I am afraid I’ll get the name of being a traveller and that’s not the case! Just has happened that I’ve been away a bit this year and now find myself in Medjugorje with fifty-one other people – mostly from the West of Ireland. My friend, Fr Tommy Johnston, asked me if I’d have an interest in travelling with this group and I found myself saying “yes”. It’s not a YES I had planned upon and my thoughts on Medjugorje have been somewhat confused and, truth told, my attitude indifferent. People not places is certainly my thing so I think Tommy being here was a help in the utterance of yes. So also Dominic and Teresa Lynch who were organising the pilgrimage and who have made me feel so much part of it and welcome from the day I said yes.
We travelled here on Saturday morning – leaving Knock airport at 11.40am and flying to Dublin where other [passengers and pilgrims joined the flight. We arrived in Split airport around 4pm (3pm Irish time) and took a bus to Medjugorje. It was a pleasant flight and bus ride and my fellow pilgrims seemed “sound” and I felt at home with them all. Still some I’ve not spoken with really but hopefully we’ll all have exchanged a few words and thoughts before heading home again.
It was dark when we arrived here and my first thoughts were on all the shops selling religious goods and wondering how they could all make a living from it. I had heard so often that Medjugorje was not commercialised and had formed the impression that there would be very few shops of this kind. That notion was quickly banished as street after street presented line upon line of religious goods stores. Was I disappointed? Not so much but a bit shocked. I could see how a place like this would generate this type of shop but wasn’t totally ready for there being so many. I’ll come back to this.
We had a very nice dinner on arrival and our rooms are grand. I’ve one to myself so the second bed has become a sort of desk! Later that evening I walked down to the village with three lovely lassies from Charlestown. I knew I was in good company and they had all been here before and were so obviously at home. We went to the parish church – a massive church built way back in the earlier part of last century and much bigger than the parish would ordinarily have required. I’m sure people wondered why such a large church was being built. It looks as if there was good reason. It is a lovely church, very prayerful and very full. People everywhere and, more importantly, praying everywhere. There was an outdoor Holy Hour taking place and a large plasma screen relayed images of the Monstrance to all not near the place of adoration. It was powerful to see many people there and the age-span was breath-taking – from the very young to many quite elderly people. Yes, this quickly presented itself as a place of prayer. It struck me that everybody who is here, regardless of anything else, came to this place because there’s a belief that Heaven and earth met here. In other words, it was faith that gathered the people. I took some comfort in believing that’s why I came too. I came because of my Faith.
We had a cup of coffee and wandered around a bit before returning to our accommodation. Those shops, that I mentioned earlier, were so similar – not least in their content but also in the gentleness of all who worked in them. No pressure – no hard sales – no push. Wander in or wander out; take your time for you’re not taking ours. Prices too were so cheap – no attempt to overcharge or cash in on people’s emotions or vulnerability. I’d say €10 would go far in this place. So maybe people were right – it’s not commercial. Yes, people are selling but they’re not out for the kill.
On Sunday we went out for a walk with our guide Áine who really “lives” and loves this place. She took us through the vineyards and in the direction of a mountain (have to say I was relieved when we switched direction). We headed in the direction of the Parish Church and stopped off at the Prayer Garden. I must go back there at a quieter time. The centre piece of the garden is a huge sculptor of Jesus rising, not from the tomb, but from the Cross for, the sculptor, wanted to remind all that the Cross is the centre of our salvation.
We went to Mass in the Parish Church. This Mass was celebrated in English and the church was filled to capacity. Just before that Mass there was mass for the local community and the church was filled to over-flowing. In fact, Fr Tommy and myself had to help with the distribution of Holy Communion to people standing in the heat outside. Just to the back of them, hundreds of people lined up for the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Our guide said that in years to come when people think of Confessional Boxes they will think of Medjugorje. In fairness, being in Knock last week, our Marian Shrine too, is doing its bit for the promotion of this sacrament. I realised yet again that I should do more both in the parish and elsewhere to encourage its celebration.
That mountain I mentioned – the one from which Áine turned away earlier was not to be avoided!! We headed out around 5pm and I gave it little thought, assuming that a well-worn path would speed us to the top. WRONG SHERLOCK!! It’s not a huge climb but neither is it especially easy. The stones are sharp and the path somewhat uncertain but there were so many people there you could not but walk, follow, pray your way. It was especially heart-warming to see pilgrims tend to one another along the way. Slow down, speed up and stop as needs dictated.
The mountain top – so much part of Scripture – delivered. It was a lovely place to be. People just sat around on the natural seats, formed by erosion and use, and used the time for silent prayer. The statue of Our Lady is beautiful and people just seemed to want to be near it or to look at it. Just in front of it, I noticed a very elderly couple, the woman in a chair that was carried up the mountain by four men. What a gift they gave her. Her husband stood beside her and she wept. I walked to her, just as they began to pick up the chair to bring her down the mountain again and I placed the Sign of The Cross on her forehead. She just smiled at me and, in different languages but with one Faith, we acknowledged one another. A young man with them, took their picture with the old man’s camera and I thought how much that photo will mean in time.
One thought occurred to me on the mountain top and that was that as people looked at the statue, there was a chance they might miss the Cross but that didn’t seem to happen. People moved easily and naturally from Our Lady’s statue to a large Cross and figure of the Crucified Lord. This, I thought, was as it should be. Mary always points to her Son. In fact Áine told us that she told the visionaries that given the choice between a vision and attending Mass – they should go to Mass. A reassuring message.
As we came down the mountain, I stopped at another Cross where Our Lady called for Peace. It’s a simple but timely reminder that the Cross remains our hope. Tried to take a few photos of it and of a lovely sunset behind.
On Monday we went to the Church of Divine Mercy – still in the parish – and arrived there at the end of a corkscrew hill (going downwards!!). I don’t think I was ever so happy to see a church J We celebrated Mass there. After Mass Áine spoke to us of the ICON that graces the sanctuary and her ability to share its meaning was powerful and thought-provoking.
That’s the story so far ……