Medjugorje Pilgrimage 2000

A quote from the book, Visions of the Children by Janice T. Connell, catches my eye: “How could anyone face Jesus at the personal judgment knowing his mother was visiting the earth without having gone to call on her.”  The thought stays with me and I feel drawn to Medjugorje by an internal force.  

Having made the initial arrangements, my husband Quenton and I, and our daughter and son-in-law, Tricia and Ron Vowels, wrap up plans, and the journey begins.

On the flight to Houston, I recall that in Biblical times on certain occasions, people made pilgrimages to God. They strictly fasted, walked barefoot, dressed in sackcloth (made of goats’ hair), and sprinkled their head with ashes.  I decide I can make this Pilgrimage 2000 without any complaints.

Saturday Day 1: We board Air France at Houston on Saturday, May 13, 2000 at 4:15 p.m., find our seats, and begin flying toward the darkness to Paris, quickly.  We eat dinner an hour out and settle back with pillow, blanket, earplugs, eye shields, lowered lights, drawn shades, boring movie, and flight attendants hovering over us, “get ‘em settled and quiet early, maybe they’ll sleep.” Then begins ten hours of wakefulness for the four of us. 

Sunday Day 2: We reach the Charles De Gaulle airport and find, as we suspected, that 4:15 in the afternoon in the U.S.A. plus ten hours equals 9:15 in the morning in Paris.  We gather outside with our tour group, casually glancing at one another: seven from Texas, Betty, Sandy and Steve (our tour guide) from Bryan; Suzie and Benny from Grapevine; David from Seguin; our tour priest, Father Royce from Schulenburg; and Darrell from Kansas.  David and Maria from Ohio will join us at Medjugorje.

We move to the Croatian air terminal and two hours later board the plane for the city of Split on the Adriatic Sea.  Curiosity and excitement keep the four of us further awake.  An hour-and-a-half later we reach Split, a picturesque city of 190,000 with red roofs dominating the sky.  The area is a cultural center whose history goes back to 300 AD.  The city has a harbor and an industrial center that includes shipbuilding.

We stumble outside the Split airport where our Tour guide, Miljenkok Musa (Miki) a 28-year-old, handsome and charming Croatian is waiting, holding his sign reading  “Medjugorje.”  We pile into the waiting motorcoach for a three-hour trip along the breathtakingly beautiful, sparkling, Adriatic Sea.  It has 1,000 islands (they say) and the warm winters/cool summers of the Mediterranean. The Croatians here rely on fishing, shipbuilding, trade and tourism.

Small villages float by, the white stucco, red-roofed houses with flower-studded decks nestled together on the rocky surface.  “People say this is the most beautiful and interesting drive in the world,” Miki says and we can believe it.  He keeps us awake with entertaining tidbits, jokes, and Croatian history.  We stop for drinks at Makarska and note the glistening sands of its mile-long beach.  The Mediterranean climate helps produce olive and fig trees here, but my interest snags on the walnut trees.  We walk beneath a nest of the giant ancient bogeymen of vision, their sinewy gnarled arms forming a dark canopy above us.  I stop and stroke the heavy craggy trunk of one proud old tree (perhaps I’ve formed a kinship).

Back on the bus we wind quickly around harrowing curves, as Miki nods toward the driver and says, “He’s a good one.”  We agree he better be, but for safekeeping we pray the rosary.  At last we arrive at the village of Medjugorje at 5:00 p.m. and within minutes we are trudging with our bags toward the picture-book home of our host.  We glance around and note that the house is about one minute from the main street, and two minutes from St. James Church and we see that it is all as unique as its pictures. 

Our host family is Dragan Vasilj and his wife, Mira; their 15-year-old twin daughters, Valentina and Tatjana; and six-year old daughter, Magdalena.  Our downstairs room is very clean and neat, with a private bath.

Host Family

Host House

Dinner is served at 6:00 p.m., though Miki will arrange the times for future meals to fit our schedule.  The food is hearty and tasty.  Each dinner begins with soup, clear broth with vegetables. The entree is meat or fish or pasta served with two vegetables, thick slices of homemade bread, and dessert.  On the table are big bottles of Pepsi, water, and the host’s red and white wine.  Breakfast includes bread, instant coffee and tea, orange juice, with eggs, meat, cheese, or sweet rolls and French toast with honey (its name is ‘restorative’ or ‘healing’).  Syrup and jelly are not served, but we find the delicious sweetened tomato concoction is good spread on brown bread.  Mira speaks little English but always wears a warm smile.  She places the food on the table and leaves the room, and we serve ourselves as we prefer.

As he does each evening, Miki explains the next day’s activities, and we learn they are scheduled around the services at St. James Church, the English Mass at 10:00 a.m. and the Croatian services that begin at 6:00 p.m. To those of us who congratulate ourselves on getting to one weekly Mass on Sunday, this comes as somewhat of a shock, but we are to find that of all the experiences in Medjugorje, the celebration of the Sacred Mass is the most impressive.

After dinner this first day, we go back to our room and find that after 30 hours without sleep, the bed is the prime attraction, while Tricia and Ron head to church for the next three hours.  At 2:00 a.m., our tour guide Steve in his giving, selfless mode, climbs up the long, rocky and difficult path of Krizevac Mountain to its Cross to honor all mothers in the world on this Mothers Day.

Monday Day 3: Yes, the roosters do crow at dawn, a bevy of them staggered at different  times to awaken even the soundest sleeping pilgrims, followed by the church bells that echo the Angelus through the mountains.  We rise  clear-headed, and after breakfast at 7:00 a.m., we twelve gather at the usual place for any event, “in front of the church along the street.”  We are going to the visionary Vicka’s house where she will speak at 8:30. We take taxis (old Mercedes, a dollar per/person/trip). The Croatian drivers speak a little English and drive like crazy along the narrow and curving street (the only one in the village).  Past the main part of town, the houses extend almost to the road, with no sidewalks, so people walk in the streets, carefully.  I remark that there must be a lot of people here without toes and with shaved-off shoulders. 

At Vicka’s small concrete house, crowded among others, we join several hundred people bunched together in the street, moving quickly as taxis race through, then again to fill up the space.  Vicka comes down the stairs smiling and speaks through two interpreters, one German, the other Italian.  I cannot take my eyes off of Vicka, her face radiates joy and goodness.  I learn that this is her nature; she is gracious, patient and compassionate.  She is the most “visible” of the visionaries and meets daily with the pilgrims.  She accepts petitions in advance and gives them to Our Lady.  Vicka receives messages from her each evening at 6:45.

Vicka finishes speaking, a few people leave as she then begins to speak through an English interpreter, and we move closer and listen intently.  She concludes, we pray together, she waves goodbye to us and climbs the stairs into her house.  A taxi whisks us to St. James for our first Mass there.  We see hundreds of people streaming into the church.  It is filled inside, and the four of us squeeze together on a side bench.  As I glance around, the simple yet profound beauty of the church awes me.  The fourteen stained glass windows on the right depict events from the Blessed Mother’s life, and the fourteen on the left describe her role in the church.  One special window shows her gazing down on six children.

During May 2000, a total of 2470 priests (an average of 80 daily) from home and abroad, con-celebrated Mass at St. James.  At the powerful Croatian Mass in the evening, the abundance of priests makes possible Masses not only in Croatian, but also in German, French, Italian and other languages.

Many pilgrims chose May to come to Medjugorje, as it is the month dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  The groups came from Hungary, Luxembourg, Italy, USA, Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, Slovenia, Korea, Ireland, Germany, Belgium, England, Canada, Switzerland, Lebanon, Australia, Romania, South Africa, Philippines, Singapore, Malta, Russia, Latvia, Indonesia, France and, of course, Croatia.  With so many nationalities and faiths represented at the Mass, it is marvelous to hear the mixture of the responses of the participants, each in his own language, especially during the rosary.  It is beautiful and somehow reassuring to me.

After lunch at 2:00, we are free to nap, walk, shop or visit on the front porch or in the courtyard.  We stroll along the main street (I find it strange that we see so many people in church, and so few other places).  We see several small restaurants in this area and the inevitable souvenir shops, all displaying precisely the same items.  Our hosts have a shop in front of their house, and we choose gifts there. 

We are in the church very early for the first two mysteries of the rosary which begins at 6:00 (again we sit on the bench) followed at 7:00 by the Croatian Mass, then by the blessing of religious articles, prayers for healing and the third mystery of the rosary. One can only guess how many people attend this evening Mass (the church holds 2000).  The people stand closely together in the middle aisles and in the back. The space in front of the altar is filled with people kneeling or sitting on the floor.  When no one else can enter, they fill the spacious courtyard outside and the benches on each side of the church, along with a large gazebo attached to the back of the church.  An excellent public address system reaches everyone. The participants of the Mass are quiet, courteous, and contemplative, lacking any “tourist air.”  It is unusual for anyone to push ahead. 

Strangely, one does not feel the pulse of the crowd; in a sense each is alone in his reverie and devotion.  Though I believe that God is everywhere, I feel His presence more profoundly here, and that of his Blessed Mother, for she has chosen this place in which to appear for the past 19 years.  She said, ”I am choosing this Parish in a special way, which is dearer to me than others, where I joyfully went when the Almighty sent -me.” 

Tuesday Day 4: We meet at 11:00 a.m. and take a taxi to Vicka’s house again, but this time we walk beyond and start a climb up Podbrdo (Apparition Hill).  As we cut across Vicka's yard, we see her again at the foot of her stairs without the crowd, and our group hurries to her and asks for her blessing.  She smiles and graciously complies, firmly placing her hand over our heads and praying intently.  Somehow she puts a smile in our hearts.   

We leave Vicka’s house and walk through the ever-so-small hamlet of Bijakovici at the foot of Apparition Hill and a short distance beyond we begin the rocky climb.  Some of our group struggle a bit with the effort, but Suzie moves nimbly along, barefoot and smiling.  It is a tough ascent for this octogenarian, while Quenton, the other one, does great alone.  I credit my son-in-law Ron, who seldom leaves my side, carefully helping me along.  The climb is for prayers, meditations and songs, and we pray the rosary along the way, but ever so quietly Ron mutters, “If we do this again, you don’t eat dinner the night before.”  Always having to contend with my misguided humor, I mutter, “Why didn’t the Blessed Mother choose our Texas plains to appear.” And Darrell answered, “This is nearer Heaven.”  I find it awesome to realize that the young visionaries ran barefoot up this hill over treacherous sharp stones and thorns in a matter of minutes, not following the path, as if an extended divine hand reached out and pulled the children up, and perhaps one did.

We reach the top, settle on rocks and each spends time in silence.  I look intently at the cross and wonder if the uphill and toilsome effort to reach its presence represents the difficult struggle to reach redemption.  Simple and sublime, the cross stands with its collar of rocks, piled one by one by the pilgrims, each stone a token of his intentions.

I sit here at this holy place to which millions have come to pray, some with heartaches, some for renewal of faith and for guidance, some that seek forgiveness.  Others with afflictions pray for miracles; perhaps others have laid down their burdens at the foot of the cross and asked for lighter loads.  While I…I can handle my burdens, and I pray for faith, for peace, and thank Our Father for all my blessings.  I think of these simple, good village people who pray at this cross, those who lived for 50 years under communism and never sold their faith. And I stand in tears and start back down the hill.

At 4:00 we gather with other groups in a large nearby building to hear another visionary, Ivan. Through an interpreter, he speaks of Our Lady’s messages and says that she comes to remind us of the Gospel and the  messages are from her son, that she is the “Vehicle of Her Son.”  Ivan concludes with a grin, “It’s easier for me to speak before the Blessed Mother for nineteen years than before you.” 

This evening after rosary and Mass, Tricia, Ron, Quenton and I, find a place for pizza.  It is deliciously thin, and we reorder.  (Food and commodities are low in price, controlled by the government.)   We sit and watch the people; it is easy to distinguish the Croatians men as they gather together for relaxation, talking and joshing one another. They have strong, rugged, handsome features, and dark penetrating eyes.  I see a great deal of character in their faces along with deep lines that reflect long hours of working under a hot sun in their fields and tending their animals.  I sense persecution in their faces as well, yet overall I sense patience and gentleness, courtesy and goodness in their mannerisms. 

The women walk silently along, looking ahead.  They seem solemn and saddened with hidden emotions. They, too, work long hours in the fields in addition to caring for families and homes. The women wear little, if any makeup, their hair is simply pulled back and covered with babushkas.  Almost all the older women wear black for mourning for so many have lost husbands or family members in the war.  I find all the people beautiful, and admire them for their strength of character, their endurance and stability. 

I see the spirit of God at work here, for I sense deep reverence and peace everywhere I go in this Croatian village, in the people who live here, and the people who come here.  I reflect on this for a time and realize I do not have the usual distractions of the modern world, the telephones, radios, television--not even a newspaper ripples the effect.  Nothing hinders the flow of sensitivity between God and me.  In a way, this Shrine of Peace has become a distraction of my thoughts, an interruption in my life, as if I am to pay attention to all the things of Medjugorje…that I am in the process of something…I am not sure how to comprehend it all.

Next:  Medjugorje Pilgrimage 2000 Part 2

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Comments:  Elleta Nolte ,  Copyright © 2006