Medjugorje: the package pilgrimage to hell

As the coachload of pilgrims from Birmingham wound through the Bosnian hills approaching Medjugorje, I wanted, more than anything, to weep. In full daylight the view was sad enough, of bony hills with rock and earth showing through the scrub like the skin on a mangy dog; but as the warm dark came down I was engulfed by memories.

For five years, my parents had lived in Belgrade and each summer we borrowed the embassy's Land-Rover and drove down through Bosnia to the coast. We children would bounce around in the back, pretending to be machine-gunners or -- a job we found almost as glamorous -- emptiers of the great mysterious cesspit at the foot of our drive in Belgrade.

The road to the coast ran through Sarajevo, and Mostar, to Dubrovnik. We would continue a few miles on to the village of Cavtat for a fortnight in which there was no fear or discomfort larger than a sea-urchin.

The last time we took that route, we had stopped in Mostar. I remember a mosque, with a roof gentle and rounded like a cushion, and I remember the excitement with which we spotted some bullet holes in a wall on the outskirts, left over from the Second World War. It was 1962, and I was seven.

Somewhere in central Bosnia we had stopped on our last journey home at a hillside cafe. The sight of the scrub in the pilgrim coach's headlights brought this memory back. There was a waterwheel, and we ate pork grilled over charcoal by the stream. Fireflies danced in the herby night.

And now Dubrovnik has been shelled from Cavtat, Sarajevo is besieged; Mostar, our guide had explained, ``is a city which practically does not exist''.

Foolishly, I mentioned some of this to the guide, a good-looking woman in her thirties dressed all in black. She stiffened and drew away from me like a cat, when I told her I had lived in Belgrade. "Why would anybody want to do that?'' she asked, almost hissing on the final syllable.

I returned to silence. ``Peace'' means many different things in Medjugorje, but to many Croats, among them our guide, it is a condition that follows victory. The idea that a longing for peace should be bound up with nostalgia for the time before the war is one which only visitors seemed to hold.

The gulf between the visitors and the hosts seemed to me quite unbridgeable. The pilgrims had put on the full armour of tourism: the shield of good will, the breastplate of ignorance and the helmet of stupidity. They heard what they wanted to hear, and saw what they wanted to see. The sun span in the sky for them, and when I asked one what she thought of the HVO boys going out to fight with pictures of the Virgin taped to their gun butts, she replied that this showed real faith.

Listening to what some of the Franciscans were actually saying gave some clues as to the content of this real faith. Fr. Peter is a rangy, handsome Franciscan with an easy grin and horn-rimmed spectacles. He has been entrusted by the visionaries with one of the secrets the Virgin wishes to be known before the end of the world.

After Mass one day, he gave a homily in the rotunda behind the church. He spoke in short, fluent bursts, through an interpreter, with a mixture of exhortation and stories. Terrible times are coming. The world is in crisis everywhere. But believers need not be afraid. Terrible things cannot happen to them, even when they die. Only unbelievers need fear. For them, death is terrible indeed.

He urges prayer on his listeners, four or five hours a day is not too much. He tells them stories of miracles. Then he tells them that there are ten thousand people in Europe who have dedicated their lives to Satan. There is a gasp of delighted horror. He does not know why anyone should dedicate their lives to Satan, but he will tell stories. There was a woman dying of leukaemia in Sarajevo, and a doctor of theology went to see her, and she would not repent of her life. When he held up a cross before her eyes and urged her to love Jesus, she spat on it, and at that moment died. ``Oh no!'' gasps an American woman in the audience. I want to scream. Is this the only death God cares about in Sarajevo?

He tells the story of a recent visit to America, where he met a couple who had given a million dollars to the relief of suffering in Croatia. He was a surgeon, and had been a Protestant. But after coming to Medjugorje, he became a believer -- a catholic-- the interpreter corrects herself.

This seemed to me very close to some of the ideas which Branka Magas had described as emanating from "Rogue Franciscans" in her article for the Tablet recently. So I went to another of Fr. Peter's little homilies, this time held in the parish house. This was a great deal more chilling. As I entered, he was saying, as had one of the visionaries, that the war was Satanic. But what he meant by this, it rapidly emerged, was that Satan was on the other side.

"This is turning into a war of the baptised against the unbaptised; of Christ against the Anti-Christ....''

What is more, it may be a war willed by God as a punishment for the villagers of Medjugorje. Asked by one pilgrim what the people round here believed could have been done to avert the war, he replied: ``In the beginning, the first two or three years [of the visions] everyone was praying; then there were five or six years when everyone built homes and souvenir shops. Our Lady warned us, but many people wanted to make money because of Our Lady.

``Our Lady said to pray, and that when certain things happen, you will understand that you do not pray enough. And then this war came, and the pilgrims stopped coming, and everyone saw that we did not say our prayers enough.

``Terrible things have happened elsewhere, too. Half a million Croatians have lost all their belongings and fled, and 200,000 are lost in the war.

``When Our Lady first came to the Croatians [sic], the people in Bosnia did not care very much, and that is why I see this war as a warning. Those responsible in other parts of the world: they too will not escape punishment for their sins.

"We Croatians don't have any weapons and the Serbs have everything.

``If Our Lady and God were not on our side, we would have disappeared completely; and in this we see the finger of God.''

After his talk, I went next door to the church-run souvenir shop and bought a postcard of Dr Franjo Tudjman, the Croatian president, from a thick stack of them displayed behind the postcards of the virgin and the visionaries.

The last place of pilgrimage was the monastery of Sirocki Brieg, a citadel which dominates the flat lands round it, about thirty miles from Medjugorje. It had been the Franciscan headquarters throughout the years of Ottoman rule. In the second world war it acquired a slightly different reputation as an Ustasha stronghold. It was in the great hall of this priory that a zealous layman was presented with a prize for having cut the throats of 1,400 Serbian, or at least Orthodox, men, women, and children.

The first shrine we were taken to there was a bunker where 45 Franciscans died in the final defence of the monastery against the partisans, in February 1945. Our guide rather skated over what they were doing down there when killed: "Sheltering from the shelling" was what she said. No one asked why the monastery was being shelled, if it was not being defended. Someone did ask whether it was the Nazis who had killed the priests, to which the reply was ``No no: the communists: the partisans.'', which was a nice way of expressing the fact that these guys were fighting on the Nazi side.

An aged Irish priest said a prayer for "peace in Yugoslavia", which gave me a certain satisfaction, considering that the martyrs died fighting to abolish Jugoslavia. Then we went into the great calm peaceful church, for the sermon by Fr. Jozo. He had been the parish priest of Medjugorje when the visions started. He had protected the visionaries, both from the authorities and the hostile bishop of Mostar, and had been imprisoned by the Communists for this.

After our devotions at the martyrs' bunker, I was prepared for anything on that citadel of blood-soaked lies, except what we actually got, which was a sermon preached with enormous dramatic power on the inadmissibility of violence and the necessity of love. Although delivered through a rather operatic interpreter, it was one of the best-argued and most moving homilies I have ever heard.

Anyone who had a heart would weep at the little things of Bosnia as well as the large ones. I took some photographs of village children, aged four and six, playing with Daddy's pistol and grenade launcher. The elder one was dressed in a beautifully made miniature HVO uniform, and grinning like mad as he pointed the pistol at me. His mother had watched with guarded approval. I had done the normal, professional thing: when you want to weep, take photographs instead. But while Fr Jozo spoke, it was possible to believe that tears were counted somewhere, and used to some good end.

My neighbour wept through most of the sermon, and returned my gift of Kleenexes by dragging me up at the end to be blessed. We had to pick our way past a recumbent plain-clothed nun to the altar rails. I was not, however slain in the spirit myself. I just felt sunstruck and filled with slippery joy. For several days afterwards I was unable to loathe my fellow pilgrims with my natural vigour. In fact I found myself able to laugh whole-heartedly, though sober and surrounded by charismatic Brummies in Bosnia.

None the less, it was not terribly surprising to read that the first UN convoy that tried to bring food and medicine to the besieged Muslims of Mostar ("a city which practically does not exist") was delayed when it passed through Medjugorje by women sitting down and singing hymns in an effort to stop the aid getting through to their enemies. What did surprise me was that I found it more shocking after my visit than I would have found it before.

Further thoughts

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