VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis has given Roman Catholic faithful his OK to make pilgrimages to a Bosnian shrine where children said the Virgin Mary appeared to them, but the Catholic Church hasn't yet authenticated their vision, the Vatican said Sunday.
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said in a written statement that "the Holy Father has ruled that it's possible to organize pilgrimages to Medjugorje," the site in Bosnia that has drawn millions of Catholic believers and visitors.
In 1981, six children and teenagers said they saw apparitions of Mary on a hill in the village of Medjugorje. Last year, a million people flocked there to kneel in prayer before a statue of Mary.
The pope's decision to permit official pilgrimages also was relayed by the Vatican's envoy to the local parish and by the papal nuncio in Bosnia's capital of Sarajevo, 120 kilometers (75 miles) north of the shrine.
Unlike two other immensely popular pilgrimage destinations - Fatima, Portugal, and Lourdes, France - the Vatican hasn't yet ruled on whether the apparitions reported in Medjugorje, Bosnia were authentic Marian appearances.
Gisotti stressed that "care be taken to avoid interpreting these pilgrimages as authentication of the noted events, which still require examination by the Church."
To prevent confusion over the Catholic Church's position on whether a miracle occurred in Medjugorje, Gisotti offered context for the pope's ruling.
"Considering the notable flow of persons who go to Medjugorje and the abundant fruits of grace that have sprung from that, such a ruling fits into the special pastoral attention that the Holy Father has intended to give to that reality, aimed at encouraging and promoting the fruits of good," he said.
The Vatican statement emphasized that priests who organize pilgrimages must be prepared to ensure the visits don't "create confusion or ambiguity regarding the doctrinal aspect" of the shrine's significance.
The shrine already has been important for the local economy. A tourist official called the pope's approval of pilgrimages "wonderful news."
"For us, this represents a new beginning in Medjugorje, and it will also mean significantly bigger numbers of pilgrims coming here from all over the world," said Zeljko Vasilj, of the Medjugorje tourist board.
An Italian pilgrim, Patrizia Bellino, who was at the shrine on Sunday, said people who visit will experience a "holy place, a place where a person becomes happier, calmer, more satisfied with life."
Eldar Emric contributed from Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina.