I was first in Medjugorje in the days between Christmas 2001 and the Feast of the Epiphany 2002. It was very cold and the snow was deep and packed tight on the roads and pathways. Despite the fact that several people have expressed doubt about much snow in the village of Medjugorje whatever about the surrounding hilltops, I actually have a very vivid memory of that trip. Whilst the cold was severe I remember well it’s Christmas-card beauty. My experience then was good. I had been invited by my close friend John, now Fr. John. We had just begun our seminary journey and I remember some very good experiences of prayer, both communal and private. I climbed Mt. Krisevic with some difficulty, and considerable help from John and others. Perhaps the most significant thing that happened was during a meeting with Fra Jozo Zovko, who incidentally continues to pay a huge price for his time in Medjugorje, and comments he made to me that confirmed my call to Priesthood. I came home feeling Medjugorje was a place of great prayer. I felt I may well return there some day but there was no great sense of urgency about this.
I could never have known that it would be all of sixteen years before I would return to this world famous little village, now quite a bustling vibrant town. I am just back from a week there. It was a good week. It was a week when I received a lot. However before I address that I must give some idea as to why it took so long for the return visit. In 2003-4 I had the privilege of holding the position of President of the John Paul II Theological Society. This society was founded on foot of a request from the Pontiff during his Irish visit, with the purpose of promoting lively theological debate. Now at this time there were two Croatian seminarians studying with us in Maynooth, Ivica and Mile. One of them in particular was a friend of mine and both of them made a very positive contribution to seminary life. They are now working as priests. At that time they informed me that their Bishop would be visiting them in St. Patrick’s Maynooth and suggested that I might invite him to speak to the JP II society. I was delighted to do this. The Bishop’s name was Ratko Peric, and he remains the Bishop of Mostar to this day. It is in Bishop Peric’s diocese that Medjugorje is situated. To say that Dr. Peric is sceptical about the Marian Apparitions in Medjugorje is in the realm of serious understatement. The night he spoke to us in the seminary was a very divisive night indeed. For over an hour he questioned the ongoing volume of Apparitions, the fact that a visionary when somewhere else in the world received the Apparition, and finally he challenged us would Our Lady be associated with ‘disobedient’ priests. The latter of these being an oblique reference to the then simmering and indeed souring relations between the Franciscans and the diocese. We were bitterly divided as a group of students for the priesthood: some believing Ratko Peric to be a villainous heretic, whilst others, including myself accepting both his bona fides and his direction on the happenings in Medjugorje. The division ran deep for years. I did not understand then that some of the lads credited Our Lady of Medjugorje with their vocations. Matters were not helped when I encountered a militant harshness in some of them, though not all. No doubt they encountered much that was distasteful in me. So really not only had I no plan to return to Medjugorje if I am honest I actually had a hardening plan never to return.
Enter stage left Sylvia. Sylvia and Jimmy are two much valued parishioners of St. Matthew’s, in fact Jimmy is one of our excellent sacristan team, and they have been inviting me, as long as I am in this parish, which is five years, to come to Medjugorje. I always had some excuse for saying no, that is right up to a few weeks ago, when their efforts combined with the Holy Spirit and Our Lady finally evoked from me, a somewhat sluggish agreement to go. I am in fact delighted I went. At this point I have not had time to reflect or pray properly regarding what I received during this pilgrimage, however I can already identify these seven gifts:
a great sense of community, of togetherness, of fellowship, united in faith
there was a deep peace that we were able to regularly tap into
general conversation there had much more meaning, faith and sense of other
the stream of prayer and prayerfulness was unmistakable
there was a repeated and gentle affirmation of Priesthood
the centrality of the Sacrament of Reconciliation
a clear Gospel dimension to the hospitality shown by our hosts Cathy and Luca
All these beautiful gifts made for a very memorable week….And was there anything supernatural about the week I hear you ask? …There was, the supernatural was everywhere. To deny the supernatural is to deny our faith. To deny the supernatural is to deny the Trinity and the Eucharist and the Resurrection…. Anything else? Yes, whilst up at Fra Slavko Barbaric’s grave it was like he stepped in close to me and whispered, ‘Come closer Joe, look and see, listen and hear, be open and believe’.