Yesterday was a big event in this once-tiny town of Medjugorje. Nestled between mountains, hills, and a plain that narrows on its way down to the Adriatic coast of Croatia, this now-famous place of pilgrimage in Bosnia Herzegovina had every reason to celebrate. Twenty-nine years ago on the afternoon of June 24th, the “Gospa” (Our Lady, in Croatian) is said to have appeared to six youth of the village. The next day, they claim, she spoke to them for the first time, declaring her mission: she came to call all peoples back to faith in the God who sent her, and to urge them to live together in peace and harmony. She would also warn of severe trials in the future.
Since that day in 1981, despite the persecutions of an anti-Croatian, anti-Catholic, and increasingly oppressive Socialist government, and despite the adamant opposition of the local bishop (whose long-standing conflict with the Franciscans who had served the people of this area for centuries - including those nearly five-hundred years of Ottoman Turk occupation - made him suspicious), not only do the visionaries claim that the woman in grey continues to appear daily, but millions of pilgrims continue coming from around the world. So it is that yesterday over 25,000 were gathered.
My presence here in Medjugorje came about in a providential way. Since 1987, this has been a home-away-from-home for me. Bringing groups here as a guide, then later as a Spiritual Director, and having spent 75 days here during my first visit as a pilgrim myself, I’ve come to know the quiet places, three of the visionaries, a number of the townspeople, and in fact worked with one of the best-known Franciscans for six months in 1989.
Still, after travelling over two weeks in Italy, I was worrying about my parish at home. One by one, we priests who’d been journeying together were getting back to work in the Stockton Diocese. We’d had tremendous experiences together, hiking in the Dolomites (part of Italy’s Alps in the north), kayaking along the coast at Cinque Terra, marveling at the amazing art and architecture of Rome, Padua, Trent, Verona, Luca, Pisa, Sienna and the Medieval magic of “San G”, eating Gelato, pizzas, and tons of pasta.
“My head feels like it’s stuffed with memories ,” one of us moaned late on Wednesday. It’s like you get to the point of saturation, and no longer have the capacity to appreciate even the most magnificent of masterpieces.
So I began to doubt my decision to take four days’ detour to Bosnia. But late Wednesday night, following dinner in Rome, the Lord sent me a sign.
My inconveniences were minor in comparision
And so I reached Rome’s airport the next morning with greater confidence. It’d turn out to be a thoroughly anointed day. Frs. Matthew and Samuel of Stockton and Modesto, respectively, flew home at 10 a.m. Having a later flight, I bused to Terminal 3 to check on my future flight to D.C.
There, standing alone by the U.S. Airways counter, was a young woman.
“Are you O.K.?” I asked. She burst into tears. “I came here to spend three weeks,” she explained, “but on my birthday, someone stole my wallet.”
That was June 19, halfway through her itinerary. Two days before, her friends had returned to the States. She had neither money nor incentive now to stay any longer. “I was having such a great time,” she sobbed.
“It will cost you a total of $450 US dollars to fly back to the United States today,” declared the woman behind the counter. $250 here, $200 there, and what remained was a dream-vacation having turned into a nightmare.
I was blessed to have suffered only minor inconveniences during the past 18 days, and remembered again how quickly good things can go very bad.
Fortunately, things worked out for the young lady from Washington, D.C. and she not only booked her flight for the next day, but managed to book a room in a beachfront hotel not far from the airport. Helping her get home to the U.S.A. made me realize that I could have done the same, for myself.
Yet little miracles kept on happening. I can’t explain them all, but by way of summary will just remind you all that when the Lord wants something good to happen, He sends confirmations. We have to persevere in keeping to the plans we had prayerfully made, even when our feelings vacillate.
At the airport in Dubrovnik, a tall thin woman and her sixteen-year old son were waiting for me. We drove the 2 ½ hour road to Medjugorje along the magnificent Adriatic coast, up a wide valley they call “Little California,” through a narrow passageway up to the higher plateau surrounded by hills and more distant mountains. Whereas in previous trips, scars left by the five years of brutal warfare were evident everywhere, most visible from the road now were newer buildings, more commercial activity, and many newly built churches. The Serbian military campaign had targeted, not only the hospitals, schools and infrastructure of the republics which had declared independence, but also their churches – and hundreds of them.
“You know,” Marija announced in her broken English, tomorrow we are having a national holiday.” “Of course!” I thought. This was the other big reason for celebrating. It was on June 25th, 1991, exactly ten years from the day that Our Lady first declared herself as Queen of Peace, and warned that if people didn’t learn to live together, the consequences would be severe, that the republics of Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia held emergency parliamentary sessions to declare their independence.
We arrived just on time for me to dump my bags and be present for the apparition to visionary Ivan, who invites priests to attend on Thursdays.
This was a very special experience, in which Ivan’s contact with Mary lasted nearly fifteen minutes. Later, he stood to explain what had taken place. Milona Hapsburg, a descendant of Austria’s most famous royal family who speaks seven languages and assisted Medjugorje’s Franciscans for many years (and who recently spoke in Sacramento ) translated. I can’t provide you the details here, but please know that my personal experiences here in Medjugorje, plus my acquaintance with many key characters here in the unfolding story, have convinced me from the beginning that Mary, the mother of Jesus, has indeed been appearing, and that this is for real.
“Our Lady has changed our lives completely,” Mathilde would tell me the following day. “It is true, we were very afraid during the war, and even after, with the Bishop in Mostar being against the apparitions, but now it seems that everyone is more at peace.” Her big smile was not just about meeting an old friend from America. It was about being truly blessed.
Blessed indeed. The full moon was rising last night as the warm sunshine descended, bathing 25,000 people of faith – including over 300 priests from around the world – in a soft golden light. We followed translations for the Rosary, the time of apparition, the Croatian Mass, and adoration of the Cross. Then, Ivan invited those with stamina to ascend the Hill of Apparitions for a second visit of the Gospa. Following that, everyone was urged to return to the church site for an all-night vigil. Somehow, here in Medjugorje, you don’t need so much sleep, nor so much food. Impossible things become possible, because we sense we are wrapped up in Grace.
As one priest put it yesterday, “the Peace is so thick here, you can cut it with a knife.” That’s true. I’m going to take a big piece home with me.