Medjugorje: A place of peace -
Date: Oct 2009
It attracts more than one million pilgrims a year -
''There's just something about the place,'' seems an inadequate explanation to what has attracted an estimated 28 million people to travel to Medjugorje. And yet, variants of this phrase feature in the testimony of almost every pilgrim who I spoke in Bosnia Herzegovina last week.
It's the height of the pilgrimage season and Joe Walsh Tours have 245 Irish people landing on Saturday night to spend a week in the town.
Only a handful are coming for the first time -
''I know why you have all come,'' says our guide Marianna, on the transfer from the airport. ''You have come to meet Our Lady.''
But the reasons given by the pilgrims themselves are much more removed from the divine.
''I'd heard very positive things about it,'' says first-
Almost everyone testifies to some conversion and several refer to feeling an extraordinary sense of peace.
''People telling their stories, that's what does it for me,'' says Harriette Ashe who ''isn't a churchy person'' and admits to finding the praying hard at the start.
''When you hear about ordinary people and what they have come from and what they have done, it really does help your belief and your faith.''
Marita is here for the fourth time. ''My idea of a holiday would have been sitting on a beach drinking vino, not praying the rosary in a church.'' But that all changed after her first visit to Medjugorje.
''People say there is a different peace here but anywhere there is a lot of good people, there has to be a lot of goodness around the place. Why wouldn't it be serene? Maybe I'm wrong, maybe it is something more,'' says Marita
Sr Muriel Geisler has lived for 17 years on the outskirts of the town, feeding the poor. ''I don't go in much for the apparitions,'' says the Boston nun. ''But I believe this is a place of conversion, the Vatican needs to make it a shrine and then it will help.''
I was among a select group of about 30 people who witnessed one of the alleged apparitions of the Blessed Virgin to the seer Ivan Dragicevic, which occur daily at 5.40pm.
Afterwards, I realised that coming to Medjugorje in search of evidence of the divine is a misguided mission. If the Blessed Virgin is in fact appearing, she will not do so for everyone.
The sheer volume of testimonies make it difficult to dispute that it is a place of conversion. And whether or not you believe in the apparitions, one thing you have to admit; there really is just something about the place.
It began on June 25, 1981 when six children -
The Virgin reportedly told the seers that she would impart 10 secrets to each of them.
The communist authorities reacted by violently suppressing the news, subjecting the children and their families to interrogation and harassment, even imprisoning the parish priest Fr Jozo Zovko for two and a half years.
Ivan, Vicka and Marija have received nine of the secrets and are still receiving daily apparitions. According to the seers, when all 10 secrets are revealed to all of them, a permanent sign will be left in the hills above Medjugorje as proof to the atheists.
The apparitions divided the Franciscan friars, who had ministered in the town for decades, between those who believed the children, or the Bishop of the diocese of Mostar, Pavao Zanic, who was suspicious of them.
That division has persisted to this day and the current Bishop of Mostar, Bishop Ratko Peric has been one of Medjugorje's most vocal critics.
Meanwhile, the Vatican's stance on the alleged apparition has been cautious to the point of ambiguity. The Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has stated it will not pronounce on the visions until all the alleged apparitions have ceased.
On several occasions, the Vatican has said that dioceses or parishes should not be organising official pilgrimages but that Catholics are free to travel there and, if they do, the Church should provide them with pastoral services. Priests accompany most Irish pilgrimage groups.
According to parish chaplain, Fr Miljenko Steko, resistance to Medjugorje is a reflection of the early resistance to the now recognised shrines of Lourdes or Fatima.
''Every time apparitions happened in the past, they were a kind of prophecy and each of them brought something new. We have a natural need to fit things into categories we know and the Medjugorje apparition is outside all the existing Church framework. It is a worldwide thing.''
The recent departure of Fr Tomislav Vlasic who had been spiritual director to the seers before being dismissed in 1987, prompted a renewed raft of negative media reports on Medjugorje. Fr Steko attributes at least some of the coverage to an American man so resentful of his wife's conversion in Medjugorje that he invested money to destroy it.
But his reaction, typical of Medjugorje supporters, is pragmatic. ''We pray without any bitterness in our hearts. If you look closely at these articles, these things had nothing to do with Medjugorje. They are just human weaknesses: at the end, everybody is responsible for her or his own words and actions.''
Date: Sept 2009
Siobhán Tanner, in Medjugorje
Thousands of people from every part of the world climbed Cross Mountain in Medjugorje to celebrate the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross last Sunday. Tannoys carried the voices of 50 concelebrating priests down the mountainside to where people stood, squatted or knelt between the scrub bushes and rocks. Several hundred had set out from as far as the Croatian capital of Zagreb one week before, walking 500 kilometres to the mountain.
Down in the town the aisles of St James' Church were blocked with people who couldn't climb, jostling to receive Communion from one of the 40 priests. Up to 1.5 million hosts are given out annually in the parish -
After Mass, priests heard confession from chairs set along the gable wall of the church to meet the overflow of demand from the 17 confessionals. Parish Chaplain, Fr Miljenko Steko tells The Irish Catholic there are not enough priests to minister to the volume of people. ''Sometimes, one priest will have to do confessions for six or seven hours.''
And according to Philip Ryan who has guided pilgrims in Medjugorje for 20 years: ''This is nothing.''
Just two weeks previously, 50,000 young people descended on the small town for the Youth Festival, the largest since it began 20 years ago.
While tourist destinations across the world suffer a dramatic fall in business, the numbers visiting Medjugorje this pilgrimage season have stayed constant.
Ireland's main pilgrimage operator, Joe Walsh Tours, has reported the same number of Irish visiting the shrine this year.
''I come here for a boost,'' says Harriette Ashe from Kilkenny. ''It's great to see people pushing each other to get Communion, at home there is nobody at Mass.''
Since six children first claimed to have seen the Blessed Virgin on a hill above the town in 1981, an estimated 28 million pilgrims have travelled to Medjugorje.
And Ireland, perhaps not surprisingly with its history of Marian devotion, is among the best represented nationalities, with an estimated 15,000 visiting every year. Many return testifying to conversions, miraculous healings and of course the validity of the apparitions themselves.
The lack of official Vatican recognition of Medjugorje has been the impetus for countless news items.
The recent defrocking of Fr Tomislav Vlasic, who had been spiritual director to the seers before being dismissed in 1983, again threw the shrine into the limelight for all the wrong reasons.
While tensions between the local Franciscans who support the shrine and the local bishop, who does not, have added fuel to Medjugorje's reputation as a rogue shrine. But in reality, the relationship between the shrine and religious is much more harmonious.
Many devotees view official recognition as a mere technicality since the Congregation of the Propagation of the Faith will not pronounce on the shrine until all the apparitions have ceased. (Three seers: Ivan, Marija and Vicka claim to still be receiving daily apparitions of the Blessed Virgin.)
Many groups are led by a priest. Eight priests were among the 245 Irish people visiting the shrine with JWT last Sunday. While the seers themselves have visited Catholic dioceses around the world at the invitation of bishops, although an Irish bishop has yet to extend such an invitation.
According to Fr Steko the impact of Medjugorje is impossible to measure.
But there are some indicators such as a statement made by the Bishop of Vienna attributing half of all the vocations to his seminary to the Bosnian shrine.
Date: Oct 2009
In the final of our short series on Medjugorje, Siobhán Tanner leaves the shrine and meets the octogenarian nun who has built a home for the destitute from Irish pilgrim donations.
There is a smell of urine in Marita's hovel. A sticker of the Holy Family is the only decoration on the bare walls. She takes off her slipper to show her misshapen toes while relaying the story of how her son was beheaded and thrown in the river during the war. Her husband died 13 years ago. She has a daughter who owns a car, but she never visits.
Old, alone and starving, Marita's situation is dire but for the elderly of shell-
The mountains around Medjugorje are populated by women like her, who rely on monthly social security payments of €40. In the municipality of Lubski where Marita lives, even this was stopped, pushing her from poverty into destitution.
In winter, when the temperature in the mountains drops below zero, some of these elderly will die of the cold. Many more will survive due to the efforts of an octogenarian nun. Sr Muriel Giesler came to Medjugorje 17 years ago, penniless, on a mission to feed the poor. ''People laughed when I told them why I had come. They said: 'Sister, you can't even feed yourself',''' she recalls in a still-
The then 68-
With no money from her order, she took a job serving pilgrims and washing dishes in the pensionne in Medjugorje. ''I had no plan, I just came. When He calls you and you answer, He's going to take care of you, you just have to trust.''
For more than a year, she lived on a diet of tinned tuna and rice, certain of her course. ''People were always giving me rice and tuna, so that's what I ate for about two years because I had no money for food.
''Then I met the Irish.''
Her first big donation was a black Volvo van. ''Then, people gave me money for gas, then others gave me money, so I bought food at the cash-
Fifteen years later, that steady trickle of pilgrim pounds has translated into a thriving charity known as St Joseph the Worker.
Today, armed with a list of the worst-
''Everybody wants to work with children but nobody wants to work with the elderly; I've been told by some local people if you see an old person who is sick, leave them. They will be in Heaven soon, but I'm not happy with that.''
The work hasn't stopped there.
Together with her partner Mary Walshe, a former tax collector from the US, Sr Muriel has built a home for 49 destitute women on the outskirts of Medjugorje, a feat she says would not have been possible without the Irish.
''This is the Irish chapel,'' she says, pointing out the altar made by a man from Athlone, chairs donated by a hotel in Galway, a statue of St Joseph from a hospital basement somewhere in the south, a Celtic cross from Killarney.
Each bedroom has a shower and central heating but most of the residents are afraid to use them.
''They've never seen anything like this, so they don't use the showers much.
''You don't think it smells like a nursing home here do you?'' she asks, with characteristic suddenness.
''I didn't want it to smell like a nursing home.''
The smell of cleaning fluid and food is not the only thing that sets the home apart from other nursing homes.
In the conservatory where everybody is sitting, the mood is lively. Perhaps because Paracetamol is the strongest drug available.
She introduces the residents, by name. Many of their husbands were killed in the war, none of them have children, a lacking which is a prerequisite for gaining entry to the home. ''We only take people who have nobody at all, and we're full,'' Sr Muriel explains.
She introduces Slavka, who was found walking on all fours and was almost totally blinded from a flying wood splinter. Then Vida, who had diabetes, and was ''practically dead'' when she came in. Next up is Eva, who was living by herself with chickens -
Two women break into traditional gunga song, which sounds like a loud wail. They start to dance, conscious that a visitor is taking photographs. Most of them have never had their photograph taken.
The display is cut short by the Angelus in Bosnian, and after that, lunch. The conservatory empties within moments as wheelchairs and walkers race down the hall for stew. ''They've had so much suffering in their lives, many are looking forward to death,'' says Sr Muriel.
Once the home was built and furnished, Sr Muriel handed the running of it over to an order of sisters from Zagreb. But she still raises the €9,000 monthly bill to run the home. Both the local Franciscans and the government have asked to assume control of the home but she has resisted, fearful of a selection process that would exclude the most needy. Neither have assisted her work financially.
Her relationship with the world famous apparition site is strictly professional but, for many pilgrims, a visit to Sr Muriel becomes an integral part of their Medjugorje experience.
At 85, Sr Muriel is older than many of the women she helps but she is showing no signs of flagging and talks about plans to build a hospice for the diocese of Mostar, as though it were a forgone conclusion.
With no funding in a bankrupt country, this seems an ambitious pipedream. But no. ''Would you believe it, one Irish couple came up with three-
Who will continue the work once she's gone? ''I don't think about that; you've just got to trust.''