Pilgrims stand near a large cross atop Mount Krizevak overlooking the village of Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, in this 1988 photo. (Jack Wintz/St. Anthony Messenger via CNS)
MARYLHURST — In the spring of 1988, I took my 16-year-old son, Joe, who was born with serious blood problems, to Medjugorje to place him before our Blessed Virgin. We joined his Marist High School pilgrimage group for a week at the site.
The village of 400 suddenly welcomed 25,000 additional souls for the anniversary of Mary’s initial apparition in 1981. They came for healings, restorations, conversions, clarity and/or mercy. What Mary offered was a little different: fasting and persistence in prayer, and purifying confessions, and finally increased faith, for the possibility of God’s healing peace.
Most of the pilgrims slept in the courtyard of the Saint-Jacques church, with its large crucifix. As I passed, I kissed Christ’s feet and continued to the confessionals lining the side of this large, new church. After the confession, I went to a gift shop a few yards away to look at the usual candles and plastic items for sale.
Online, I checked my time; seven minutes until Our Lady appears in the choir of the church. I was amazed that the locals had timed it so well, or that it came at the request of the seers who were waiting. The line stopped moving and I nervously watched the minutes pass.
Finally, I walked to the front of the line to see what was going on. It was an elderly woman dressed in black with a pile of books and souvenirs she hoped to buy. Perhaps she had children and grandchildren who did not believe and they needed to be helped to return to our ancestral beliefs. The exasperated employee said, “She has no money.” My eyes widened in surprise. “Well, how much would it cost in the United States?” The Virgin was waiting for us. I quickly deposited $72. Mumbles of surprise rose from the line as I returned to my seat. We all got into the church on time.
My son had been in bed for three days when I grabbed the sleeve of a priest confessor. “Please, my son is very sick.”
“Well, did you do what is prescribed? Did you even confess your sins?
“Yes, yes, I did…” I let go of his sleeve. Biblical images flooded my mind.
There was a huge procession up Mount Podgora. All people have been grouped by country. The Italians were everywhere, leading the chant. The Germans were marching precisely in a straight line. Americans
tried to squeeze into the smallest spaces. I hoped and prayed.
The next day, I came across an elderly woman sitting at a card table among knitted woolen sweaters. Seated to his right was a slender young woman with dark hair. I tried not to stare at her, because I knew this young woman and her story. She was a pickpocket. But she lacked skill and kept getting arrested. I had read from her.
The judge had been angry to see her again. But instead of jail, he put her in a program that paired convicts with infirm people as live-in caregivers. The young thief had been condemned to take care of the old knitter, and judging by the disdainful expression on her face, the young woman did not like her pain.
I fiddled with one of the sweaters, studying the seams and buttonholes. I decided to buy four, one for me and one for each of my sisters.
Surprise and wonder crossed the face of the young woman. She leaned forward and paid attention when the old woman took my money, $10 a sweater. I could see the young woman’s spirit at work: there could be money in this knitting business.
Maybe the pickpocket had a glimmer of hope for a totally different future. I have no doubt that the old woman could have taught him how to card and spin the wool of the sheep I saw in the streets of Medjugorje. I was willing to bet that the eldest could also treat the younger with kindness, instilling Catholic values.
I took my sweaters and went back to our rental. There was Joe, playing hoop with the teenage son of the house. I was overjoyed; Joe was up and active. It was a real sign of hope and all the scenes of prayer, commerce and redemption that I had witnessed seemed to make sense in a unified way.
We who study the phenomena of Marian apparitions learn that there is often a reason for her coming; she has an urgent message. The year after we Marist families visited Medjugorje, a horrible war broke out in the former Yugoslavia. Thanks to God’s mercy, Medjugorje was spared.
In 1987, Mary appeared in Ukraine. Two years later, Ukrainians broke free from 80 years of Soviet domination. Now Russian troops have invaded to impose the Russian will on the Ukrainian people again.
And still in Medjugorje, Mary warns against punishment. It encourages vigilance, prayer, sacrifices and good works. It directs us to Jesus, because through him we find security and true happiness.
Maybe all the stories will converge and point to joy and healing again in the end.
Sumich is a Catholic who lives in Mary’s Woods.
Editor’s note: The writer’s son, 30 years later, is a graduate of the University of Portland and regularly works in the computer security field.
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