Thursday, September 8, 2011

Mary at Medjugorje by Hector Avalos

Below is a copy of an article that is interesting and difficult to obtain on the web.

Mary at Medjugorje:
A Critical Inquiry

Hector Avalos

Medjugorje, once a sleepy little town in the province of Bosnia-
Herzegovina (old Yugoslavia), became in the 1980s one of the
world's most visited destinations, attracting perhaps as many as
fifteen million visitors. The attraction had nothing to do with
amusement parks or hotel casinos, but with claims that Mary, the
mother of Jesus in Christian tradition, was making special
appearances in Medjugorje. Cover stories have been published about
the phenomenon in Life (July 1991), Time (December 30, 1991), and
other respected publications, which are not always as critical or
accurate as they should be.

For the past few years I have been studying reports and videotapes
of supposed Marian apparition experiences, and I have spoken to
some of the people who claimed to have witnessed them or who
believe in them. The most frequent defense of Marian apparitions
among believers whom I have encountered usually revolves around one
central question: How can a group of seemingly honest and
apparently normal people report seeing Mary if she is not appearing
there? Other defenders point out that a "scientific" team has
supported the authenticity of the apparitions at Medjugorje.
Ironically, it is the dramatic events themselves at Medjugorje that
support a nonsupernatural explanation.

The Medjugorje reports are different from those of earlier
sightings of Mary in a number of respects. First, written accounts
have been produced while the series of apparitions were still
occurring. Second, most of the principal witnesses are still alive
and have made themselves available for extensive interviews. More
important, modern video and audio equipment has recorded the
visionaries as they are supposedly experiencing their visions.
Finally, the visionaries have submitted to various medical and
scientific tests such as encephalograms during their experiences.

The first reported apparitions at Medjugorje began on June 24,
1981, when six Croatian-speaking children claimed that the Virgin
Mary had appeared to them on a hill. They were met with initial
skepticism and harassment from some authorities. Surprisingly, one
of the most vocal skeptics was Pavao Zanic, their own bishop, who,
according to one transcript of an interview, declared, "In my
opinion Medjugorje is the greatest deceit and swindle in the
history of the Church." In particular, Zanic complained that the
apparition stories were part of a conspiracy instigated by a group
of popular Franciscans who have protested efforts to replace them
with secular clergy in the parish of Medjugorje.

Despite the political conflicts caused by the apparitions within
the local diocese, and despite the fact that the Catholic church
has not officially affirmed the authenticity of the visions, the
number of pilgrims who have gone to Medjugorje since 1981 has been
placed by some at over fifteen million. This number of Marian
devotees at Medjugorje far surpasses the believers of the Jesus
apparition stories of early Christianity. Only the recent civil
war in Yugoslavia has discouraged massive visits.

The `Scientific' Investigation of Henri Joyeux

According to his own account, Henri Joyeux, a surgeon and a
professor of oncology in the Faculty of Medicine at Montpellier,
France, carried out an extensive battery of tests in four separate
missions between March and December of 1984. Joyeux and Father Ren
Laurentin, an ardent Marian apologist and historian, then
synthesized their findings in the definitive work Scientific and
Medical Studies on the Apparitions at Medjugorje.

Joyeux concluded that the visionaries had no mental illness of any
sort. The apparitions are not sleep or dream or hallucination in
the medical or pathological sense of the word. This is
scientifically excluded by the electro-encephalogram and by
clinical observation. He also excludes "any element of deceit."
Since Joyeux could not find any condition that he would label
"pathological," he concludes, "We are dealing with a perception
which is essentially objective both in its causality and in its
scope." As to the cause of the youngsters' experience, he says,
"The most obvious answer is that given by the visionaries who claim
to meet the Virgin Mary, Mother of God." In sum, Laurentin and
Joyeux conclude that there is no scientific or natural explanation
available to account for the reports of the visionaries. More
important, they conclude that the absence of any condition labeled
as "pathological" is evidence that the reported experience of the
visionaries is authentically supernatural. Can `Normal' Persons
Report Seeing and Hearing Non-Occurring Events?

Contrary to the conclusions of Laurentin and Joyeux, abundant and
empirically verifiable evidence and experiments demonstrate that
persons with no known pathological conditions can report hearing
and seeing events that are not occurring. Psychological
experiments show that such reports of non- occurring events are
part of well-known and relatively natural psycho-social processes
experienced to some degree by most human beings.

One of the most noted of such experiments was published by T. X.
Barber and D. S. Calverley in 1964. Seventy-eight unselected
"normal" female secretarial students had volunteered for what was
described to the subjects only as a "psychological experiment."
Barber and Calverley divided these seventy-eight subjects into
three groups of twenty-six. One group was subjected to suggestions
to see and hear non-occurring events under hypnosis. A second
group was given "task-motivating instructions" without the use of
hypnosis. The third group served as a control that received the
same instructions without hypnosis or task-motivating requests.

The second group's "task-motivating instructions" consisted of
asking subjects to see and hear events that were implied to be real
but were actually nonexistent. The subject was told, "I want you
to close your eyes and to hear a phonograph record with words and
music playing White Christmas. Keep listening to the phonograph
record playing White Christmas until I tell you to stop." The
astounding result was that 38 percent of the "normal" subjects in
the second group stated that they clearly heard White Christmas,
even though nothing was played. Sixty-five percent of the subjects
in the control group reported the same result. An average of 5.1
percent of these unselected people in each experimental group state
that they not only heard the record, but they also believed that
the record was actually playing.

Immediately after this portion of the experiment, the subject was
instructed as follows, in a firm and earnest tone of voice: "I
want you to look at your lap and to see a cat sitting there. Keep
looking at the cat until I tell you to stop." An average of 33.3
percent stated they saw the cat clearly even though they believed
it was not there. However, an average of 2.5 percent of the
subjects in each group (3.8 percent in the second group) reported
they not only saw the cat clearly but also believed it was actually

Similar results were reported in experiments performed by K. S.
Bowers and by N. P. Spanos and T. X. Barber. Even if many subjects
reported non- occurring events only to please others (Bowers),
these experiments clearly showed that otherwise "normal" people
under relatively "normal" conditions can and do report hearing and
seeing events that, by recognized objective measures, are

The Barber and Calverley experiments also showed that the subjects
used the strongest objective terminology available to describe
non-occurring events. For example, the subjects in the experiments
used the terms see and hear to describe their experience.

Why do otherwise normal people come to believe that they are
witnessing non-occurring entities and events? The Barber and
Calverley experiment, as well as a host of recent research,
indicates that human acts of perception always involve
interpretations and inferences that may be held in common by large
groups of people. Raw visual and auditory data are combined with
inferences about what was thought to be seen and heard. We often
select out of the large raw input of visual and auditory data those
that we regard as important and that confirm expectations,
especially if they are desirable.

Many recent experiments show that the human mind is biologically
wired to interpolate many expected images or portions thereof, even
if such images are not objectively present. People often form
mental images of all types of objects, real and unreal. We've all
heard how difficult it is not to form an image of a pink elephant
when someone tells us not to. One can also form mental images that
are believed to be situated in real time and space (e.g., imagine a
pink elephant in the middle of a parking lot).

Believers may be following a rationale with premises that can
yield, at least in their minds, very solid conclusions. Once a
believer is convinced that an inference is valid, then the
conclusion may be considered sufficiently certain to contradict or
suppress raw visual data. Any further disconfirmation of their
interpretation may be either ignored or disregarded in favor of the
inference. This type of avoidance of disconfirming data among
Marian devotees is clearly manifested in the oft-repeated dictum:
"To those who believe, no proof is necessary; to those who doubt,
no proof is sufficient."

The implications of these experiments for the reports of Medjugorje
are quite clear. If, as in the Barber and Calverley experiments,
an average of at least 33 percent of people with no obvious
pathology can report clearly seeing or hearing events that are not
occurring, then it would not be extraordinary to find 333 "normal"
people in a parish of at least one thousand believers who could
report seeing or hearing non-occurring events, especially when, as
is the case with supposed Marian apparitions, the events in
question are believed to be not only possible but desirable as

If, as in the Barber and Calverley experiment, at least 2.5 percent
believe what they are seeing or hearing is actually present, then
it would not be extraordinary to find at least twenty-five people
in a parish of one thousand members who actually believe what they
are seeing and hearing is present in real time and space. In fact,
there are many more reported visionaries in the parish who did not
receive the attention of the six principal ones.

If the results obtained by Barber and Calverley occurred after only
one suggestion to hear and see non-occurring events, then what
would we reasonably expect from persons, and especially
impressionable youngsters, who are repeatedly requested to see
non-occurring events? Does anything akin to the task-motivating
suggestions exist in the subculture of the visionaries?

Imagine living in a subculture that constantly and repeatedly
suggests to its members the desirability of experiencing a Marian
apparition. Imagine living in a subculture where young people who
have claimed to have seen Marian apparitions at Lourdes, Fatima,
and other places also are beloved role models. Suggestions
presented to believers in sermons, prayers, and written materials
may be just as effective as the simple requests made by Barber and
Calverley. Although conspiracy or formalized coaching is not
required to produce people who will report non-occurring events, it
should be noted that Bishop Zanic declared that the visionaries
were indeed coached and manipulated by the Franciscans.

Not only can the subculture of the visionaries encourage the
apparitions with words, it also provides detailed and coherent
imagery of how the Virgin Mary ought to look and speak. According
to P. and I. Rodgers, a picture of Mary supported by a cloud rising
above Medjugorje has been present in the church of the visionaries
since about 1971. Not surprisingly, the youngsters' description of
the Virgin is quite consistent with the picture to which they were
exposed for years. Is Group Simultaneity Always Evidence of an
Objective Experience?

Aside from the supposed lack of pathology in the visionaries,
Laurentin and Joyeux cite the simultaneity of their key movements
during the supposed apparitions as evidence for the objectivity of
their experiences. For example, they point to the convergence of
their gaze as confirmed by video recording made face-on to the
visionaries during the ecstasy and the simultaneous raising of
their eyes and heads as the apparition disappears upwards.

I have studied Joyeux's report and have looked at the videotape of
two separate events that show such alleged simultaneous behavior.
My examination reveals nothing so extraordinary as to demand a
supernatural explanation.

Joyeux and other writers often make statements that may mislead the
reader into thinking that the whole group exhibits simultaneous
behavior that, at most, occurs in only part of the group. For
example, they report administering an electro-oculogram to Ivan and
Marija on December 28, 1984. The movement of the eyeballs of both
youngsters reportedly showed simultaneity to the second in the
cessation of movement at the beginning of the ecstasy and again,
simultaneity to the second in the return of movement at the end of
the ecstasy. But in a Paris Match interview, Joyeux generalizes
this result to the visionaries as a whole ("des voyants"). In his
translation of this interview Father M. O'Carroll makes the
generalization even more emphatic by saying that "all the
visionaries" had such simultaneity.

Likewise, sometimes the ecstasy that is taken to be evidence of a
real apparition experience is not as uniform as might first appear.
For example, regarding the youngsters' supposed disconnection from
the world during their ecstasy, Joyeux says that "disconnection is
not total; rather it is partial and variable."

More important, the supposed vision experiences have a regular
schedule and duration that may result, with or without sinister
collusion, in simultaneous behavior. Laurentin and Joyeux
themselves note the regularity of the behavior, for they divide the
experiences into three phases: contemplation or conversation;
prayer with the apparition; and contemplation or conversation.

Insofar as duration is concerned, Laurentin and Joyeux themselves
note that "no apparition has lasted for more than one or two
minutes since the end of 1983." This is important because they
made their measurements of simultaneity in 1984, when the duration
of each event was quite short and predictable. In fact, they
report recording the precise duration of only five ecstasies, with
each one lasting sixty-five to eighty-five seconds.

The schedule for the start of the ecstasy is certainly familiar to
Laurentin and Joyeux, who themselves say: "Since the end of 1983,
ecstasy begins before they have finished the first Our Father."
They also note, following an earlier study of Dr. Lucia Capello,
that: Their voices become audible at the same time, on the third
word of the Our Father, the apparition having recited the first
two. This phenomenon militates against the theory of a prior
agreement and cannot be put down to natural causes. Even without a
sinister conspiracy, the regular schedule noted by Laurentin and
Joyeux clearly is sufficient to produce the type of simultaneity
they find so unnatural. Indeed, beginning to pray audibly with the
third word of the Our Father is as good a cue as beginning to pray
audibly with the first word. It is, of course, poor science to
represent as a verifiable fact the belief that the apparition
recites the first two words.

Likewise, the convergence of the gaze is usually toward the front
of the room when the visions take place within a church. Even
Laurentin and Joyeux observe: "The visionaries' gaze converges on
the same well-located spot." Again, gazing at a well-known
location is something that may be learned and conditioned
naturally, thus producing the simultaneity reported.

In one videotape recording the experience of visionaries Jacob and
Marija, I observed that after assembling at the front of the room
to begin the supposed encounter with Mary, Jacob began to gaze
upward as he crossed himself. About one second later Marija did
the same. Aside from the fact that the supposed apparition takes
place at the same time in the schedule, both children had
peripheral vision and could observe each other gaze upward.

The kneeling, which even Joyeux admits is not perfectly
synchronized, occurs at the end of the recitation of the Our
Father, which in turn is usually recited after the initial
crossing. Another videotape shows that the near simultaneous
kneeling by five of the visionaries also occurs at the end of the
initial Our Father. A visual cue to kneel is not even necessary
here because the end of the audible prayer could be a sufficient
cue. Such simultaneity in kneeling can even be achieved without
visual cues in multiple locations if the worshippers are all
listening to the recitation of the Our Father on a radio.

Although near-simultaneous behavior is considered an indication of
an "objective" experience for Joyeux, non-simultaneous behavior
does not appear to be evidence for a "subjective" experience.
Laurentin and Joyeux report, "The visionaries had independent
conversations and even had different conversations simultaneously
at times." They use an unverifiable phenomenon to explain the
variable conversations--namely the possible use of different
channels of supernatural communication by the Virgin. However,
each informant may be constructing his or her own imaginary
dialogue. Furthermore, the type of coherence that they cite in the
apparition reports can also derive from the common imagery and
forms of speech that are stereotypical in the Marian subculture.

Joyeux wasted a unique opportunity to design experiments that would
have provided more of a challenge to skeptics on the issue of
simultaneity. Indeed, his experimental design was quite careless.
For example, since even Joyeux repeatedly claims that normal vision
or hearing is not necessary to perceive the apparitions, each of
the visionaries could have been blindfolded before they assembled
at the front of the room. Earphones that render any external sound
inaudible could have been placed upon them. Yet, there were no
reported attempts to cover their ears or eyes throughout an event.

Partitions could have been placed between the visionaries to
exclude the possibility of cues from air disturbances produced by
body movements (e.g., kneeling). A more rigorous experimenter
might have spun all the visionaries around and pointed them in
different directions within the partitions. If those visionaries
truly had a special ability that was not based on normal hearing or
seeing, then we would expect them to have all heard the apparition
calling them from the same spot at the same time. We would expect
that each of the children initially pointed in different directions
would turn simultaneously toward the same direction even if
blindfolded. If a recorded version of the Our Father were recited
to each visionary at different times through the earphones, we
would still expect them to ignore the voice on the earphones and
kneel in synchrony with the supposed actions of the apparition.

Insofar as experimental design is concerned, the exaggerated claims
of Joyeux are most apparent in the "screening test" he discusses.
What Joyeux describes as a "screening test" and a "screen" actually
refers to the brief placement of a postcard-size object in front of
Marija and Ivanka. It does not block out peripheral vision. Note
how Joyeux interprets the brief visual screening test: a screen
which is held up does not block out the perception of the
apparition. Again Joyeux assumes a priori the existence of the
supernatural object that the youngsters claim to perceive. What
Joyeux actually observed is that the gaze of two visionaries
remained fixed when a postcard-size card was placed in front of
them. Such a fixed gaze does not constitute proof for the
existence of an object at the point in space where the visionaries
are looking because one can observe that during prayer many
worshippers in Christian and non-Christian religions gaze upward at
what they believe to be heaven even when temple walls or other
screening objects are interposed.

However, even if rigorous visual and auditory blocking procedures
were used, they could not eliminate the possibility of a learned
simultaneity after 1983 when the whole schedule became very regular
and lasted one to two minutes. In sum, the simultaneity cited by
Laurentin and Joyeux, even if genuine, is not extraordinary, and it
does not constitute evidence for the objectivity of the experience
at all, especially in light of poor experimental design.

The Incoherence of Laurentin and Joyeux's View of `Objectivity'

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the conclusions of Laurentin
and Joyeux is that they use the word objective in a wildly
inconsistent manner, resulting in special pleading and in logically
absurd conclusions. For example, in a discussion of whether the
phenomena exhibited by the visionaries are supernatural, they
state, "As research has not reached any objective proofs, it would
be difficult to discuss the matter in the absence of definite
criteria." But they still purport to have proof in favor of the
objective experience of the visionaries. Note their reasoning: The
mere fact that others present do not see the apparition which is
visible only to the visionaries in no way proves that it is a
perception without an object. It simply proves that the manner of
perceiving is not the same as that involved in the perception of
other ordinary material objects. . . . Bats, for example, are
capable of discerning certain radiations that escape us. Other,
more radically different, means of perception may well exist. A
claim for an ability does not prove that one possesses the ability,
and Joyeux's example of animals who possess abilities that humans
do not will not help his case. And in the case of bats, the
existence of their ability to hear high frequency sounds is not
based on a claim made by the bats. We can verify empirically
(e.g., by means of instruments) and with mathematical precision the
existence of both the object (high frequency sounds) and the
special and quantifiable ability of bats to perceive that object.
The criteria and methodology are sufficiently objective to elicit
the agreement of both atheists and Christians.

Such is not the case with the visionaries. Laurentin and Joyeux
themselves admit that no experiments, videotapes, or other
instruments have been able to detect the object that the
visionaries claim to perceive with an equally unverifiable and
non-quantifiable ability. They are apparently aware of this
difficulty in their logic, and so they attempt to plead the case of
the visionaries by using even more speculative hypotheses and
conclusions. Our tests tend to lead us to the hypothesis of a
person-to-person communication which takes place at a spiritual
level, analogous to the angelic act of knowing. Such statements
clearly show that theology, not rigorous science, motivates their
plea for the visionaries.

Note also the logical problems produced when they discuss the
definition of a "hallucination." The Concise Oxford Dictionary
defines hallucination as "apparent perception of external object
not actually present," which might fit the case of Medjugorje if a
priori one held that an object from another world does not exist or
if one understands "not actually present" in a purely empirical
way. Medically speaking "hallucination" indicates a pathological
state and it would appear to us that use of the word should be
restricted to psychiatric illness. But if one does not deny a
priori the existence of the object that the "psychiatric"
hallucinator claims to see, then it follows that the claims of the
latter have no less validity than those of the Medjugorje
visionaries. Since the objects seen by the psychiatric
hallucinator and the Medjugorje visionaries are equally invisible
to other people and to cameras, then it is only special pleading,
not verifiable criteria, that leads Laurentin and Joyeux to affirm
the credibility of the Medjugorje visionaries while denying
credibility to the "psychiatric" hallucinator. Thus, Laurentin and
Joyeux provide no verifiable reason to ascribe accuracy to the
perception of the six who claim to see Mary, and yet deny the
accuracy of the perception of the thousands who claim to be equally
certain that they do not see Mary.

`Solar Miracles' as Evidence for Marian Apparitions

Solar miracles are cited often by theologians and laypersons as
proof of the authenticity of the visionaries' experiences.
Ironically, the reports of such solar miracles are the most
definitive proof that people can and do report the occurrence of
non-occurring events at Medjugorje.

One dramatic case may be found in a 1988 videotape recorded by
"20/20," the ABC news program. Stone Phillips was sent to
accompany a group of pilgrims to Medjugorje. At one point in the
report a crowd of pilgrims reported seeing the sun "coming closer"
and "dancing" at the same time that ABC cameras were trained on the
sun. Of course, any such movement of the sun would be an event of
astronomical proportions that should have been witnessed by a large
part of the planet, astronomical observatories, and hundreds of
different types of instruments. Yet, the videotape showed no
movement in the sun, and Stone Phillips likewise confirmed that he
saw no movement in the sun. As in the case of the subjects in the
Barber and Calverley experiment, the report by a group that a
non-occurring event is occurring indicates that a psycho-social
process is the best explanation.

The report of a "dancing sun" also demonstrates other important
points about group delusions. The reports of non-occurring events
need not be due to lying, which involves making statements that the
speaker believes to be false. For example, a pilgrim may say, "I
see the sun moving," to express the following interpretation of raw
perceptions: "Marian apparitions should be accompanied by a moving
sun, and therefore that is what must be happening." Once the
believer assumes that this rationale is true, then he or she allows
the use of phrases such as "see" (e.g., "I see the sun moving")
even though empirical evidence says otherwise.

Crying Icons, Metallic Transformations, and Healings

Crying icons are often reported at sites of Marian apparitions. I
examined one such case in Arizona in 1982, when a group of Mexican
immigrant neighbors reported that a statue of the Virgin outside
their apartment "cried" around dawn. I found that the liquid under
the eyes of this "crying icon" was indistinguishable from dew that
also was present on other objects and on many parts of the icon.
One may characterize as "selective seeing" any claim that ignores
the moisture on most parts of the icon and yet attributes to crying
the moisture below the eyes. Psycho-social processes can explain
all of the reports of icon "miracles" at Medjugorje with which I am

Reports of metal transformations are also common. There is indeed
a long history that associates the Virgin with metal workers. The
fact that metal color can change is a known phenomenon, most often
due to oxidation. However, the instantaneous metallic changes
reported by Marian devotees have simply never been verified by

Reports of healings are also poorly investigated. Most of the
testimonies come from people who, by their own words, already have
had medical treatment, and so it is virtually impossible to
distinguish the effects of medical treatment from those of supposed
miracles. Another problem is that most of the reports represent as
facts diagnoses and symptoms that the compilers have not verified.
Equally important, most readers of reports of supposed miracles are
not apprised of negative follow-up reports. For example, a book by
R. Laurentin and L. Rupcic relates the case of Venka Bilic- Brajcic
(of Split) as follows: In January, 1980, the patient had her left
breast removed, and afterward, she received postoperative radiation
treatment. Nine months after the operation there were numerous
metastases. These had reached the right breast on which radiation
treatment began in April, 1981. . . . Venka herself reported . . .
"My sister said that Our Lady of Medjugorje could help me, and
suggested that I pray to her. . . . Two or three days after this
prayer the appearance of the sores started to change. . . ." Venka
feels well, and the medical certificate confirms that there is no
sign of further metastases into the bone or other organs. Venka
returned to Medjugorje to thank Our Lady. She submitted medical
documents on September 8, 1982. But Father O'Carroll's book reports
that, in response to Laurentin and Rupcic's claims, Zanic noted
that this patient died in June 1984, and that her doctor protested
the claim that she was cured at the time that she had stated.


A supernatural explanation for reports of Marian apparitions is
unnecessary, unverifiable, and ultimately self-defeating for
believers. It is unnecessary because we have verifiable and
repeatable experiments that show that otherwise "normal" people can
and do report seeing and hearing non- occurring events. It is
unwarranted because the criteria, methods, and assumptions are
unverifiable. It is ultimately self-defeating because believers
themselves would have no way to refute, by verifiable means, the
claims of "apparitions" made by non-Christian religions.

We need not firmly diagnose the experience of the visionaries as a
psychiatric hallucination or a delusion in the sense of the
authoritative definitions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual
of Mental Disorders (DSM- III) (American Psychiatric Association
[APA] 1980). Though we do not a priori exclude psychiatric
factors, our point has been that the normal social processes and
internal logic of their Marian subculture are sufficient to explain
their behavior. To refute Joyeux,, we also need not enter into the
recent debates about whether the criteria of the APA are subjective
or culturally biased against religious phenomena.

The refutation of Joyeux ultimately rests on the fact that he does
not fulfil the requirements of the two adjectives in the title of
his own book: Scientific and Medical Studies on the Apparitions at
Medjugorje. By his own words science has not reached any
"objective proofs," and all the evidence he offers is unverifiable
theology (e.g., "the angelic act of knowing"). Since the main
principle of scientific inquiry is verifiability, his constant use
of unverifiable theological hypotheses to support the visionaries
nullifies any claim to scientific or medical validity for his
studies and conclusions. It is no miracle that a supernatural
explanation for the Medjugorje apparition reports has been rejected
by both a Catholic bishop and secular humanists.

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