The pilgrims’ gatherings in Medjugorje
Fr. Leonard Orec, OFM, 1996
1. Prayer Areas
There are three main areas where the pilgrims gather in Medjugorje:
This is how the area of Podbrdo, above the village of Bijakovici is now referred to. This is where the visionaries claim to have first seen Our Lady. This happened at the end of June back in 1981. Since then pilgrims gather there to pray the rosary. By day and by night, groups can be seen making their way to the place of the first apparition. Up until 1989, there was nothing to be seen there except boulders and rustic crosses which some of the many visitors had left. Today, on the ascent, images in cast bronze, (work of the well-known Florentine artist Carmelo Puzzolo) recall the joyful sorrowful and glorious mysteries of the rosary.
Krizevac is the hill above Medjugorje. Here, in 1934, the people of the village of Medjugorje erected an eight-meter high concrete cross in commemoration of the 1900th anniversary of Jesus' death. In this place, both groups and individuals of the faithful pay homage in the way of the Cross, praying as they go from station to station. In the first years the stations were marked by wooden crosses. Since 1988, however, bronze images depicting the various stations have been placed at each cross, again the work of the Italian sculptor Carmelo Puzzolo. Cross Mountain (Krizevac) has become the "Calvary" of the shrine where pilgrims remember the passion of Christ.
The Parish Church
The Parish Church and surrounding area is the area where the Mass and sacramental life in general is celebrated. The old Parish Church, built at the end of the last century, was destroyed during an earth tremor. The new Church was completed in 1969. The church as well as the Parish is consecrated to St. James, (the older) apostle and patron of pilgrims. In 1991, twenty new confessionals were added and an outdoor altar was erected for larger gatherings (when weather permits). Within the Church grounds, there is also a building which houses "the adoration chapel" and seminar rooms for church purposes. There are also two large marquees (which can be joined together to make a larger one) at the disposal of the Parish for various purposes. Overall, the need for "sacral-premises" is ever on the increase.
2. The Schedule of Events
Basically, we can categorize the events as follows a) daily, b) weekly, and c) annual events.
- a) Daily gatherings. Mass in the different language groups are as follows:
- Croatian speaking 7.30 a.m. daily (Saturday also at 1 p.m.) 8 a.m. and 11 a.m. Sundays
- East European 8 a.m. daily 7 a.m. Sundays
- German speaking 9 a.m. daily 9 a.m. Sundays
- English speaking 10 a.m. daily 12 noon Sundays
- Italian speaking 11 a.m. daily 10 a.m. Sundays
- French speaking 12 noon daily 1 p.m. Sundays
The evening program of the Parish begins at 5 p.m. in wintertime (6 p.m. summertime). It commences with the joyful and sorrowful mysteries of the rosary as a preparation for the celebration of the Eucharist, which begins at 6 p.m. in wintertime (7 p.m. in Summertime) and continues afterwards with thanksgiving and the glorious mysteries until 8 p.m. in wintertime (9 p.m. in Summertime).
Masses in other languages can be arranged at other times in consultation with the Parish office.
- b. Weekly gatherings:
- Community reciting of the rosary on Sundays at 2 p.m. on Apparition Hill. (4 p.m. in summertime)
- Community procession of prayer up Krizevac (Way of the Cross) on Fridays at 2 p.m. (4 p.m. in summertime)
- Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 9 p.m. (10 p.m. in summertime)
- Eucharistic adoration, as thanksgiving after the Thursday evening mass.
- Adoration of the Cross, as thanksgiving after Friday evening mass.
- c. Annual gatherings:
- On the greater Marian feast-days such as the Annunciation, the Assumption, Immaculate Conception etc.
- On the greater church holidays such as Christmas, New Years, Easter, Pentecost... etc
- During the Marian months, of May and October, (pilgrim numbers increase)
- The greatest number of pilgrims come for the anniversary of the apparitions (June 25th) and for the Exaltation of the Cross (first Sunday after the Nativity of Our Lady (Sept).
Besides the above, there are also some events, which have become part of the customary annual gatherings. These are:
- The prayer vigil to see in the New Year (Dec 31st)
- The International Peace March from Humac to Medjugorje on June 24th
- The International Youth Festival from July 31st to August 6th
3. The Cultic Content of Community Prayer
At a glance, there's nothing unusual about what happens at Medjugorje. Everything is much the same as in other places of pilgrimage. a) Mass is celebrated, b) pilgrims participate in the sacrament of penance c) the rosary is prayed, d) the way of the cross is prayed and e) there is prayer for the sick. However, the way of celebrating is somehow different; the emphasis and effects of which are best seen in the frame of mind of the pilgrim. At Medjugorje, it's not the exterior course of the ritual, which differs, but the spirituality in which it is saturated.
a) The evening Eucharistic celebration is central to the daily gatherings of the pilgrims. Previous to this, the joyful and sorrowful mysteries of the rosary are prayed, and the glorious mysteries are prayed afterwards. Mass is celebrated in accordance with the liturgical calendar using the Roman missal. The gospel is read in the language of the groups who partake in the Mass. The sermon is usually based on the daily gospel and is conducted through the Croatian language, although sometimes a summary is given in one or two of the pre-dominant languages. Part of the Eucharistic prayer is prayed in Latin and Latin hymns are often sung. Holy communion is distributed according to the wish of the individual i.e. in the hand or on the tongue.
Immediately following the Mass, the Creed, seven Our Fathers, Hail Mary's and Glory Be's are prayed kneeling. This is followed by a blessing of religious objects. Afterwards there is prayer for the sick and the third part of the rosary. Apart from evening services, individual Masses for the different language groups are celebrated at the shrine with hymns and sermons in the respective languages.
As the years go by, the practice of individual, group and community worship of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament is becoming more sought after. Community adoration takes place every Thursday after the evening mass, and on Wednesdays and Saturdays there is a holy hour at 9 p.m. (10 p.m. in Summertime). There is also an "adoration chapel" at the shrine, in which pilgrims can pray in silence in front of the monstrance, which is exposed for that purpose every day from 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. (6 p.m. in Summertime).
c. With regards to the Sacrament of Penance, it seems that Medjugorje in recent times, has become well known the whole world over. People come from all over the world to reconcile in the sacrament of penance, with themselves, with God and with those around them. Here, a generous number of confessors are always on call ready to offer the necessary attention, to listen to their needs and to open up the treasury of God's mercy to the sinner. Medjugorje is actually referred to by many as the "world's confessional". The atmosphere alone of Medjugorje is often enough to aid visitors in the sacramental encounter, and to help them experience a conversion, and a real turning point in their lives as believers. Often group preparation for confession is useful, in the form of a penitential service or in some other way. But probably the best way is, in open discussion with a confessor.
d. The rosary is one of the most popular and loved devotions of the pilgrimage to Medjugorje. At the Parish evening services, the joyful, sorrowful and glorious mysteries are prayed with a short introductory meditation before each mystery. When possible, this is translated into other languages also. Often the prayer is interrupted by brief refrains in honour of Our Lord or The Blessed Mother. The rosary is also prayed as a form of pilgrim devotion on Apparition Hill on Sundays at 2 p.m. (or 4 p.m. in summertime). Besides this, the rosary is often prayed even going from station to station either in groups or singularly. At any time of the day or night, groups varying in number and race, can be seen fingering their beads around the Church or on the Hills praying either aloud or within their hearts.
e. The Way of the Cross is also one of the popular devotions of the pilgrim to Medjugorje. Anyone who is able-bodied enough climbs up the steep and rugged path of Krizevac pausing to observe the bronze image at each station. Those who cannot climb the Hill have the opportunity to meditate on the mysteries of Christ's passion by praying the Stations of the Cross in the Church. There the work of the Italian artist Peppino Sacchi depicts the scenes. Meditating on the Passion, the pilgrim keeps Jesus company and is encouraged to unite the sufferings of his/her own life, (or the sufferings of relatives and friends) with the cross of Jesus. Sometimes they have to offer up and pray for those who represent a cross for themselves personally or indeed for those for whom they are a cross. The Way of the Cross is prayed on Fridays at 2p.m. (4p.m. in Summertime) as a form of pilgrim devotion and also in the Parish Church on the Fridays and Sundays during Lent.
f. Prayer for the sick in Medjugorje is woven into the Evening services as a form of thanksgiving for the Eucharistic celebration. It is more often referred to as prayer for the healing of body and soul. Humanity, but more particularly the pilgrim, is searching for healing in many senses of the word. The Latin root of the word "salus" has the broader implication of both bodily health and salvation for the soul.
4. The Beginnings of Pilgrimages to Medjugorje
It all began at the end of June when six children began to insist that Our Lady was appearing to them. She introduced herself as the Queen of Peace, and was inviting the world to peace and reconciliation. "Peace, peace, peace between man and God, and among mankind." This not only succeeded in bringing Medjugorje to the attention of the whole world but it also marked the beginning of an extraordinary flow of graces, attracting millions of pilgrims from all corners of the earth, men women and children, rich and poor, the sick and the healthy, the unconverted and the purer ones, the sinners and the saints. The uninterrupted stream of pilgrims is ever increasing. Interest is ever deepening, reactions are ever intensifying, and are becoming ever more spiritual and ever more important (Rupcic: "Medjugorje in the History of Salvation" Duvno 1998, page 5).
In later apparitions of Our Lady, she repeatedly invited to conversion and to a change in our relationships, first with ourselves through fasting. This liberates us from all forms of addiction and eases a change in our relationship with others through forgiveness and reconciliation. This ultimately leads to the fulfilment of acts of love.
Even though the question of the supernatural origins of the apparitions is officially unresolved, we have to admit that the way that the Church-life is lived in Medjugorje is directly in response to Our Ladies messages. In her messages, Our Lady concretely asks us to partake in the Holy Mass, in such a way that it becomes the centre of our livesas individual Christians but also as a Christian community. It is the wish of the Blessed Mother that our "mass becomes an experience of God" (16th of May 1985) "I want to call you to a "living through" of the Holy Mass" (3rd of April 1986) "May Mass be your whole life" (25th of April 1988).
She also invites us to adore Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament of the altar: "Unceasingly adore Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament. I'm always present when the faithful are in adoration. It is then that special graces are given"(15th of March 1984). "Today I invite you to fall in love with Jesus in the Most Holy Sacrament of the altar. Adore Him, little children, in your parishes and in that way you will be one with the whole world... When you are in adoration you are close to me"(25th of September 1995).
On the eve of the feast of the Ascension 1984 Our Lady gave this message through the visionary Ivan Dragicevic: " I would like the world to pray increasingly for me in these days. To fast on Wednesdays and Fridays. To pray every day at least the rosary, joyful sorrowful and glorious mysteries" (S Barbaric "Pray with your hearts" Medjugorje 1994 page 41) "Pray the rosary every evening" (8th of October 1994) "I invite you to exhort everyone to pray the rosary! With the rosary, you will have the victory over every misfortune which Satan wants to inflict on the Catholic Church. Pray the rosary, all you priests! Give time to the rosary" (25th of June 1985) "Dear children! Today I call you like never before to prayer. Let your prayer be a prayer for peace.... If you want...accept the rosary! The rosary in itself is enough to work miracles in the world and in your lives" (25th of January 1991)
Our Lady also recommended prayer in front of the Cross (30th of August 1984). "Pray especially in front of the Cross, from which special graces are given"(12th of September 1985) "Meditate on Jesus' sufferings and unite your lives with Jesus"(25th of January 1986)
5. A Theological Analysis of the Cultic Gatherings
In Medjugorje, the Church congregates in the Holy Spirit as the people of God from all tribes and nations. Every evening celebration is experienced as one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church "where he who is in Rome feels at one with He who is in India (see Lumen Gentium 13.) There the pilgrim church, marches on between the persecution of the world and the consolation of God, proclaiming the cross and death of Our Lord until He comes again (Lumen Gentium 8).
The celebrating of the mysteries of salvation is at the centre of the cultic gatherings. All devotion flows in the direction of Eucharistic celebration, which is continued and prolonged in Eucharistic Adoration. By the sacrament of reconciliation, the individual enters personally into the mystery of reconciliation and the Church is increasingly free for glorifying in Spirit and in truth.
Mary, in Medjugorje appeared with the child in her arms offering Him to mankind as a gift. God's son is Mary's flesh and blood, and He took His human nature in her womb. "Mary nourished His tiny body with her own blood and kept him warm with the heat of her own virginal body. She was the first ciborium and the true tabernacle of our Eucharistic Jesus. She was the first altar and Jesus' first Church in the world". (T. Sagi - Bunic, Mother of the Most Holy Eucharist, "Cana" No. 6 1987, page 12) Mary is included in the Eucharistic celebrations in Medjugorje as the person who prepares and takes care of it. (I.e. rosary before and afterwards, from the Hill of apparitions, she leads the way to the "Via Dolorosa" (Cross mountain) and to the Church, leading the faithful to the sources and founts of Divine grace).
"The Eucharist is exactly what this new world is hinged on, and the source from which peace flows. How can we think about it without recalling her? How can we think about her without associating her with preparation for the Eucharistic banquet? : In it, we who participate become her children and "joint-heirs in Christ" (Romans 8:17). "That's why it's easy to comprehend why Our Lady constantly exhorts us to Eucharistic celebration." (Rupcic: "Medjugorje in the History of salvation" p. 113) Giving Mary her due respect as Mother of Our Lord, the pilgrims open themselves up to the graces of redemption, and receive them all the more, inserting themselves into the mystery of salvation. And this is how the Church grows in the Holy Spirit.
Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic encyclical "Tertio millennio adveniente", looks at the Second Vatican Council as a "providential event", centred on the mystery of Christ and His church while being open to the world (18) He emphasized in a special way that today's world is "more than ever before in need of cleansing, and in need of conversion." (18) According to the Pope the council "showed to the world of today with a new strength, Christ "the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the Redeemer of mankind, the Master of history" (19) The great wealth of it's contents and it's new way of expression was hitherto unknown. These contents, in a manner of speaking, were the herald of a new era. The members of the council spoke the language of the Gospel, the language of the Sermon on the Mount and the language of the Beatitudes" (20).
Many Bishops and theologians see the realization of the providential event of the council in Medjugorje, they see this new manner of speaking, and the heralding of this new era in its' message of evangelical simplicity.
6. Pastoral Evaluation
One of the more famous contemporary pastoral theologians, Prof. Paul M. Zulehner from Vienna, came to research the phenomenon of Medjugorje in the Summer of 1988 and his conclusions were published in his discourse "Medjugorje eine mystagogische Lektio" (Hrsg. Medjugorje Zentrum, "Medjugorje eine mystagogische Herausforderung? Page 72.1) He begins with the theory that Mary's apparitions for our times are important and irrefutable (79). With regard to the messages of Medjugorje, he says that the essential catechesis is very good and that it is an excellent pathway to the message of the gospel" (82). It's precisely this, which constitutes the ultimate criterion; Medjugorje doesn't lead away from the Sacred Scriptures, but rather aids the way, and the Blessed Mother is not an end in herself but a signpost. (Nicht die Endstation sondern wie ein Wegweiser). The pastoral of Medjugorje, the preaching and the way of celebrating the Eucharist, leads those who go there on to the heart of faith. The pastoral incentive is aimed precisely at that end, i.e. that people live the Word of God, that they live the Sacred Scriptures and that they celebrate the Eucharist. It's also useful to link this pastoral with the Council (82). Pilgrims who visit Medjugorje carry a deep biblical and Eucharistic devotion home with them to their own Parishes. "I am particularly impressed", he says, " that the pastoral in Medjugorje doesn't seek to take people out of normal church life, they rather seek to aid it's integration into their every day life back home, and I see this as one of it's most positive aspects. (82/83) Prof. Zulehner is also impressed that in Medjugorje, the simplest of people are drawn together. "There, anyone is accepted, there are no suggestions as to who ought to be excluded. It's a place that's open to everyone. And even those who don't consider themselves as particularly religious, just ordinary "plodders", can feel at home there...I'm so happy that the simpler people go to Medjugorje and that there they help themselves back onto their feet, that they receive new hope for their lives, and that they can return home with their heads held high.... For me these are fruits of the Spirit which, without considering the apparitions, are, thank God, to be seen everywhere, because wherever the Spirit works, there the church is present, because Gods' intention is to raise mankind" (87).
In the events of Medjugorje, Zulehner discovers a "mistagogy", leading mankind into the depths of a mystery, from which God opens the heart from the inside, as in the case of Lydia in the Acts of the Apostles (see Acts 16:14). God in His mercy foreshadows the works of our Church. According to Zulehner, the true aim of pastoral work is to uncover the mystery of Gods' work in our own lives, and to submit to these mysteries in love. "I fear that, in today's church we have very much lost the mystical dimension of our faith". We are therefore in danger of reducing the Gospel to straightforward morality. If the mystical disappears, there will be nothing else left. It would be a shame if Medjugorje were to be reduced to a moralistic message. That's not the objective intended. We must enter into the gist of the message through a mystical renewal, in the encounter of man with God. This is what's preliminary to every work and every moral. And without this, none of us can act morally. (96/97) Theologians and churchgoers tend to interpret the message. However, in theology I've learnt that the mysteries of faith don't exist so that we can interpret them. Moreover, we should immerse ourselves in them, and make our abode within them. The Church will be saved, if all of us individually, decidedly and courageously orient ourselves to live in these mysteries (98/99). According to Zulehner, that's precisely what Medjugorje is: "mystagogy", assisting normal people to daily enter into the mysteries of the Gospel.
Alfons Sarrach even says: In Medjugorje there is the awareness that the Church is not an organization, or a perfect work of human hands, or an instrument of human violence. It's not a supermarket of sacraments, it's not an opiate or a drug, and neither is it something, which has been fabricated. What it is, is a "mystery". When that has been verified throughout the whole Church, the lost will once again make their way to it, and within it, they will feel secure, and they will freely adore their God undisturbed. («The message of Medjugorje about the God who serves", Medjugorje 1995, page 143)
7. Evangelical Implications
The celebrating of the Sacred mysteries is undoubtedly the most impressive of all the experiences of the pilgrims here. It is the main element in their stay at the shrine. The pilgrims, who have had these deeper encounters of the mysteries of faith, are conscious to a greater or lesser extent, of the importance of living these mysteries in the dullness of their everyday life.
The messages, which they heard, and the devotion and spirituality, which they experienced, centre on the preaching of Eucharistic celebration.
In Medjugorje, preaching is carried out in a completely normal way. The Gospel is always in accordance with the liturgical calendar as it continues to illuminate the path to contemporary mankind. The emphasis is on conversion as the way to peace, on prayer, fasting, forgiveness and on acts of love. These and other messages of Our Lady remind us of what is written in the Gospel of St. John: "Do whatever He says" (John 2:5)
The messages are a mother’s invitation. They respect our freedom while motivating us to do good. The objective is to move the individual to personal conversion, after which he/she can continue further.
The sermons, like the messages and the ideas coming from them, all maintain that same simplicity which is characteristic of religious experience in Medjugorje.
In fact, it is probably its simplicity, which has contributed to its acceptance by such a large number of people throughout the world as a religious phenomenon. It has become a religious movement of very large proportions.
Pilgrims who visit Medjugorje don't remain passive on their return to their communities. Firstly, they live the messages and the Gospel with their lives, and secondly, they participate in the life of the church back home more actively. In this way prayer communities are born who live in the spirit of the messages, and with Mary's option for the poor. Mary's call is directed to all, just as Abraham was directed to the unknown, in an unknown area of faith, led by Gods' call to freedom.
Its' difficult to evaluate Our Lady's apparitions in the world today. One thing is sure: what the pastors of the Church don't dare mention, the Holy Spirit recompenses through Mary's apparitions and her messages to the world. The simpler people of the world, the uncomplicated ones, accept and understand Mary's words. Biblical faith and biblical experience once again become alive and immediate. Through Mary, God is leading the world to a renewal of the Church and a renewal of the whole world.
From day to day, pilgrims are drawn to the church of Medjugorje as one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. They come from all tribes and languages to celebrate the mystery of salvation in the Holy Spirit. The celebrating of the Sacred mysteries are at the centre of all events. Mary, Mother of Our Lord is present in these celebrations, as the caring mother and faithful instructor. She gently invites and at the same time thanks (Dear children, little children.... Thank you for having responded to my call!), but at the same time she is exacting; "pray, fast, be carriers of peace, participate in the mass, live the Gospel... You are not alone. You can do all things in Him who is calling you from the darkness into His wonderful light." She, the mother of Light, is offering us her Son, the Sun of justice, the Light who illuminates every man and enables him to be a light to the world.