Visions Of The Virgin

Ivan Dragicevic is getting mobbed. At the Sacred Heart Roman Catholic church in a suburb of Boston, people are lunging, straining to get their hands on him. "I'm a friend of Ivan's," claims a white-haired man jockeying to get closer; Dragicevic doesn't know him. Another man railroads his way through the congregation and pleads for a picture; Dragicevic demurs. Dragicevic's wife, a former Miss Massachusetts, is poised nearby as flashbulbs flicker. Ivan looks overwhelmed. An aide whisks him away from the crowd and out the back door. "They expect me to be a saint," he says after catching his breath. "I'm a man like everyone else. I'm fighting to be humble."

Navigating crowds is part of life when you're one of the Medjugorje visionaries--the six Croatian children who reported in 1981 that they began receiving daily visits from the Virgin Mary in what was then Yugoslavia. Since they were first reported, the visions have sparked a worldwide phenomenon, drawing more than 20 million tourists to Medjugorje. And at the busy intersection of sanctity and celebrity in America, Dragicevic is a man in demand. Never mind that the apparitions have never been authenticated by the Catholic Church. These days Dragicevic draws crowds of thousands at stops around the United States--4,000 in Dallas in November, 3,000 a few days later in San Antonio. Other stops are planned for later this month, and in February he'll be the keynote speaker at a weekend conference near Oakland, Calif. Devotees come to watch him commune with Mary, then translate her messages to the crowd. Now 34 and living in Boston, he jets from Hong Kong to Honolulu, shepherded by an entourage. Dragicevic isn't getting rich from it--he lives modestly off rental income from a bed-and-breakfast-style house in Medjugorje, plus occasional stipends from appearances. So why does he do it? "I have a duty," he says. "People are hungry for God."

In the United States there are more than 150 Marian groups--well-organized Catholics, many of whom have made the pilgrimage to Apparition Hill, site of the original visions at Medjugorje. The visions have spawned a cottage industry in the United States of pilgrimage guides and merchandisers. There is, of course, a Web site, and Medjugorje magazine accepts advertising from for-profit book retailers and travel agencies. Boasts the magazine's ad-rate card: "Readers of Medjugorje magazine are active buyers and stimulated by advertising."

But many rank-and-file Catholics remain unconvinced. In 1987 the bishops of Yugoslavia declared that "one cannot affirm that supernatural apparitions are involved." Even the Vatican says only that the Holy See continues to investigate the matter. But the Madonna remains a popular figure. "She's a role model in a microwave age," says Rosemarie Marando, a Medjugorje pilgrim from New York. And the messages rarely conflict with Catholic teachings. A recent example: "Only through prayer will you become my apostles of peace in this world without peace."

Dragicevic says his first encounter with the Virgin Mary occurred on a hot day 18 years ago when he was out for a walk with a friend during half time of a Croatian basketball game. Some girls he knew called him over, and that's when he says he saw her for the first time, floating on a cloud. He says she appears to him largely the same as on that day: black hair, blue eyes, rosy cheeks, a white veil and a crown of stars. It usually happens at 6:40 p.m. What makes him so sure it's really the Virgin Mary? Says Dragicevic: "Hey, I'm certain because I see her as I see you."

After his talk at Sacred Heart, Dragicevic opens the floor to questions. "How old does she look?" asks a child with black hair and glasses. Around 26, Dragicevic says. Someone asks whether Dragicevic has seen heaven, and what it looks like. "Yes," he says. "Hang on, you'll see." The hands show no sign of stopping. Finally he says, "If you pray more, you'll have no more questions to ask me." Dragicevic is tired, his ulcers are acting up and he's ready to get out of here. And anyway, he has to get up early tomorrow. He has a plane to catch.

Visions Of The Virgin | News