As the heart-rending stories come out of war torn Bosnia there is another side where only peace and love reigns despite the hardship and grief. This is in the village of Medjugorje only 30 kms. from Mostar. A place where it is reported that, on the 24th June 1981, the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus, first appeared to six children; Jakov Colo, Mirjana Dragicevic, Ivanka Ivankovic, Vicka Ivankovic, Marijia Pavlovic and Ivan Dragicevic. The Blessed Virgin still appears daily to four of the young people, Jajov, Vicka, Marija and Ivan and on special occasions to Mirjana and Ivanka. Each of the seers is to receive ten secrets. Two of the seers, Ivanka and Mirjana, have each received the tenth and final secret, the other young people have received nine.
Despite the war pilgrims still flock to Medjugorje and my husband and I visited for the twelfth anniversary in June 1993. It was our first visit but for others a repeat of many visits. Visitors travelled from all over the world to Medjugorje for this anniversary, a reported 40,000 people.
During our stay we lived with a local family and shared the home with sixteen other Australians. Our sleeping quarters were sparse but comfortable and our communal dining table always alive with laughter which was shared by our host family as they attended to our needs. None of us spoke Croatian, nor they English, yet we communicated. Indeed became what I hope will be life long friends.
Our house was one of several clustered together. Other Australians from the same Pilgrimage stayed in the other houses and we were as one group, visiting, travelling and praying together. We had all been drawn to Medjugorje because of the messages from the Virgin Mary and despite the lack of comforts hated leaving. All have vowed to return again.
We were without water and electricity throughout most of our stay. The electricity was turned off daily until late evening so as to conserve power. Consequently the water was unable to be pumped during the day. We collected what we could in bottles at night and at the same time did emergency washing.
Our hosts provided us with breakfast and dinner in the evening and there were numerous cafes in which to have lunch. The thing I most missed during the day was being unable to order tea or coffee. Mineral water, cordial and alcohol, were all the cafes could supply because of the lack of power and water. But, as with everything, we adjusted and it did not take long for sliced devon and bread rolls for breakfast to be considered normal.
Though such a holy, mystical peace reigned in Medjugorje we were always aware of the destruction of war on our boundary. Sandra, one of our house hosts, had been forced to flee Mostar with her young daughter, Marijana, to take refuge in her sister's home, because her own had been burnt down. She had not seen her husband for a long time. He was still in Mostar. Her daughter, a beautiful child about thirteen years old, cared for the younger children in the house with patience and gentleness. Still, despite her sadness, Sandra never allowed it to overflow onto us their guests. As I write I can visualize clearly each member of the family and their friends who cared for us and helped make our stay so enjoyable. Their father, Jure Jerkovic, and his son-in-law Pavo (Paul) Cubela, who though obviously worried about the progress of war and who were called away daily, always made themselves available for us if needed. Always greeted us with a smile. Jure had a wonderful sense of humour.
We knew war was raging close by because soldiers in battle gear came into town on leave. Refugees walked for miles and we were aware that at times they were given food and a bed at the house. They gathered in the church grounds and slept in the shade of the trees. When we travelled by tour bus we were stopped at various points and the driver questioned. On the day before we left the war in Mostar had worsened and the whole shopping area closed. Apart from the church it was as though the place had been deserted.
Yet, despite all this Medjugorje is beautiful. Surrounded by hills the land lies flat and green. The mild Mediterranean climate, burning Herzegovinian sun, fertile red soil and deep sandy ground, as described by writer Viktor Nuic, are ideal for growing grapes, tobacco and fruit. Grape vines and rows of potatoes line the walk through the fields. The buildings are a mixture of new and very old. Many homes have been converted to take the influx of pilgrims. Some, pretty with hanging baskets of geraniums are a sudden unexpected delight after a long walk on a dusty and at times stony path. Others are very old and shared by barn yard animals so that on a hot day the stench is overpowering. Many buildings stand deserted and unfinished. War obviously having stolen a dream
The house, where we stayed for ten days, stands on the outskirts of the township of Medjugorje and its Parish Church St. James. It could be described as standing in the midst of the Parish of Medjugorje and the village of Bijakovici, which nestles into a hill known as Crnica. The hamlet of Podbrdo, is situated on the very edge of the Medjugorje-Bijakovici central plain and a narrow road running through the village leads to what is now usually called Apparition Hill, as this is where the Virgin Mary first appeared to the children. It is about a ten-minute walk in one direction to St. James Church and twenty minutes in another to the hamlet of Podbrdo and Apparition Hill. Because of the long daylight hours and heat of the days most walks and climbing of the hills are done either in the early morning or late afternoon. Walking to Apparition Hill in the early morning, about 5 or 6am, was on occasion like walking back into time. It is impossible to find accurate words for the feeling of peace one experienced. Walking across the fields it was usual to pass elderly men and women walking in pairs or alone, quietly saying the rosary. Hay stacks abrupt rudely from between grapevines. A woman dressed in black, from her head covering to the edge of her long skirt, passes down the hilly street which runs between the shops and houses of the hamlet, a pair of rosary beads in one hand and leading a cow with the other. Her face is heavily lined, but she looks up and smiles and greets us good morning in Croatian. I would like to have taken a photo but somehow it seemed like an intrusion, so I let the opportunity pass.
As one commences the rocky climb up 'Apparition Hill' or the smaller hill known as the 'Blue Cross' 'Hill of the First Apparition', locals are already coming down. It is a daily routine for many before they commence work and is repeated again in the evenings. It is surprising the number of young people one meets; especially young men and women who often choose to climb the rocks in bare feet, stopping to pray at each Mystery of the Rosary or, if it be Krizevac (The Hill of the Cross), the Stations of The Cross. More about Krizevac later as it a separate story to the Hill of Apparitions. These young people also carry their disabled friends on hand-made stretchers, up over the rugged rocks so many of us finds so hard to climb. In fact some pilgrims to Medjugorje wisely decide against climbing the hills and it is not necessary to do so to feel part of the Apparitions.
At night the hills are dotted with torchlight; and on the night of the anniversary, viewed from the distance, appeared like a giant rosary around the plateau. Another evening, when it had been announced that Our Lady would appear to the visionaries at the Blue Cross Hill, I was pleased with myself for having climbed the hill by torch light. However, a lady who struggled to stand near me on crutches soon humbled me. She had left her wheel chair at the foot of the hill.
Most who go to Medjugorje have heard about the unusual phenomena witnessed by many pilgrims and my husband and I were no exception. Many, like myself, have had the chains on their rosary beads turn to a gold, in colour, during talks on Medjugorje before ever leaving their homeland. By the same token few look for or expect to see these signs themselves. Once there it doesn't seem necessary to experience any special signs and I had forgotten about the sun. Therefore to have had the privilege to witness this wonderful spectacle was exciting. Something my husband and I will never forget.
It was by chance that we were both at the cottage at 6-15pm that evening. My husband had hurt his leg badly in a fall on Apparition Hill and so was housebound. I was feeling a little tired from day activities so decided to stay at the house rather than attend the usual services at the Church. It was my husband who saw the sun first. He was sitting on the verandah enjoying the view which extended over the plains to Krizevac Hill and the cross, which stands, as described by American journalist Wayne Weible, like 'the gentle guardian of the village'. I was in the house with Sandra, one of our hosts mentioned previously. Because of the friendship we had formed I had given her two books I had written and was signing them for her when Erle called for us to come quickly. Engrossed as we were we didn't respond to his immediate call but as it became more urgent we rushed out. Therefore, I was rather taken back when arriving on the verandah all he wanted was for me to look at the sun. 'Look at the sun ', he said. I told him I couldn't look at the sun, as the glare would hurt my eyes. But he persisted. So shading my eyes with my hand, and squinting in preparation for the glare, I looked up through the space in the verandah stair well and towards the sun. The sight was amazing and I no longer found it necessary to shade my eyes. To say that the sun was throwing off the colours of the rainbow would be an understatement. It was a glowing, radiant spectrum, though orange from memory was prominent. And it pulsed. Back and forth it moved in the sky. Reaching towards earth and back again it moved like a giant blazing concertina. Then, as one was savouring and exclaiming this wonderful sight, it stopped and spun within itself at a tremendous speed. The centre a great spinning wheel. When this stopped and was still for a moment, the centre, or host as some have called it, turned (to my eyes) a dark bottle green, before beginning to pulse and spin all over again in a blaze of colour. All of this continued for about twenty minutes. It was quite clear to my husband, myself, Sandra, and the children who came to watch. Though as Sandra is a local it was not a new experience for her and possibly why she averted my husband's attention as the following was taking place.
A mist began to form from the outer ridges of the sun and formed a cross. What happened next I saw only and it was so fleeting hesitate to mention it in case it was my imagination. The figure of Christ on the cross appeared. I called for them to look but it was too late. The children were still there, but they couldn't speak English and quickly moved away. I don't know what they saw. Apparently others from nearby cottages also witnessed the sun that evening.
Many no doubt will ask and wonder 'What's the purpose? What does it prove?' It is considered in Medjugorje to be a sign from our Blessed Mother, the Virgin Mary, that she is with us. Obviously she is not going to appear to all pilgrims and most are contented that she still appears daily to four of the visionaries. One of these apparitions, to Ivan, occurs each night at 6-40pm in the choir loft at the church during evening devotions. It is possible to be present and my husband and I had that privilege. Our Lady's constant message is that the world converts to God for only then will the world find peace. Her messages have been listed under the headings of Peace, Conversion, Prayer, Fasting and Faith.
People from many denominations go to Medjugorje. As do atheists and agnostics. Some looking to find the truth and others to destroy it. Many go for a healing of either mind or body. During a meeting with Ivan, where a large crowd had gathered, he was asked by one of the people what the Blessed Virgin had to say about the different religions. He replied that she had said, 'There is only one God, one faith. Let the people believe firmly and do not fear anything. In God there are no religions, there are no divisions, but you men have made divisions.'
The young people have been given a glimpse of Heaven, Purgatory and Hell. Vicka is willing to describe them and did so at one of our meetings. All the young people describe Our Lady as she is appearing now in the same way. They say, ' She wears a grey dress and white veil with a crown of stars.' Ivan says, 'Her feet don't touch the ground', and Vicka describes her as floating. 'She has black hair, blue eyes and rosy cheeks. On special Feast Days she wears a gold dress. She has appeared with the baby Jesus in her arms and once with Christ as a grown man.'
Medjugorje is an experience one wishes to share with the world. It is a promise of peace and love. Its people though surrounded by and torn apart by war never lose faith. Once experienced it beckons one back from all corners of the world, time and time again. Here true ecumenism is at work. It is a place of hope.
To sum up in the words of Dominique Peyramale, Lourdes 1858.
'For those who believe no explanation is necessary.
For those who do not believe, no explanation is possible.'
Message from Our Lady 25th June 1993. Given to Marija.
Today I also rejoice at your presence here. I bless you with my motherly blessing and intercede for each one of you before God. I call you anew to live my messages and to put them into life and practice.
I am with you and bless all of you day by day. Dear children, these are special times and therefore I am with you to love and protect you. To protect your hearts from Satan and to bring you all closer to the heart of my Son, Jesus.
Thank you for responding to my call.'
She is here to teach this awareness
Of the presence of God within each person on earth
Though each is given the choice
Of receiving or rejecting God.’
‘All are born with a knowledge of God
Each has his own way to pray
And Mary’s messages are for everyone.’