of the Virgin Mary :
Though it is by now old as news stories go, the manifestations of the Virgin Mary in Medjugorje, Yugoslavia, have begun to receive increasing attention from the news media. In May, for example, a moving one-hour documentary tracing the experience of some Americans - both skeptics and the faithful - in Medjugorje was broadcast on the CBS affiliate in Phoenix, Arizona. And ABC's national news magazine, "20/20", broadcast its own coverage of the phenomenon early this summer.
Thus the subject of these apparently "miraculous" appearances of the Virgin has percolated into the media mainstream, laying the groundwork for coverage of at least two more similar events - in Lubbock, Texas, and in the village of Mbuye, Uganda.
The manifestations of the Virgin in Lubbock began last February, said the New York Times, at the smallest Roman Catholic congregation in town, St John Neumann Church, whose pastor had recently returned from a pilgrimage to Medjugorje. During a prayer meeting in the chapel, a group of parishioners thought they felt the presence of the "Blessed Mother". A few days later, another parishoner, Mary Constancio, was awakened by what she claims was a message from the Virgin, telling her to spread the word "throughout radio, throughout television, throughout the newspaper, throughout the pulpit, throughout the world... to come and say the rosary with me on Monday nights."
The messages continued - sometimes received by two other members of the parish, and urged "love of God and fellow man". These messages are soon to be published by the parish under the title, "Rosary Messages, Volume I", a book running to more than 200 pages (including pictures) at a cost of $10. Eventually the word spread, the Times continued, and the crowds grew until they reached 12,000 on 15 August , the Feast of the Assumption and a day on which there were widespread expectations that miracles would occur. The Texas National Guard was called out to keep order, and the national media was in full attendance.
By dusk, many who had spent the day outside St John Neumann church, waiting for something to happen, claimed a range of miracles did in fact occur - including healings, rosary chains that turned from silver to gold, apparitions of Jesus and Mary, and strange lights and formations in the sky. Some, including priests, saw nothing at all. Monsignor Joseph W. James, the church pastor, collected film from people who believed they had managed to photograph what they saw: he will eventually use the pictures as part of an effort to convince the Vatican that Lubbock was the site of a miracle. According to the Dallas Times Herald, believers in Lubbock claim that a spirit of "love and forgiveness" has swept through the parish. "People who took three days to forgive", says Rev. James, "now forgive in three hours."
Unlike the events in Lubbock which were covered widely by newspapers all over the country, the events in Uganda appear to have been recounted only in the Washington Post. On 25 July , it said, an 18-year-old girl - a prophet - from Rwanda, arrived in the Mbuye region where AIDS is rampant. At an outdoor altar, the girl fell to her knees and spoke words she said came from the Virgin Mary: "Repent of your sins, leave evil, and renounce sexual relations." Return on 15 August , the Virgin said, when she would re-appear with a cure for AIDS. The girl was denounced by the Bishop as a fraud.
Since then, crowds from Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania have flocked to the site where a small shrine has been erected. In other villages there are now those who say the Virgin has helped them in various ways, including curing AIDS. So far there has been no published follow-up to the events predicted for 15 August .
It is interesting to note the differences between the coverage of the Mbuye and Lubbock phenomena. The slant on the Post story is immediately evident in its title: "Ugandans Desperately Seek Miracle". This slant is reinforced by interviews with various health officials who repeat the old adage that when people lose control of their destinies, they turn to belief in God - and become prey to false prophets. The net result of the content, tone, and structure of the article is that, while we sympathize with the AIDS victims, we are led to feel that desperation, rather than an actual event, led superstitious and ignorant people to make these claims that so stretch our credulity. In the case of Lubbock, however, most newspapers running the story - and there were many, since it was sent out on the Associated Press wire service - resisted the temptation to reduce those who cried and prayed and believed to the status of hysterics. For the most part it was straight reporting, the New York Times story being exemplary in its objectivity and its capacity to pique our curiosity and stimulate our thinking. For this, the Times and the numerous other publications that were similarly fair in their reporting are to be congratulated.
Still, there are some noticeable peculiarities in the way media have reacted to these phenomena. Why is it, for instance, that they are not taking advantage of such an obvious opportunity for some interesting investigative reporting? It should certainly be possible, for example, to ascertain whether silver rosaries did or did not turn to gold, or whether the many healings claimed were medically, as well as psychologically, valid. Even more perplexing, why, since reporters are familiar with the events at Medjugorje, are they not comparing the claims made there with those in Lubbock? There too, rosaries may have been turned to gold, otherwise inexplicable healings taken place, and human relations improved dramatically.
Why is nobody pursuing the similarities between the circumstances surrounding the crosses of light in El Monte, California, so widely covered by the California media, and the Marian appearances in Lubbock and Medjugorje? Is it significant that the primary conduits for the "miracles" in both cases were devout people of Hispanic descent from communities with few material resources? Or that the phenomena began at nearly the same time and ultimately attracted great crowds and the national media? How is it that the Post (where stories from the Associated Press wire service are surely read carefully) does not find it provocative that the date predicted for the Virgin's great revelation in Mbuye, 15 August, was the same date - the Feast of the Assumption - upon which the devout expected miracles in Lubbock? A young girl from Rwanda could hardly have known what was going on in Texas. What happened (or did not happen) in Uganda on that day? Are any among the media checking to see whether those messages from Medjugorje that have been given out, the messages delivered to parishioners in Lubbock, and the messages given by the girl in Uganda have anything in common (besides their predictable appeals to strengthen one's Catholic worship)?
Whatever the media's distaste for taking seriously claims of 'mystical' and spiritual experience, one thing is clear: if such happenings do not simply cease, but in fact continue to occur, the media will be driven by the events themselves to move beyond seeing coincidences and begin to recognize connections. From there it is but a short step to seeking after causes. Just as they have found themselves required to do when faced with the epidemic of peace that is (as we hear nearly every day now) "breaking out" all over the world.
For though we tend to forget, it was not very long ago when each new and astounding political rapprochement was considered a coincidence, an isolated event unrelated to any other. And then suddenly, virtually overnight, and in a manner reminiscent of the "hundredth monkey" syndrome, every political commentator felt impelled to notice and somehow account for the undeniable connection among these peace breakthroughs.
So perhaps, in spite of themselves, the good, skeptical, and even cynical men and women of the press will one day soon find themselves rushing to explain how, in this scientific, mechanistic and materialistic age of ours ancient miracles should now be showering down upon the most ordinary of people in so many of the most unlikely places. If this happens, these same men and women of the media may eventually notice that this global outbreak of peace, and this rash of so-called miracles, great and small, are occurring at the same time with many of the same beneficent effects upon the world. And then, they may even wonder why.
( published in Share International, October 1988 )