A hug from Our Lady: relics, roses and rosaries in Medjugorje
Ahead of the 40th anniversary of Medjugorje's 'visitations', Jim Murty finds out why so many Irish travel to this popular pilgrimage site in Bosnia-Herzegovina
Ivan the Visionary opens his arms in invocation to Our Lady in the inner circle above the rocks surrounding the Blue Cross in Medjugorje. He is the lucky one, and not just because Our Lady has been 'visiting' him for 38 years. But because the rest of us must jostle for space in the dark on the uneven stones and crane our necks to see him; we will, of course, not see or hear anything.
Instead, what Our Lady has said to Ivan, the eldest boy among the six schoolchildren who 'met' the Blessed Virgin in 1981, will be relayed to us through him. And hers is a message of peace, family and the importance of the rosary.
Back in 1981, only the most eagle-eyed of readers noticed the small news story in the foreign pages that said Our Lady had "appeared" to six children in an unpronounceably named village in Communist Yugoslavia. But the word spread and today a million pilgrims, 20,000 Irish among them, visit Medjugorje each year in modern-day Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The Vatican took the historical step in 2019 of authorising official pilgrimages here, the first step on a long road to its possible full recognition as a Marian site. But it is still not ready to raise Medjugorje to the same site status enjoyed by Lourdes, the mothership for Catholic pilgrims, and also by Fatima and Knock.
Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.
Yet for many this is the religious pilgrimage of choice. Tom Field, sales manager at Marian Pilgrimages, has been coming here since 1986 after hearing a priest, Fr Donal O'Callaghan, speak about Medjugorje in Waterford. Tom decided to find out for himself but was little prepared for what was to happen to him at the back of St James' Church.
"Mass was being said and then everything just went silent. All I heard was just one voice, a magical voice, that of a woman. She said: 'Do not worry, you are doing my work. Do not be afraid'. The guide said I should count myself blessed. I have been working with and sending people to Medjugorje ever since."
And still they come, waiting at the doors of the twin-steepled church, religiously, for the 10am English-speaking Mass. Some have been up since dawn climbing Apparition Hill where Our Lady is said to have appeared on a cloud, and Cross Mountain, and they count off decades of the rosaries as they go.
They come daily to Mass to worship, and to hear Fr Leon embolden them in their mission and tell of how Our Lady appeared to him, too. Fr Leon plays to the choir, exhorting the congregation to man the doors or the Italians will charge in. He is a popular figure, particularly among the young, thousands of whom seek out Medjugorje to fill the vacuum in their life, especially around the July Youth Festival, but also steadily throughout the year.
Anne-Marie, a twentysomething pilgrim who is here with her mother, rushes out from our guest house that early evening because word has got around that Fr Leon is saying confession. She excitedly recounts that she has just smelled roses, Our Lady's flower, despite it being mid-October. She later brings back relics which she hands around the group.
The daily life of Medjugorje is framed around the villagers' devotion to Our Lady. And the business of the town is too, with shops selling everything from the de rigueur Virgin Mary statues to cassocks. It is, in many ways Lourdes lite, though without the candle-lit processions, baths and groups of ill and disabled people seeking a miracle cure.
While religion seeps out of every pore in this location, the great modern, secular and nationalistic obsession of soccer is also omnipresent. The most popular shirts on sale are of Croatia captain Luka Modrić. The same influence can be seen in Fatima in Portugal, where Our Lady appeared to the Three Little Shepherds.
Untouched by war
Here too in Medjugorje, the villagers and their fellow Croatians had to look for succour in time of need during the wars of the 1990s. But whether by Our Lady's intervention or because there were bigger targets elsewhere, the town was left relatively untouched.
Refugees would come to this location to escape the fighting, as was the case with our guest house owner, Sarajevo native Ines Ostojic.
"I had spent holidays here with my grandparents and came here during the war. I found a job in a religious souvenir shop and I met my husband Mile here and stayed," she says.
"When I was 16 or 17 I went up Apparition Hill with my cousins. I didn't expect a miracle but I remember closing my eyes and looking up and seeing lights shooting up just like stars, straight up to the sky.
"I feel truly blessed to live here. When my daughter Karla died after 15 days I was angry but I was brought back by the advice that Our Lady, the Mother of God, was putting a hug around me and that I was not alone." Ines' home is one of the billets for Marian Pilgrimages, one of the two main pilgrimage companies serving Ireland from Medjugorje, along with Joe Walsh Tours.
"I have shared my life with the Irish for 21 years," she smiles, "and consider myself half-Irish."
Group leader Marie D'Arcy has been coming for 32 years. For Marie, who is bipolar, visiting Medjugorje has been more about sustaining her in life's everyday battles. She says she is now 24 years depression-free.
"There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Our Lady is here. Medjugorje gives me and others the openness to practise our faith each day," she says.
The crux for many like me, a seasoned pilgrim on the Camino, the Italian Camino (the Via Francigena), Rome, Lourdes, Fatima and Knock, is why some see and some don't. For the annual returnees, though, faith moves mountains.
David Parkes was not always the evangelist and spiritual singer he is today. His life was troubled, as he struggled to cope with his son Ken being born with cystic fibrosis and his own Crohn's disease.
But he says an out-of-body experience in Medjugorje turned his life around. And he attributes his remission to Our Lady.
"My doctor couldn't explain it and told me to just carry on doing what I was doing," he says.
And that means spreading the word.
The lives of David, Ken, Marie, Tom, Ines and countless other people who have never seen Our Lady, like Ivan the Visionary claims to have, are arguably testament to the magic of Medjugorje.
And yet, the secular world and the very institution in which their faith is placed, the Vatican, still want physical proof.