I have just returned from a pilgrimage/retreat to Medjugorje, but at the risk of seeming melodramatic, I'm still a little too overcome by the power of the experience to be able to reflect and write about it adequately. I hope to do this at a later time, so these are just preliminary notes and reactions. of a rambling nature.
As a summary of the experience, I would have to say that not since my earliest childhood have I felt so profoundly and unconditionally loved by a maternal divine presence, a love that penetrates to the most intimate recesses of one's being. I was taken into a place of such profound peace, and was sustained by this peace for the full four days of my visit. There were 'messages' that were relevant to my own personal spiritual life, but the peace 'surpassed all understanding.' Medjugorje, above all, is a place of profound peace. There is the usual commercial aspect of the place as a major pilgrimage site, but I was not a bit offended by the numerous souvenir shops around the town center, they seemed appropriate (though their numbers seemed excessive). It was only on the pathway up to 'Apparition Hill" that the souvenir shops seemed quite offensive and out of place. Likewise with the many guest houses, pensiones and hotels about the place, they simply give the whole town a festive, holiday air, very much like a beach resort in Thailand. Prices were far above (or below) being simply reasonable. My own family-run pensione in the countryside outside the town center charged me 20 euros a night for a double room with ensuite bathroom. Dinner was 9 euros and included a double portion of soup, home made bread, a huge salad with fresh ingredients from the family's garden, a main plate of chicken, potatoes, cucumbers that was large enough to feed three truck drivers, a generous plate of fruit and a half litre carafe of wine from the family's own vineyard. For 9 euros! This beautiful Croatian family offers rooms in their home as a service to pilgrims, not as a money making operation. So no one is really making any fortune off of the pilgrims, that I can see. Pensiones closer to the town center were charging 40 euros a night for room with bath, which is still more than reasonable. A meal in one of the fancier open air pizzerias right across from the church grounds cost me ten euros for soup, pasta, side salad, two cokes, cup of gelatto and espresso. 10 Euros, and it doesn't get more expensive than that. A week later I was dining in a simple pizzeria in Milan's Galleria and the same meal cost me 50 Euros! Is any of this relevant to the spiritual significance of the place? Indeed it is, because a lot of rather vicious gossip has been spread about the 'money making machine' of Medjugorje. I certainly saw no evidence of this, quite the contrary, though the Franciscans are undoubtedly receiving large and generous donations. Medjugorje is also set in a spectacular location of astonishing beauty, lush green farm lands surrounded by blue misted mountains in the distance. It makes for a wonderful holiday retreat and at such prices.
Once one crosses the threshold of the sanctuary proper, however, it is as if an impregnable wall has been erected that keeps out all of the commercialism and carnival atmosphere. The sanctuary is a place of prayer and within the church I was carried into such a place of deep interior peace I felt I was back in my aunt Helen's kitchen ( she raised me until the age of 4) and could smell the peanut butter cookies she always baked for me. It was so hard for me to leave the church, especially on the final day. Something within me wanted to linger within that profound spiritual security and peace. What about the crazies? Yes, some individuals have that special gleam in their eye and numerous persons wear rosary beads around their necks. But they seemed to be in the minority to me, with the majority of pilgrims looking like quite ordinary folk hungering for spiritual sustenance, which is so hard to find elsewhere in the contemporary church. No wonder they are coming in the millions to this very special place. Thankfully, I didn't run into any hard core conservative cases, using the shrine as a weapon to bolster up their own traditional viewpoints. Undoubtedly such persons exist but it was my good fortune not to run into any. I did run into two delightful ladies with rosary beads draped around their necks, Martine from France and Esther from the USA. They had that special gleam in their eye and seemed to be enjoying the wacky role they were playing, but they were such great fun to be around and were clearly equipped with the ability to critique their own daffy religiosity with some healthy self awareness. I enjoyed them immensely. They showered blessings on me when we parted, literally....extending their hands and arms and waving spiritual energy my way and laughing and smiling at the same time. A real treat and they both made me feel genuinely blessed. I also met a pair of Lesbian ladies when leaving, Kathy and Janet, waiting for the bus that would take them all the way back to Munich. They were on their way to a teaching gig in Saudi Arabia of all places and said they came here to receive some spiritual fortitude for the ordeal that lay ahead of them. I should say so. Lesbians in Saudi Arabia? I shudder to think. They had a wonderfully dry sense of humor and wanted to know if I would come back to Medjugorje. When I said, oh yes, with pious unction and tears in my eyes, they grunted their approval.
The messages of Medjugorje certainly have a 'radical' tolerance and openness about them, the Blessed Mother of the visions remarking that all religions are the 'same' in God's eyes in so far as they lead us to reverence and respect the divine. This has outraged some conservative Catholic groups who fulminate against the site on their blogs, calling it all an 'invention of diabolic inspiration.' One could see why they would be miffed. One of the visionaries, when asked what she had learned from the experience, said she had learned that "Mary is our mother, Jesus is our brother and companion on the way, and God is our loving father." Simple statement, to be sure, but a striking example of "Christology from below," with no exalted claims made for the Divine Master from Nazareth that would imply a superiority of Christianity over other faiths. As with the apparitions in Spain at Garabandal, the messages also contain a somber warning of future suffering, trials and contradictions. For anyone disturbed by this dimension, I would ask them to revisit the prophetic warnings of Jesus in the gospels about the destruction of Jerusalem. While scripture scholars once believed these warnings were written into the mouth of Jesus by the evangelists, based on the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the consensus of opinion has now swung the other way and the majority of scholars believe these prophecies originated with the Master himself and formed a major element in his preaching - warning of the consequences of violent hatred of the Roman occupation. The apocalyptic language used by Jesus himself is very similar to the tone and imagery of these Marian apparitions and give them a very somber dimension. I came away with the very strong conviction that the 'Blessed Mother' of Medjugorje is very serious about her call to penance, prayer, fasting and conversion. Very serious indeed. I have now adopted her requested practice of fasting on bread and water every Wednesday and Friday. Let us hope my will power holds out.
Speaking of radical openness, one of the English masses I attended in the beautiful church was celebrated by a very witty Irish priest on the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul. His entire sermon was focused on the profound betrayal of Jesus and his church committed by both of these great apostles and that this should always soberly remind us that our leaders and the church in general were always in need of profound and radical conversion. He ended his sermon with a prayer to the Gospa (as the Lady is affectionately called here) for the continuing conversion and repentance of our church leaders. Wow! Contrary to most progressives' suspicions, Medjugorje is anything but a bastion of conservative, traditional Catholicism. There is indeed room for everybody.
These are my rambling thoughts and I've managed to skirt around the more serious, spiritual issues and the impact the visit had on my own inner sense of vocation and calling as a Christian in the Catholic tradition. The visit was a very special grace for me, affirming on so many levels. I will definitely go back. A place of great holiness and peace, and I have no doubt as to is 'supernatural' origins. Just to prove my point, I was not all surprised to hear that Cardinal Schonborn, who appears to be very much the man of the hour these days, paid a visit to Medjugorje last December, a visit which annoyed the local bishop of Mostar considerably. Here is a quote from the Bishop's letter of complaint.
On Nov 16, 2009,the Catholic News Agency published the news story: “Cardinal Christoph Schönborn will visit Medjugorje, the small town in Bosnia-Herzegovina where six young people have allegedly been witnesses of apparitions from the Virgin Mary. But according to the Archdiocese of Vienna, the trip is 'completely private' and does not imply a statement from the cardinal on the veracity of the apparitions. It was supposed to be a completely private visit, it was not supposed to go out to the Internet,' said Fr. Johannes Fürnkranz, personal secretary to the Archbishop of Vienna.”
4. On December 29, 2009, Cardinal Schönborn arrived in Medjugorje. The media accompanied him the next day and on others as well. According to the news, he delivered a speech at the church of St. James the Apostle that highlighted the mercy of God the Father. In that speech, he said: “Who could put these things in motion? Who could invent them? A man? No, this is not the work of a human being.”
On December 31, 2009, journalists transmitted: “While some were expecting that the Cardinal’s visit to Medjugorje would be private, he has nevertheless surprised the locals by being very visible. He has spent time celebrating Mass at the Church of St. James the Apostle, walking up the hill where the apparitions occur with the visionary Marija Lunetti, praying in the silence of Adoration, and perhaps the most significant thing, delivering a speech at the parish church in the company of the Franciscans.”