The Vatican has begun formally investigating reported apparitions of the Virgin Mary at the Medjugorje shrine in southern Bosnia.
An international commission of inquiry headed by Italian Cardinal Camillo Ruini - a top adviser to the late Pope John Paul II - has been formed to study the case and report back to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican said in a statement Wednesday.
The Medjugorje apparition has been disputed since 1981, when six youths said they had regularly seen visions of the Virgin there. Unlike Fatima in Portugal or Lourdes in France, the Vatican has been cautious about calling the sightings authentic, and neither Rome nor the local diocese has formally approved Medjugorje as an official shrine site.
But the lack of official recognition hasn't stopped the remote village 70 miles southwest of Sarajevo from thriving. More than 30 million faithful have visited the area since 1981.
One of the highest-ranking recent pilgrims was Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, who visited over New Year's, sparking a minor diplomatic incident since official church pilgrimages to Medjugorje are barred.
Schoenborn stressed that he traveled to the shrine in a private capacity. But he celebrated Mass there, met with the visionaries, and granted several interviews afterward in which he called for Medjugorje pilgrims to receive the pastoral care - both physical and spiritual - that they would need there.
He also called the shrine a tree that "bore many fruits," in terms of vocations, conversions and rediscovery of faith.
His comments prompted the local bishop of Mostar, Monsignor Ratko Peric, to write him a letter Jan. 2, sharply criticizing his visit and stressing that his presence there was by no means a formal recognition of the apparitions. The local church has cast doubt on the claims, in part because one of the visionaries says the apparitions have continued monthly for over a quarter century.
Schoenborn met with the pope on Jan. 15 and wrote to Peric saying he regretted "if you have the impression that my pilgrimage to Medjugorje did a disservice to peace. Rest assured this was not my intention."
Schoenborn is close to Pope Benedict XVI, and the decision to launch an official investigation into Medjugorje could be read as the pontiff's response to suggestions by the Vienna archbishop.
The current Vatican No. 2, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, wrote in 1996 that official pilgrimages to Medjugorje weren't to be organized at parish or diocesan levels since bishops from the former Yugoslavia had affirmed in 1991 that there was no way to confirm that "supernatural apparitions and revelations" had taken place.