John Rigby, parishioner of St William of York, Sheffield, relates his experience of this special place.
In June a group of thirty pilgrims, mostly from Hallam Diocese, visited the Marian shrine in Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Our spiritual director, Rev Lee Marshall, was assisted by his father, Deacon Pete Marshall, who was also the Group Leader.
We arrived at Split airport in blazing sunshine and reached the shrine by coach, clutching precious water bottles. We received a warm welcome from the family owners of the ‘Pension Tomato’ where there was an evening meal ready for us. The accommodation was basic but clean and, with the temperature hovering in the mid-thirties, all were thankful for the air conditioning!
In this small town pilgrims easily outnumber the 2,300 Croation residents, Medjugorje being the third largest place of Catholic pilgrimage in the world. As it is only 38 years since the Apparitions began, developments to cope with the influx were seriously impeded by the civil war (1991-1995).
St James’ Church was consecrated in 1969 long before the first of the Apparitions of Our Lady and considered by most Croats far too big for the tiny parish. As the number of visitors grew after 1981 it is now too small and a Rotunda was built at the rear of the Church so that open air Masses could be said for much larger congregations.
Parallel to the nave of the church are twenty five confessionals available in several languages and always very busy! On the opposite side one could make an offering and light candles (forbidden elsewhere for fear of forest fires).
A short walk took us to church and after Mass most of us attended a musical evening hosted by David Parkes, who was cured of Crohn’s disease in 1989. The cure is currently being investigated by the Commission of the Bishops’ Conference in Rome.
During a very busy week pilgrims had the option each day after Mass to climb the rocky terrain to reach the site of the first Apparition, pray at the huge bronze statue of the ‘Risen Christ’ or visit the nearby Stations of the Cross.
During a fast day many of us dined on bread and water at ‘Mary’s Meals’, a charity started years ago in Scotland.
Our group travelled to the Cenacolo Centre in Saluzzo and heard talks from recovering addicts where successful treatment was a blend of prayer and kindness without any input from doctors or psychiatrists.
The next day found us all at a Franciscan Church a few miles away in Gradnici where Fr Lee said Mass and afterwards the Parish Priest very kindly laid on refreshments for us.
On our final day we were privileged to hear one of the visionaries, Jakov Colo tell his story through an interpreter. Jakov was only ten years old when he first saw Our Lady.
Medjugorje attracts people from all over the world as a place of devotion, love and peace. Only those who have been can appreciate this.
Our group flew home the next day and I hope that, like me, they all felt spiritually uplifted. Most of them will return as often as they can. I came on pilgrimage with an open mind and now I am convinced that this is a very holy place in which miracles are happening. I regret not visiting when I was younger, but so glad I have made the journey at last.
The Vatican will make no decisions about Medjugorje until the Apparitions cease, and then their deliberations may take years. All the pronouncements made to date have been very encouraging. There has been no Papal visit to the shrine since the Bishops of the Diocese have never sent out an invitation, which is the protocol. It is well-known, however, that Cardinal Ratzinger made a private visit in 1985 before becoming Pope Benedict XVI.
In view of Pope Francis’ recent pronouncement on 12 May that Bishops can now allow organised pilgrimages, perhaps the future may see our Hallam Diocese sending pilgrims to Lourdes and Medjugorje in alternate years.