It’s 5.40pm in mid-October in Medjugorje and everyone and everything stops… for Our Lady, although check your times as I’m told it’s 6.40pm in the summer.
The fast-praying, gesticulating Italian priest (I’ll call him Fr Luigi) in his open-necked dog collar… it’s a balmy late afternoon.
Fr Leon, the wise-cracking, whip-cracking Chaplain to the English-speaking Community.
And the Irish Franciscan brother and pastor to the young, Brother Columba.
Who thankfully isn’t standing too close to the candles – he admits that he once burnt his navel-length beard at a procession.
We are all marking the moment 38 years ago in 1981 when Our Lady appeared on a cloud to six children from the village.
She can’t be much of a fan of teatime television then or maybe she had Neighbours on record.
It was certainly a half-time break back in 1981 in the big Yugoslavian basketball game which helped draw the two boys out.
Ivan Visionary (our guide Daniella’s nomenclature for him) will join us later in the week at the Blue Cross where Mary first appeared.
Although when I say join us, he is two rows of heads in front in a circle of worshippers.
I had hoped to see him in the ecstatic trance of those childhood photos on the boards in the grounds of St James’s Church.
Or heard some speaking in tongues. I know I’m unlikely to see Our Lady or hear her but Ivan Visionary has been on speaking terms with the Mother of God for 40 years.
I’ve every chance of seeing her though, or at least feel her presence, around Medjugorje which has expanded a millionfold since 1981.
From that two-towered hurling posts-looking church, some tobacco fields and vines, to what it is today, a Marian resort dedicated to the worship of Her and Him.
And as with everywhere, Commercialism.
Our Lady is there in every shop on every corner, as are her beloved rosaries,
Where you can get your own name engraved on them.
Holy water bottle, anyone?
There are holy water bottles aplenty and any amount of religious paraphernalia including your own cassock.
But Our Lady is also here in the minds, in the souls and the hearts of the pilgrims, of which I am one.
A mother and daughter in our 20-stong Marian Pilgrimages (http://www.marian.ie) group when we visit in October ask expectedly if I smelt the roses, Mary’s flower, as I make my way back from 10am Mass.
Try as I may, and maybe that’s where I’m going wrong, I can’t raise her.
But I do see Her in the eyes of eager Eddie who buries his head into his brother’s chest at the Blue Cross.
And who shoots a smile towards me from his wheelchair by Our Lady’s statue at the 5.40pm remembrance.
A cross to bear
A million flock to the Bosnia & Herzegovina village every year to feel the grace of Our Lady, to ask her to intercede on our behalfs to Our Lord.
And to climb up to the Blue Cross, Apparition Hill and Cross Mountain.
Many leave changed by their visit while many return year on year.
Marie from our group is back for her 60th pilgrimage.
She is in with the bricks at Mileina, our boarding house for the week, where she embraces Ines’s daughter at the breakfast table, whom she has known since she was a baby.
Ines looks after us all like her very own babies with breakfasts to set us up in the morning, the best of which is the steaming porridge.
And for dinner where we settle down, after Grace Before Meals obviously, for big plates of family food, hearty soups and meaty feasts, chicken, lamb chops, potatoes (we are Irish after all) and veg.
Wine is a religion
With jugs of her own house wine.
I swear that ‘permanent’ house guest Marie gets an extra portion!
Like Marie, Medjugorje drew Scottish pilgrims Magnus and Fergus MacFarlane-Barrow back time after time following that first visit.
To set up a support system for the village during the Balkan Wars in the mid-Eighties.
And then a charity for disadvantaged people around the world, Mary’s Meals, which feeds 1,000,000 children around the world for a €15 donation which energises them to then go to school.
It feels infectious this Christianity in action.
A holy Mother
Mother Elvira runs a rehab centre, Comunita Cenacolo, near the village while there is also an orphanage nearby.
We hear the testimony of Italian Twentysomething Andre, a dyslexic who suffered from Attention Deficit Disorder as a child and felt swamped in a family where his two brothers were super-achievers.
And whose life spiralled out of control, landing him on the street, in trouble with the law and twice overdosing.
Before Mother Elvira rescued him and is now setting him and others like him back on the right path.
Andre is now looking after maintenance in the house and serving the greater community, all of it underpinned by Christian observance.
Which is also the watchword for Medjugorje as a whole where your whole day is framed by Christian worship.
The ISIS hostage
Mass in the morning followed by a talk in the hall (we heard the extraordinary story of a priest who was an ISIS captive).
Those walks in the hills with Stations of the Cross along the way, the 5.40pm pause, an International Mass and an Adoration of the Host.
There are though respites from your religious observations around the village.
And a coach out of town to Sarajevo for just €16 return where you can visit the spot where Gavrilo Princip assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and triggered the First World War.
And the Museum of Crimes against Humanity and Genocide which chronicles the 1,425-day Siege of Sarajevo in the 1980s.
Don’t miss Sarajevo
At the heart of this beautiful city on the River Miljacka in the apron of the Dinaric Alps is the Old Town, the centrepiece of which is the Bey Mosque.
Turkish shops, cafes and restaurants fan out, showpiecing authentic Bosnian food (I’d recommend the Bey’s chicken and vegetable soup, in the dainty adorned pots).
Back in Medge, The Irish Centre serves up more familiar fare.
From home at under a tenner and Herzegovina beer (at just 5 B&H Marks or €2.50, they take both).
And you’ll find an old new friend there, Columba, in with a fellow Fransiscan Brother to watch the Ireland v New Zealand rugby match with us.
As well as mending your soul he can fix the TV too when it freezes.
And it’s always good to have your own Franciscan monk on hand to say a prayer for Ireland to turn over ‘those New Zealanders’.
Our Lady is obviously busy though somewhere else with someone more deserving (really).
Up by the Blue Cross, Apparition Hill or Cross Mountain.
Asking us to pray more rosaries!
Do: The bus to Sarajevo costs €16 return (remember to bring your passport for money exchange).
Bey’s Mosque in the centre of Sarajevo and the Museum of Sarajevo for everything on the Assassination of Franz Ferdinand.
As published in the Irish Sun in 2020.