As we have celebrated the 35th Anniversary of Our Lady’s Apparitions, I think fondly back to my first pilgrimage to Medugorje. It was for the 12th Anniversary in 1993. My parents gave the trip to me for my 1st anniversary of ordination. Both my mother and I went. I had my reservations because of the war. Before committing, I called a number of priests who had been and they all reassured me: “Trust, Our Lady will keep you safe. Thousands have gone and Our Lady has protected them.” So, we went.
I had wanted to go to Medugorje since I first hear about it in 1983. We flew from Providence to New York to join with a pilgrimage from Chicago. The fire was filled with excitement. Every airport we went through had hundreds of pilgrims heading to Medugorje. It was a true pilgrimage in the sense that nothing was easy. There were long lines and many flights had been over booked. We flew from Providence to New York, JFK to Zurich, to Zagreb, and finally to Split in Croatia. From Split, we had a three hour bus ride to Medugorje, arriving at our residence at 3:00 am. The bus trip was also difficult. We had at least two check points that we had to show our passports and depart from the bus. Military officers boarded the bus and asked questions. It was all a very unforgettable experience. From the time we left to the time we arrived was 36 hours of grueling travel.
I will never forget my first view of Medugorje. As we drove past the post office and took the right turn up the main street, with St. James Church ahead. Much was in darkness because of the war, but we saw that familiar sight of St. James, we were finally where we had all for so long desired to be.
In those days, everything was under restrictions because of the war. Water went down to a trickle, and electricity was rationed. Our rooms ware very warm and hospitable. The people we stayed with made us all part of their family. Kreso & Ivanka and their two sons, Oliver & Hivi have become very dear friends. Every room in their home was taken. Even Oliver & Hivi gave up their room to pilgrims. The food was always the freshest, home cooked meals.
From the first day, we went non-stop. Talks by all of the visionaries. At the time, we also had talks from the locutionists, and many of the priests. We climbed the Apparition Hill and Cross Mountain, spent many hours in St. James Church for Mass, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament and the long lines for Confession. There were side trips to Tihaljina to see the beautiful statue of Our Lady of Grace, often associated with Medugorje and to Siroki Brijeg for a talk and prayer with Fr. Jozo Zorko, the same place where the Communists martyred a group of Franciscans.
Although they were in the middle of a war, Medugorje was somehow untouched, protected by an invisible hand. The Muslims said they would leave Medugorje for desert. It was a place to experience in a tangible way the presence of God and Our Lady. Some of the most moving experiences were the times I spent in the confessions and the rosaries prayed on the Apparition Hill and Cross mountain before special apparitions. Thousands of people gathered in prayer from hundreds of countries. The rosary prayed in multiple languages, but a great harmony and unity that spoke to the heart. The Masses were so large that the inside and outside was packed tight, something that would not be tolerated by the fire marshals in the US. Every seat in the church, ever space in the aisles and the altar steps were filled with people. The Mass and rosary from the church could be heard broadcast over the speakers throughout most of the village. And the long walks through the fields. It was all like being taken out of this world for ten days to live in a world that had been transformed by God’s grace. We felt like we were in a Catholic world, where all knew and loved Christ and desired to live and love the Sacraments.
Since that first pilgrimage, I have had the grace of returning another 10 or 12 times, although I have lost track. But, each visit to the little village has been a time of spiritual renewal that I am grateful. I pray that some day, when the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart of Mary arrives, we will experience the same zeal and love for Our Lord and His Church in Catholic parishes throughout the world.