There are those who believe Our Lady calls people to Medjugorje for a reason. Others are drawn by the undeniable sense of history and mystery surrounding this small rural town in the Herzegovina region of Bosnia and Herzegovina, close to the border of Croatia. For me, the decision to join the group of forty or so others travelling from the Hallam Diocese was a last minute leap into the unknown, after a year of painful family crisis. Medjugorje literally means, “between mountains” – it seemed an apt metaphor for where I’d suddenly found myself in midlife.
Stepping off the plane and onto the waiting coach at Dubrovnik with a determinedly open heart and mind, I didn’t know any of my fellow travellers and – being a convert rather than a “cradle Catholic” – was conscious I wouldn’t be fluent in the wording of some of the prayers. My anxieties were soon dispelled by the warm and inclusive ethos of the group, led by Peter and Sue Marshall. As our coach set off along the scenic coastal road in the dusk, Fr Kieran led us in a recitation of the Holy Rosary to mark the start our week-long trip; an opportunity to seek a renewed spirit of love, forgiveness and peace.
I’d heard our accommodation referred to as a “house” and had an image in my mind of a wooden structure in the middle of nowhere, so was surprised when our coach stopped in a bustling town centre. Pandza House, our home for the week, is one of many newer family-run houses built since 1981, when six young people from the village are reported to have first witnessed apparitions of Our Lady on what is now known as Apparition Hill. Early visitors to Medjugorje were hosted by families within the original village, but word of the apparitions spread across the world, creating a demand for purpose-built accommodation, along with the inevitable commercial sprawl of shops, cafés and restaurants.
Waking the next day to glorious sunshine and a nourishing breakfast, we strolled across the road to the parish church of St James. The existing church building was originally considered to be too large by parishioners, but the priest at that time insisted it be built to these dimensions. Today it could be argued it’s not big enough; certainly providence had a hand in its conception. The daily church schedule now includes Mass in several languages. Our English Masses were packed to the rafters, led each day by a different group of visiting worshippers and with uplifting liturgical accompaniment from several gifted musicians in residence, including Romanian violinist Melinda Dumitrescu.
Each evening, as the sun dipped behind the church, travellers from across the globe made their reconciliation in their native tongue with one of many visiting priests seated informally around a courtyard. A daily evening prayer programme in Croatian took place in the huge, seated outdoor area with translation available via radio. This included the rosary, a time of silence to mark the moment of Our Lady’s apparition, evening Mass and healing prayers, followed by Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. As one amongst some twelve thousand other souls of all ages and origins kneeling in silent reverence, I experienced a profound sense of peace that remains with me still.
In addition to the church-based programme, our Croatian guide, Slavica led climbs up Apparition Hill and the more challenging Krizevac (Cross) Hill, plus visits to the nearby Mother’s Village orphanage and the Cenacolo Community – where we heard two young men share their inspiring stories of overcoming addiction. A day trip to the historic and battle-scarred town of Mostar included an uplifting healing Mass in the Franciscan Church of St Peter and St Paul – a building destroyed and rebuilt four times over the centuries.
It’s almost a month now since my pilgrimage to Mejugorje but the sense of inner peace, love and hope I brought back with me hasn’t diminished. Through the Holy Rosary, my prayer life grows stronger each day. The mountains in my life may remain, but I’m not climbing alone.