I finally manage to get to Medjugorje during the first weekend of July in 2015. I am in Vienna for two weeks and I fly to Medjugorje for the weekend because Medjugorje is a mere two-and-a-half hour plane journey from Vienna. I have prayed for the privilege of going to Medjugorje for twenty years – since 1995 – and finally Mother Mary brings me there.
I land at Dubrovnik airport after ten o’clock on Friday night. I am finally one of those people who is greeted at the airport with a sign bearing my name: Angela Mary Griffin. The young Serbian driver chauffeurs me two and half hours from Dubrovnik airport to my hotel in Medjugorje. We cross three checkpoints along the way making it necessary for me and my driver, Filipe, to produce our passports at each one. Filipe is twenty, he tells me, and already married with a child. Apart from answering a series of closed questions with yes or no responses, he says very little to me.
“Do you live in Medjugorje?”
“Do you believe in the apparitions?”
“Do Serbs and Bosnians get along together now?”
I decide that I am annoying him and opt to remain mute in the backseat.
“My English…so sorry…not good,” he explains.
“It’s fine,” I tell him.
I don’t want to chat anyway except perhaps to help to keep him awake on the curvaceous drive if he is feeling at all sleepy during our late night sojourn into the mountainous region of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I am relieved to sit in the silence of the vehicle as I take in the beauty of the picturesque towns Slano and Neum, lit up next to the Adriatic Sea, and as we make our way into Medjugorje.
I arrive after midnight to find that the front desk of the Grace Hotel is vacant and in darkness. A young man who closes the restaurant next door notices that I am unable to check into the hotel and comes to my rescue. He calls the desk clerk in her room and sleepily she comes to greet me and checks me in.
“I hold onto your passport until checkout on Sunday morning,” she informs me.
My room, located on the third floor, is pleasant. It is painted a sand colour and has a black mini-fridge next to the television. A white crucifix hangs on the wall that separates the bedroom from the toilet, which is cream in colour and accented with chocolate and black accessories. I immediately unpack my night things, have a shower and crawl into bed. Though the flight distance from Vienna is seemingly short, the actual journey to Medjugorje is long and not exactly straightforward. I had to take three trains from Vienna to get to the Vienna airport. I flew from Vienna to Zagreb where I changed planes before flying on to Dubrovnik. Then I had settled in for the two-and-a-half hour drive from the Dubrovnik airport to the village of Medjugorje.
I have only one day to explore Medjugorje though I am not sure that I would ever need any more time than that to explore a pilgrim shrine. I rise early on Saturday morning and go to breakfast in the hotel. The dining-room is swarming with Italians who all seem to be together. They talk in loud voices, shouting at one another across the dining-room. I see that things have not changed where Italian religious are concerned. They still have no consideration for others.
The day outside is bright and hot. The temperature is to climb into the high 30s in a few hours. I plan to do four things while I am in Medjugorje: 1. Climb Apparition Hill; 2. Attend Mass in English; 3. Go to confession; and 4. Attend the evening, candlelight prayer service. I hope to climb Apparition Hill in the cool of the morning but that will depend upon the times of the other events. If English Mass is early then I will go to that first and Apparition Hill will have to wait.
I cannot find a listing of events in the hotel so I stroll outside to see what I can discover about where and when things are held. As I stroll about the town, I notice the usual suspects present. There are the Italians (of course), and the Irish and Polish pilgrims souvenir shopping with a few Filipinos and Koreans mixed in. I decide that perhaps St. James’ church will have an English pamphlet regarding the events of the day. I walk immediately to the church, which is only two buildings up from my hotel. It is a sand, yellow and cream stucco building with clean lines and an impressive clock tower façade. I enter the church to discover that Mass is in session but it is not being said in English. I turn to exit the church looking briefly for some sort of schedule for English Mass and prayer services, but find none.
After I leave the church, I walk around the back of St. James’ church, past the line of multilingual presently vacant confessionals. A few pilgrims mull about the grounds and some sellers set up their kiosks down some stone steps to the side of the church. There is a huge outdoor palladium further behind the church. Some volunteers wearing bright blue canvas vests clean between the rows of benches set out for pilgrims before the outdoor altar. I stop a nun who is crossing the grounds and ask her if she speaks English.
“A little,” she totters her right hand to indicate a small amount.
“Would you tell me, please, when English Mass is being said, and where it will be held? Also, is there an evening prayer service and confession in English?”
“Yes. English mass is at ten o’clock this morning in the church.”
It is nine-thirty already. I’d be climbing Apparition Hill in the heat of the day.
“Confession is at six o’clock,” she continues. “In the confessionals behind us here.” She points to the confessionals. “There is an outdoor Mass at seven this evening here,” she gestures with her hands to where we are standing. “It is in Croatian but you can buy a radio and listen to it in English if you prefer. And there are candlelight prayers at ten o’clock here tonight as well.”
“Are the prayers in English?”
“No. All languages,” she says.
I thank her and continue to walk across the grounds where I discover a rosary walk. I snap some photos. An older, stout Italian woman dressed in a black dress stands rubbing small squares of white onion-skin papers on the bronze statue of Christ leaving His cross. She must have fifty of the small, white squares of trace paper in her hand and one-by-one she rubs each paper onto the bronze statue. I wait for her to finish, but when that proves fruitless, I shoot a picture of the top of the statue trying to exclude her from the frame. Italian statue maulers don’t seem to notice that a person is waiting to take a photo, or they don’t care. They continue to rub Jesus, kiss his plaster toes or stroke his wooden face oblivious to others wishing to view the statue or take a photograph of it. I never understand that sort of idol worship. I don’t object to religious images per se, but I don’t caress and cling to religious icons as though they house the spirit of Christ, or whatever saint the statue’s likeness is meant to represent. They are just representations for people who, without such three-dimensional visual artwork, might not be able to visualize the saint.
The priest who presides over the English Mass at ten o’clock is Irish. Likewise, the readers and singers all hail from Ireland, part of some tour group from the Emerald Isle. A young family consisting of a wife, husband and baby sit in the front pew and seem to belong to the Irish tour group as well. The attractive, young mother, dressed in a blue dress with a fringe, plays more with the blonde curls atop her baby’s head than she listens to the Mass. Her husband seems more pious than she. I wonder if she is a convert. If she is Irish, as I assume she is, she would have almost certainly been born a Catholic.
The English Mass is welcome but it is not a magical or particularly moving experience for me. I’m not certain what I expected to feel there, but whatever it was I don’t feel it. Medjugorje doesn’t possess the same spirit that Lourdes did for me. Something is missing.
After Mass I eat lunch at a local pizzeria. As soon as I select a table on the veranda, three other groups border me and each table lights up cigarettes and proceed to smoke. Fed up with the pervasive cigarette smoke in Europe, I think of moving to a table inside the empty restaurant. Two young women and a young man speak in very loud American voices about female genital mutilation, AIDS, white slavery and the Ebola virus. That seals it. I pick up my Coca-Cola and move to a table indoors. I feel nauseated at the cigarette smoke and the graphic Catholic chat peppered with a missionary zeal only someone age twenty who is just awakening to the vast injustices of the globe can muster. The pizza comes and it is huge. I decide that it will do for both lunch and dinner. I eat half of it and take the remaining half back to my hotel fridge for later. The food in Medjugorje is much cheaper than the food in Vienna. The meal costs just six euros.
I wander in and out of souvenir shops on my way to Apparition Hill. I quickly deduce that each shop contains the same souvenirs. They carry bracelets with religious icons on them. It is impossible to find anything small like that which does not have the face of Mary or Jesus on it. I speak unapologetic English in the shops and every shop clerk is capable of understanding me and responding to me in English. I see a Burberry bag that I really want to buy.
“How much?” I ask the girl.
“Fifty-five euros,” she says.
I am tempted to buy it but picture myself walking around Medjugorje, a place of spiritual retreat, with a Burberry bag that screams insecure, materialistic Catholic among you. Pray for her. I don’t buy the bag.
As I feared, it is the hottest time of the day as I leave the main strip and carry on to Apparition Hill. I carry my umbrella to provide me with some semblance of shade in the unrelenting sun. I stop a few times to ask locals if I am headed in the correct direction to climb Apparition Hill and am assured by three different locals that indeed I am. I ask once more as the road of the village diverges and the sign that reads Apparition Hill is not pointing clearly in one direction or the other. It might be either way. I stop a couple and ask the woman if I am headed in the correct direction if I kept on the way I am traveling and she says that I am.
The hill is a steep assent. The terrain is rocky and there is little shade as I climb the hill. I stop each time I come to a huge rock nestled beneath a shady spot on the hill to sip some water. I notice that my water is getting low and rebuke myself for not buying a fresh, big bottle before I began my ascent. I hope that there is a fountain or a water seller at the top of the hill.
I finally reach the top of Podbrdo Hill to see pilgrims gathered around the statue of the Virgin Mary marking the spot where the apparitions take place. I try to take a photograph of the statue but it is impossible to get a clear shot with the pilgrims gathered around. I walk to the left and sit in some shade a good long while. I sip some water. I want to down the rest of the bottle but there is no fountain or water seller there. If there were a water seller at the site of the apparitions, he’d make a small fortune. A poorly dressed man who sports a long, unkempt beard is walking about the area picking up the discarded trash of pilgrims. Periodically, he leans against the cross with Christ on it, and prays before continuing on and picking up more garbage. I look down next to the rock upon which I sit and notice that there are poems, pictures and letters to the Blessed Virgin. The photos are of young lovers. People leave these romantic remembrances stuffed between the rocks on Apparition Hill as a plea to Mary, their Mother. Are these young lovers asking Mary to bless their unions? I suppose it is so, and wonder if I’ll ever find love again myself.
The descent is even more treacherous than the uphill climb. I am disappointed because I had relished the climb down during the ascent only to discover that I can barely walk between the rocks. As I feel sorry for myself within the privacy of my own head, I see a Down’s syndrome boy climb the hill with his parents and chastise myself for feeling that the climb is too rigorous for me. I imagine that the hills Jesus walked in Israel looked just like this hill and wonder how he managed in His ancient sandals when I can barely manage in my more modern open footwear. I stumble at one point and catch my right foot between two sizable rocks. I yelp a little as I fear that I am in danger of twisting or breaking my ankle, but my foot falls free before there is any damage.
“I’m okay,” I say to a worried-looking man next to me.
“I hope so,” he smiles. His accent is Polish.
He introduces himself to me and to his daughter who looks to be about fourteen. He says they are Polish and I say that I had thought as much when I heard them speaking.
“Where are you from?”
“Canada,” I say, keeping my eyes on the footpath.
“Oh. I have many friends who immigrated there,” he says jubilantly. “I like Canada.”
We chat about various places we have been in our lives. He tells me that he is a tour director for religious pilgrimages in Europe. “I have been to Lourdes many times,” he says.
“I have been only once,” I tell him.
When I reach the bottom of the hill, I wander into more of the shops seeking water. A shop keeper cannot break a twenty Euro bill, and gives me the one-litre bottle of water for free. The souvenirs there are more reasonably priced and not as gaudy as the other souvenirs in town. I see a simple braided bracelet with a small religious icon on it.
“Do you have any bracelets without a religious image on them?” I ask the proprietress. “I want to bring something back for people who are not Catholic.”
“I make you some. How many you needed?” she asks me.
“Well it depends what you will charge me for each one,” I say.
“I will charge you fifty cents for each bracelet.”
We broker the deal and she offers to bring them to my hotel after she is finished work at nine o’clock.
“That will be perfect. I want to go to the prayer service at ten,” I tell her. I offer to pay her up front but she refuses.
“I do the work and then you pay me,” she says.
Her name is Svetlana, she tells me, and I give Svetlana directions to my hotel, the name of the hotel, and my name before leaving her shop.
The walk back to my hotel is not as long or arduous as the walk to the hill had been. It is always that way for me. The walk back from a place is always faster than the walk to a place. I suppose it is because one knows how long the walk back will be. I stay under my umbrella seeking refuge from the relentless sun, stopping periodically to snap pictures of the various Mary statues about the village. Mary is everywhere. She is nestled in gardens, in front of pubs and restaurants, and before fountains.
I attempt to go to confession before Mass but the line for English-speaking pilgrims is simply too long. I go to the outdoor altar for Mass at seven o’clock and find a bench beneath a shady tree at the back of the outdoor altar. I sit there. People are saying the rosary in Croatian. I don’t have my rosary with me but I bought a rosary bracelet in Medjugorje and I let my fingers run the length of the bracelet’s ten beads and say my prayers in English as those around me say their prayers in their own native languages. Two pregnant teenage girls dressed in cut-off denim shorts and revealing t-shirts try to sit on a bench four rows ahead of where I am seated but a security guard who seems to know them as vagrants chases them away. I don’t feel this is right. Mary was technically an unwed, teenage mother and we are there worshipping the life that she brought into the world for all mankind.
Several elderly pilgrims sit next to me and they spend the entire time talking in a language that I do not recognize, as they try to locate the correct translation channel on their rented radios. Three decades into the rosary, I come to feel annoyed at their chatter and move away to occupy another single bench two aisles over. I pray that no one will come and sit with me there. As Mass begins, a family sits in front of me consisting of a mother, father and three daughters. The girls, each dressed in a similar red and blue sundress, are all beautiful. Each has long hair in various shades of blonde and brunette. The youngest is the loveliest. She has blonde hair that hangs to her waist and green, catlike eyes. The middle child sits next to her father and climbs all over him. I note that she has two prominent moles on her bare shoulders that when she grows to be a young woman will be considered seductive and drive her admirers wild. Of the three, this middle daughter needs attention from her father in a way the other two do not seem to. She acts out from time to time and her father has to remind her of appropriate behavior in Mass. She is about age eleven. Her older sister appears to be thirteen and the youngest appears to be eight or nine. The oldest daughter tucks into her mother’s side and clings to her. She looks about her on occasion, and I see that she has a sloped eyelid compared to her wide-eyed sisters. She isn’t as lovely. Still, each is beautiful and likely will marry and have families of their own in the future.
After Mass I try again to go to confession. A woman stands in line at the English confessional and I scoot in behind her. Her husband, a man in his late thirties or early forties, is in a wheelchair next to her in line. As she and I begin to chat, I realize that she is Irish.
“This is my third time trying to get to confession here,” she tells me. “We leave early tomorrow morning.”
“I do too,” I say. “What time do you leave?”
“Six,” she says.
“I leave at three.”
“Dear God,” she says.
“I have to leave Medjugorje at three in the morning to make it in time to Dubrovnik airport for my seven o’clock morning flight. I have to be at the airport by five-thirty at the latest.”
Time ticks on. We have been waiting for over thirty minutes. I am checking my watch to make sure that I am back at my hotel before Svetlana comes with the bracelets. I don’t want her coming to not find me there. I want to pay her for her work. The people here are materially poor if spiritually rich.
“Are you certain that someone is actually in the confessional?” I ask the Irish girl.
“I saw him go in,” she tells me. “And the light is on.”
“Good God,” I say. “What could anyone possibly have to confess for this length of time?” I ask her.
She laughs and shakes her head that she doesn’t know.
“I’ll be in an out. Not that I am perfect or a saint or anything, but honestly, I’ll be in and out,” I tell her.
A man finally emerges from the confessional and the priest exits with him. The reverend informs us that he is closing down for the day. He tells us to try again in one hour when a replacement will be open for the hearing of sins business.
“That’s me then,” the Irish girl says. “I’ll not get to confession here.” She walks away to rejoin her husband who sits by a pillar across the grounds.
I walk away disappointed and as I do so, I notice that a priest is sitting alone in another confessional marked English. I chap the door.
“Father?” He puts down a book that he has been reading. He looks annoyed that I have disturbed him. “I am sorry to disturb you but are you hearing confessions?” He rolls his eyes and says he is. “May I just run and get this girl who has been trying to come to confession all day? She leaves at six tomorrow morning.”
“Just come in,” he says.
I try shouting to the girl but she is far from me and I don’t know her name.
“I will have to run and get her, Father. I see her leaving.”
“Do what you must,” he sighs waving me out. “I will wait for you.”
I run to the Irish girl and tell her that I have found a priest who is hearing confessions in English.
“You go in,” I tell her. “I’ll go in after you.” I want to add as a bit of a jest, “Only don’t be too long, will you?” but decide not to.
She is a beautiful, young wife who stays with her husband though he is in a wheelchair. Life cannot be easy for her. She deserves to take all the time that is needed for her to unburden her Catholic conscience. Such a good person won’t have much to confess, I reason. If she does happen to take a long time, I will leave to meet Svetlana, and I won’t get to confession there. For me it isn’t the end of the world if I don’t get to confession in Medjugorje. I believe God forgives me of my sins when I confess them directly to Him. I don’t feel that there is a need for a mediator when it comes to confessing sins. The priest is there to offer comfort to the confessor, but God hears and absolves our sins outside the confines of that box. If I cannot go to confession in Medjugorje then that would be wonderful but if not, I know that my sins are already forgiven.
The Irish girl goes to confession and is a reasonable amount of time. When I follow her in she thanks me profusely for coming for her and we wish one another a good journey home. I kneel in front of the priest and make the sign of the cross.
“You are angel. You were sent here today to help that lady and you very unselfishly let her go to confession in front of you. You are God’s messenger. You are his instrument,” the priest tells me. I smile at him and offer up my confession. Afterwards he tells me again how wonderful he thinks I am. “I want to give you a special blessing today,” he says. He stands, walks towards me, and puts his hands over my head. “God. Let your light shine upon your daughter, this woman of great faith. Give her your peace, your serenity and your love. Let her know that you love her as your beloved daughter. You brought her here today to use her. She is your instrument. Holy Spirit come and fill your daughter with peace, peace, peace and joy.”
“Thank you Father,” I say. I feel a little choked up but also embarrassed at his accolades.
Before I depart from the confessional, I turn to him and say, “You know Father, my name is Angela Mary. You said that I am an angel and I want you to know that my name is Angela Mary.” I feel silly the moment that I say the words. I sound full of myself.
“How wonderful!” he smiles at me. “God bless you, Angela Mary!”
“God bless you, Father.”
I leave to return to my hotel. Svetlana shows up about twenty minutes later and I pay her for the bracelets. Though I had asked that plain beads be put on them, they are just twisted braids of rope. I cannot refuse to pay her for them. I pretend to be delighted with them and pay her more than we had agreed upon to thank her for her time and for coming to the hotel. It doesn’t matter. She needs that money more than I. Of that much, I am certain. I want to take delight in her work and I do.
Svetlana and I walk out together and she tells me that I have to come back to Medjugorje one day.
“It took me twenty years to get here this time,” I say.
“Why so long?”
“Expense,” I say. “I could never afford to come.”
“Well, you must come back,” she says.
I nod my head, but I don’t think that I will come back. I have been. That is enough.
I attend the evening prayer service. It is the highlight for me just as evening prayer had been one of the highlights for me in Lourdes. People sit on the thousands of benches set before the outdoor altar. The balmy night is made more comfortable by a soft, welcome breeze. It feels so good to be cooled by the night air after a day of punishing sun. Prayers are offered in every language. An attractive couple sits in front of me. The husband dotes on his lovely wife. She has a youthful look despite a few wrinkles about her eyes and mouth. Her chestnut hair is pulled softly back from her freshly scrubbed, freckled face into a bouncy ponytail. She leaves her husband from time to time to gently walk toward the front and take a picture of the priests on the altar. She wears a full, denim skirt that comes to her knees. She is not skinny but nor is she fat. She carries herself well and dresses in a modest, flattering fashion. She looks like a lovely, humble, Catholic woman, at peace and content with her life choices. It is a thing that I have never felt within my own heart though I long to feel that sort of contentment in life. Her husband looks upon her lovingly as she returns to her seat. He delights in her.
A blonde woman dressed in white capris kneels on one of the rubber mats one can purchase in Medjugorje. She rests her forehead on the tarmac for the duration of the prayer service. Her husband sits behind her with another attractive couple. Each couple appears to be in their fifties. Both women are blonde, tanned, slim and dripping with gold. The men wear neat golf shirts and crisply pressed casual trousers. They look like wealthy Americans but because of the pious way in which they pray, I deduce that they are wealthy Italians instead.
I barely sleep that night. I am not certain that Felipe will show. There was a mix-up about payment and the owner had emailed me earlier to tell me that he expected me to give Felipe cash for my ride. It would be two-hundred-fifty Euros and I don’t have that cash with me. I had assumed that the charge for my airport transport would go onto my credit card, which I had already given the owner via an online order for the airport transport. The owner continues to insist upon cash, and I wonder what will happen if I cannot get the cash. Will I be left without a lift to the airport at three in the morning? I pray to Mary and ask that she get me back to the airport. I walk downstairs at about two in the morning with the intention of asking a taxi driver how much he would charge to take me to the airport and if he would accept a credit card, but there aren’t taxis to be seen in front of the hotel at that time. I feel a moment of panic but trust that all will work out. I know Mary brought me here and she will get me back to Vienna. Everything worked out to get me here and all would will out to get me home.
Felipe shows up at three as planned, and he drives me to an ATM where I have to withdraw 500 KMS. It feels shady, and I hope that I will not be robbed and left for dead.
Felipe is chattier this time though not overly so. We talk about his young family and his future prospects at home. His two sisters have moved to England already, he tells me. He is the only child of his parents to remain in Mostar, where he was born and where he and his family, including his parents, live.
“You should come to Canada,” I tell him.
“It take a long time,” he says.
“Start working on it,” I tell him. “You’re only twenty. Start the process now.”
I know that he loves his country. Whenever I tell him how beautiful it is there he says simply, ‘yes’ in his deep, amatory Eastern European accent. It is hard to leave one’s country.
“Do you believe in the apparitions, Felipe?”
He hesitates for a moment and then says, “Yes. I do. I am Catholic. I believe. Yes.”
I sit in the backseat of the car and ask myself the same question. Do I believe in the visitations? Yes. I believe that six visionaries saw Mary. Do I believe that she continues to come on the 25th of each month? No. I don’t think so but then again, I don’t know. In the end, does it matter? When I attend Mass at these shrines, I feel a sense of belonging that I never feel anywhere else. I feel hope and am able to surrender to something greater than myself. I also feel that though I love Mary and pray often for her to intercede on my behalf as she takes my prayers before her Son, I also feel that my adoration for and adulation of her must not overshadow my love for and devotion to Christ her Son, and my Lord and Saviour.