. It is moving and inspires deeper introspection.

Medjugorje: What’s Happening? is a book that would appeal to many. It works well, both as an introduction to Medjugorje for those who know little about the popular apparition site and – at the same time – as an invaluable asset for longtime devotees of Medjugorje, capturing better than most books can the essence of the Slavic village, its visionaries, its priests, and the spiritual yearnings of the pilgrims who come each year by the millions.

Fr. Mulligan’s book makes an original contribution on Medjugorje literature by studying the apparitions in context of other major approved apparitions of Church history, revealing little known details – for example, such as the connection between one Medjugorje message and the Miraculous Medal devotion of St. Catherine Laboure’s apparitions in the Rue du Bac in France.

Fr. Mulligan also provides some rare and original interviews for the book. He has the advantage of being an insider, someone who has visited Medjugorje often, is acquainted with the major figures surrounding the events there, and has even had Medjugorje visionary Marija Pavlovic-Lunetti (with whom he provides an original and insightful interview) over to his church in London to address his parishioners. Fr. Mulligan also provides a good update on the international Vatican Commission that was started by Pope Benedict XVI in March 2010 to examine Medjugorje objectively. Additionally his book benefits by including some very interesting conversion stories sparked by encounters with Medjugorje–such as the conversion of Italian journalist and broadcaster Paolo Gambi after making a pilgrimage. Gambi was such a famous opponent of Medjugorje that his conversion in the village invoked a storm of publicity in Italy in 2010.

For all its merits (and there are so many), Fr. Mulligan’s book is not a perfect work. Where it falls short of perfection is in those isolated places – which do (however) become reoccurring – where Fr. Mulligan – sometimes with unnecessary sarcasm and even derision – mentions other alleged mystics that some have associated, whether forcefully or not, with Medjugorje. Names which Fr. Mulligan keeps invoking, in this context, include Vassula Ryden, Fr. Stefano Gobbi (founder of the Marian Movement of Priests), and Maria Valtorta, to name a few. I admit that I have my own doubts and concerns about Vassula’s alleged revelations, and clearly it is erroneous to associate her claims (being separate phenomena) to Medjugorje, as some have tried to do in order to give Vassula’s messages more credibility. However, I found Fr. Mulligan to be too condemnatory toward Fr. Gobbi’s locutions and portraying only a very partial relationship that Fr. Gobbi had with the Holy See (ignoring, for example, that Pope John Paul II held the late Fr. Gobbi and his Marian Movement in very high regard and often concelebrated Mass with the Italian priest). Mutually, I thought that Fr. Mulligan gave the Italian mystic Maria Valtorta and her multivolume work The Poem of the Man God unfair and overly critical treatment.

Fr. Mulligan points out that Our Lady told Marija the visionary that The Poem could be read and, then, in what reads like a somewhat desperate spin-effort, Fr. Mulligan emphasizes that the message said nothing about The Poem being true (simply that it could be read), therefore, Fr. Mulligan assumes that it may – in fact – be a false work. In the process of presenting this creative logic, Fr. Mulligan forgets that the visionary Vicka also asked the Madonna about The Poem and (subsequently) reported that Our Lady told her: “if a person wants to know Jesus he should read Poem of the Man God by Maria Valtorta. That book is the truth.” I understand that this is a touchy subject, even with many Medjugorje supporters, since Valtorta’s work (like St. Faustina’s Divine Mercy diary) was placed on the Church’s index of forbidden reading before the Index was abolished by Pope Paul VI. Thus a reason why many proponents of Medjugorje would like to downplay this connection. However, what is also true and, in my opinion, is the more worthy approach to take, is to acknowledge that since the unfortunate incident with the Index Valtorta’s work has received much praise from many high Church officials, even receiving the Imprimatur of two bishops, attesting to The Poem as being free of moral or doctrinal errors and, thus, being completely in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church. Such facts should be presented – for they are the facts behind the situation – and they do alleviate concern that many have about Marija’s and Vicka’s positive comments about The Poem.

Ultimately, despite this one shortcoming in the work, Fr. Mulligan’s book is an exceptional and beautiful work filled with rare and original photos, interviews, and facts about Medjugorje. The pictorial presentation that the book gives is nothing short of extraordinary, presenting some of the rarest photos of the early years of the apparitions, to some of the most interesting personal photos of the visionaries with their families. I want to mention in this light how the author has a fine taste for detail. He presents to us even the major artistic works – sculptures and paintings – that have, throughout the years, been erected in Medjugorje, a great majority of them done by the great Italian artist Carmelo Puzzolo. This attests again to Fr. Mulligan’s sharp appreciation for beauty. It is that appreciation that permeates his book and gives a sublime reflection of the poignancy that many experience in Medjugorje: having a personal encounter with Beauty itself.

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