MEDJUGORJE, YUGOSLAVIA -- Ivan Dragicevic and Marija Pavlovic, two well-dressed, clean-cut young people from this tiny village, stood in the stifling heat of a priest's cluttered office one recent evening and recited a prayer to the Virgin Mary in their native Serbo-Croatian.
Around them pressed a tight semicircle of Roman Catholic priests from the United States, Italy, Ireland, Switzerland and South America, clutching rosaries and sweating heavily in their white collars. On their flanks, members of four American package tours focused home video cameras, making tapes for hand-to-hand circulation around the U.S. heartland.
Then it happened. Dragicevic and Pavlovic suddenly broke off their prayer and dropped to their knees, pressing their palms together and staring intently upward, toward the top shelf of an ordinary bookcase, the plaster statuette of Mary on it, and a crucifix attached to the wall.
For four minutes they held that gaze -- occasionally mouthing indistinguishable words -- while the witnesses and cameras looked on.
For the 2,212th consecutive evening, by these youths' account, a miraculous vision had occurred. Beginning at 20 minutes to 7, they had seen and conversed with Mary, who they say reveals herself to them. The Virgin, by their account, has singled out this poor, isolated mountain hamlet near the Adriatic coast in central Yugoslavia, and six of its once aimless youths to receive her messages for the rest of the world.
Not everyone believes it. The Roman Catholic bishop of nearby Mostar, for example, whose diocese includes Medjugorje, has not given official endorsement to the reported visions and, in fact, has criticized them as "hallucinations" and "illusions."
The Vatican has named a commission to study them but has not rendered a judgment. The caution and criticism are similar to that expressed by the church before it endorsed public worship at such famous apparition sites as Lourdes, France; Fatima, Portugal, and Guadalupe, Mexico. Many other reported apparitions have failed to get Vatican endorsement.
The U.S. Catholic Conference, the official arm of the American bishops, tells inquirers that "the church is very careful when it comes to apparitions," and that although an investigation is under way into "the occurrences in Yugoslavia, . . . nothing conclusive has been brought to our attention."
Yugoslavia's officially atheist -- and slightly chagrined -- communist government scoffed at the reported apparitions for years, once detaining the parish priest briefly and barring construction of hotels. But it has dropped the construction ban and the state tourist agency is now booking its own tours.
No one here tries anymore to discourage the hundreds of thousands of foreign pilgrims, including thousands of Americans, who flock in growing numbers to this arid, sun-seared spot to see, and believe in, the "miracle of Medjugorje."
For a country with 100 percent inflation, 14 percent unemployment, and one of Europe's most crushing foreign debts -- as well as a socialist state's grudging reluctance to embrace capitalism -- the phenomenon has become at least a miracle of easy money.
"After all, pilgrims are also tourists, and tourists bring money," said the Rev. Slavko Barbaric, one of six Franciscan friars who collectively preside over St. James Church and its renowned parishoners. "If Christians can forget God because of money, then why can't Marxists forget their ideology because of money?"
There is indeed little sign of socialism in the rocky hills around St. James' twin, boxy steeples. Instead, beginning only yards from the church's main entrance is an explosion of private enterprise fully worthy of its mostly western clientele. A mile-long stretch of food, drink and souvenir vendors is arranged in booths and wooden huts on both sides of the narrow road leading to the church, their wares advertised in a jumble of English, Italian, German and Serbo-Croatian.
In the nearby town of Citluk, a host of well-appointed private restaurants, guest houses, money-changers and even sports clubs stand in glaring contrast to the often shabby state shops in Mostar, 15 miles away.
Tracts of the sandy farmland that used to yield Medjugorje a meager existence are giving way now to whole subdivisions of gabled, white-stuccoed hostels, built by families who have already made fortunes by boarding foreign tourists and who bet that more are on the way.
Foreign operators have quickly moved in. Religious travel agencies from New Orleans, Houston and Washington had substantial groups of pilgrims quartered around Medjugorje (pronounced Medyu-gore-yea) on a seemingly typical day recently.
Church officials say Italians are bused and flown in by the thousands each week. A special jet, The Queen of Peace, flies twice a week directly to Mostar bearing pilgrims from Ireland. "There are estimates that five, six million have come here in the last six years," said Barbaric. "But really, no one knows how many there are."
American pilgrims, most of them from the South and Midwest, said they had learned of Medjugorje through friends, religious bulletins or video cassettes circulating through Catholic communities. They said they had paid prices ranging from $1,100 to $1,399 to such groups as the Washington-based Catholic Travel Office for all-expense, one-week tours.
Despite their investment -- which amounts to more than many Yugoslavs in this region previously earned in a year -- most of the foreign pilgrims never get to see the young people having visions. However, they are able to visit some of them during the day and are invited by the church to attend daily masses and make their own pilgrimages up two steep hills nearby.
"Before we came here we were wondering what we were going to do all day," said Kathy Mussen, of Westchester, Ohio, as she rested away from the blazing sun at a tree-shaded picnic table in front of the church. "But it's been no problem. You find yourself enjoying and desiring this quiet, peaceful time that you don't always have at home."
The origin of it all was a stroll up the lesser of the two hills, now called the "Hill of the Visions," taken by Dragicevic, Pavlovic and four friends on June 24, 1981.
"These were just typical kids, doing nothing, going for a walk, probably to sneak a cigarette," recounted Milona Hapsburg, 28, a German believer who came to see the place three years ago and ended up moving in as an assistant to the priests.
Suddenly, their account goes, the Virgin Mary appeared and spoke to the group. Stunned, the youths, then all in their early teens or younger, fled, but they were attracted back to the site the next day where they received a message from Mary. They took their story to the priests at the church, who believed them. Soon, a ritual was born.
The reported messages from Mary, who presents herself as "everyone's mother" and invites all "to join in God's peace," deal primarily with the goal of conversion of the world's nonbelievers through prayer and fasting.
She also reportedly confided 10 "secrets" to the young people in the first months of the apparitions. The secrets, which have not been disclosed, are said to relate to the future and the struggle between good and evil in the world.
The apparition has proved regular as clockwork, but also has responded to the recipients' changed situations. It moved from the hilltop to inside the church, then, as the hostility of the local hierarchy became evident, to an office of the parish house.
Two young women among those involved in the early reported apparitions have retired from the group and are now said to see Mary only once a year. The others -- Dragicevic, Pavlovic and Jakov Colo -- normally appear at the parish house at 6 p.m. where, watched by thousands of praying pilgrims, they disappear inside for prayers.
As invited priests, journalists and selected tourists look on, the three summon the Virgin each day at 6:40. So far, they say, she has never failed them.
Until January, Mary reportedly gave a message for the outside world every Thursday. Pavlovic would rush outside the parish room each time to write it down. But on Jan. 8, the vision reportedly announced that the messages would henceforth be given only once a month, on the 25th.
The texts are posted in a multitude of languages on bulletin boards around the site and dissected by the priests in their sermons. "I love you dear children and therefore I do not know how many times I invite you and thank you for all that you are doing for my intention," reads part of the text from June 25.
The young people, now mostly in their early 20s, appear to treat their roles with solemnity. In the preliminaries to the 2,112th vision, however, Marija Pavlovic allowed herself to exchange a private joke with Ivan Dragicevic and Barbaric and, later, a couple of yawns.
While such foibles are a source of mirth for Medjugorje's many Yugoslav doubters, western pilgrims say they feel something special in the presence of the young people. "All the discomforts were gone and you could tell they were in a state of peace," said Paulette Kardor, of Springfield, Ill., who watched Dragicevic and Pavlovic pray. "I felt that. I could feel the change. And I was really blown away." News assistant Tucker Malarkey in Washington contributed to this article.