Monday, August 31, 2015

A Miraculous Climb Up Apparition Hill

Statue of Our Lady where she first appeared in Medjugorje
The statue of Our Lady at Brdo Ukazanja (Apparition Hill) and where She appeared to the children

Today's post continues with a series of posts I will be publishing on my recent pilgrimage to Medjugorje. If this is your first visit to my blog or you are not familiar with Medjugorje and all that has happened since Our Lady began appearing to six children in 1981, you may want to consider's Overview page. Of the many posts I have published under the "Medjugorje" label, I would like to recommend one in particular, the Queen of Peace: The Medjugorje Documentary.

Medjugorje is a place of peace and reconciliation, where an abundance of graces and blessings have been and continue to be bestowed upon pilgrims, and those who live and work there. Medjugorje is considered to be as Saint Pope John Paul II put it, "the spiritual center of the world." I affectionately refer to Medjugorje as a "spiritual orchard" one that has yielded many fruits: conversions, spiritual, physical and emotional healing, vocations to the priesthood and religious life, answers to life questions, deliverance from demonic possession, recovery from drug addictions, the curing of diseases, illnesses and cancer and the spiritual renewal experienced by many who return annually to "recharge their spiritual batteries."

Today Medjugorje is considered a holy place, an international shrine where Catholics are permitted to venerate the Mother of God in a manner and in agreement with the teaching and belief of the Church. This was officially declared by his Eminence Cardinal Dr. Franjo Kuharić, Archbishop of Zagreb in August'1993. In simple terms, this means that all Catholics, laity, religious, and clergy can make a pilgrimage to Medjugorje as part of a personal devotion to Our Lady.

Medjugorje is very special in terms of its significance with respect to other Marian apparitions in the history of the Catholic Church. One of the special aspects is that the apparitions have been on going since June 24, 1981 and continue to this day. Unlike Lourdes, Guadalupe, Fatima, Zaragoza, Montserrat and other Marian apparitions, Medjugorje is happening right now in our life time; Our Lady is appearing there everyday! Our Lady has specifically stated, "What I started in Fatima, I will finish in Medjugorje, my Immaculate Heart will triumph."

Our Lady not only chose six local children to communicate her messages to the world, but the entire parish and its pilgrims, "I have chosen this parish in a special way and I wish to lead it." (March 1, 1984) The parish and pilgrims from all over the world have responded to Our Lady. What was once a small village has become a modern developed pilgrimage site. To date, a multitude of pilgrims have made their way to Medjugorje, approximately 55 million people.

As for my own pilgrimage experience this summer, my first climb up Brdo Ukazanja (Apparition Hill) occurred during the first week. It unexpectedly came about from a late morning chat over coffee at Mary's Meals (see the photo below) where I met the most wonderful elderly couple, John and Charlotte from Scotland. Spending time with them, sharing and getting to know them better was but the beginning of an absolute joyful experience that unbeknownst to me was to be one of the highlights of my pilgrimage.

During our chat, John and Charlotte had informed me that they were in Medjugorje only for the day, as they were scheduled to join a friend and visit a town in Bosnia or Herzegovina (the town's name escapes my memory), where John's friend was stationed as part of the international peace keeping force during the Balkan War of the 90's. If that wasn't interesting enough, I soon discovered that John was an active duty paratrooper during World War Two. Upon hearing that I developed an even greater respect for him and expressed how it was an honour to have met him!

A photo of Mary's Meals in Medjugorje
Mary's Meals where English speaking pilgrims typically meet for coffee or tea.

John and Charlotte had also informed me of their desire to climb Brdo Ukazanja (Apparition HIll) before they left. They had tentatively scheduled a climb with a group of other pilgrims (who were at their pension), which would have basically been the equivalent of "tagging along." I could see from both of them that this was not really what they had hoped for; they had basically settled for an arrangement that did not accommodate them at all. So, I offered up myself as their personal guide for a late afternoon 4:00pm climb. They accepted and we looked forward to our climb together in only a few hours time.

In discussing our climb, I had expressed my hope that we would make it back to St. James Church for Mass which began at 7:00pm. I had initially wanted to be back even earlier for the group recitation of the Rosary which begins every evening at 6:00pm (the beginning of the Evening Prayer Program). I knew very well that it would not have been possible on that day. They informed me that they would have a taxi available to and from Apparition Hill to save time (as opposed to walking the fields or the road, each way taking approximately 30 minutes), which offered me some consolation, but I still was not confident that we would make it back in time for Mass.

At this point, all seemed fine from my perspective, except one thing, the fact that John was blind. He had only 3% of his vision left and he walked with a cane. Throughout our entire discussion both John and Charlotte spoke of the climb irrespective of John's blindness. I had wondered what the actual climb would be like, but I never questioned his ability to make the climb. It was a telling sign of something special awaiting us all. 

Moving forward a few hours later, I had walked to Brdo Ukazanja and arrived at the base at around 3:30pm reciting my Rosary. It was a typically hot and dry day in Medjugorje so I patiently awaited the arrival of John and Charlotte, continuing with the recitation of my Rosary.

As 4:00pm approached, there was no sign of them. I figured they were somewhat delayed which is not an unusual occurrence during a pilgrimage. A quarter past 4:00pm and still no sign of them. I began wondering if they had changed their minds, but I stayed regardless and intended to do so hoping they would arrive. That moment came at 4:30pm and upon seeing them, it put a smile on my face. I waved from afar as they were walking toward the base with a group and upon seeing me (Charlotte informing John), they too smiled.

John and Charlotte at the wooden Cross on Apparition Hill
John and Charlotte at the Cross, where Our Lady expressed to the visionary Marija, "Mir, Mir, Mir"
(Peace, Peace, Peace)

At the base of Apparition Hill, there is a steep cobblestone road that pilgrims must walk, just to get to the rocky landscape, where the real climbing begins. As we walked up the road, Charlotte had been at John's side. When we reached the rocky landscape, I took over as John's escort and we made our way up to Our Lady's statue (see the first photo published with this post). I had no experience in leading a blind person before, but placing my trust in Jesus and Mary, we began our ascent praying the Rosary along the way.

The miraculous aspect of the climb was revealed almost immediately from the first step that John took. Together wIth his walking cane and my grasping his other arm, we ascended the hill as I verbally instructed John of the specific terrain, be it smooth flat surfaces, loose stones, or rising steps. No matter what the description I gave, John climbed the hill as if he had perfect vision. There was never a stumble; nor, any degree of panic or apprehension in his footsteps or general demeanour. He climbed the mountain with confidence and trust. It was miraculous to have experienced it all!

I was so pleased that the climb was going so well and hoped that there would be no accidents or issues to deal with. There were none! The more we climbed, the more I realized that something was going on that was well beyond my ability to guide and assist John. It was a realization that Jesus and Mary were guiding us and protecting us at every step, in a very special way.

During our climb we stopped and took a few breaks to "catch our breath," which provided us with further opportunities to chat. It made for an enjoyable climb that was complimented by our consistent slow pace, allowing us to pray the Rosary comfortably. This climb was absolutely a fantastic one for me; I never experienced such a wonderful climb up Apparition Hill as I did with John and Charlotte.

John and Charlotte at Our Lady's statue
John and Charlotte at the statue of Our Lady

As you can see from this post, I was inspired to take photographs of John and Charlotte's time at Apparition Hill. Several photos were taken capturing various moments of the climb, all of which I had emailed to Charlotte.

Prior to their approach of the statue of Our Lady, I had encouraged them to take all the time they needed to pray and absorb the moment. At this point, I had lost track of time and figured that Mass that night was probably not going to possible for me to attend. 

Eventually we made our way down the hill. The ease with which John ascended Apparition Hill was equally matched by his descent. It was just amazing to witness John as he placed each foot in front of the other, listening to my instructions and doing so without a misplaced step. 

John and I at the entrance path to Apparition Hill, after our climb
John and I at the base of Apparition Hill at the completion of our climb

The miraculous experience of this climb left me in awe of this wonderful gift; to have climbed Apparition Hill at the service to others. It was an opportunity to do what we all are called to do; that is, live in communion with others as a sincere gift of self.

As you can see from the above photo, I simply refused to contain my joy and happiness of the entire experience. I am sure you have heard of the saying, "it is better to give than receive?" Well, I can personally confirm, from this climb, how true that is. I had received many graces during my time with John and Charlotte and the joy of offering myself up as their guide was a feeling like no other I had ever experienced.

After the completion of our climb at the base of Apparition Hill I checked the time and it was 6:30pm; plenty of time to get to St. James by taxi. Not only did I make it in time for Mass, but I had offered John and Charlotte to join me as well. They accepted, but had to first go back to their pension for a change of clothing. So I arranged to meet with them at one of my usual locations at the back alter of St. James. With the back alter being so vast and packed with people, it proved to be too much of a task to locate me prior to Mass. I too was not able to find them, either before or after Mass. I did not see them again.

One of my most fondest memories of my pilgrimage this summer was the few hours I had spent with John and Charlotte. It saddened me somewhat to know that they had to go the next day, but we had exchanged contact information and have kept in touch since our climb. Charlotte had emailed me upon their arrival back in Scotland that they were in attendance at Mass and had tried to locate me, but to no avail.

To have had such a wonderful experience with John and Charlotte, a couple whose  kindness, generosity and faith had touched me, is but one of the many gifts I received during this summer's pilgrimage, to which I am grateful to Jesus and Mary.

Hvaljen Isus i Marija (Praised be Jesus and Mary)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Medjugorje's Cross Mountain (Križevac): A Time Of Prayer With A Little Bit of Climbing, Not A Climb With A Little Bit Of Prayer

The first Stations of the Cross plaque at the base of Cross Mountain
The Way Of the Cross First Station, Jesus is condemned to death

In Medjugorje this summer, I climbed Cross Mountain (Križevac) frequently, twelve times to be exact, always during the peak heat (35C-50C/86F-122F) of the day, typically from 12:00pm-4:00pm. I did so of my own choosing, offering up the extra effort to the Lord together with my prayer intentions for the Way Of The Cross, the Rosary and Mass.

My way to these prayerful climbs began with a walk from my pension to Križevac reciting the Rosary along the way, accompanied by one or two bottles (1.5L) of cold water or ice tea. By the time I actually arrived at the mountain, I had finished one bottle and was well hydrated before the climb began.

Done prudently, climbing Križevac during the hottest period of the day is really not as bad as it seems. A carefully paced climb that keeps in mind that this is more of a prayer than a climb, will help to ensure that you do not become overheated and exhausted by aggressively ascending the mountain. This really is the most fundamental important point to remember and understand about Križevac, it is not a climb with a little bit of prayer, but a time of prayer with a little bit of climbing.

Accompanying the climb with plenty of fluids is essential to ensure you do not get dehydrated. In addition, you have to be careful as to where you step, both climbing up and more importantly, on the way down the mountain. Make every effort to step on flat surfaces; with so many of the rocks smooth due to the steps of millions of pilgrims over the past thirty four years, it doesn't take much to sprain (or partially sprain) your ankle or worse. Coming down the mountain aggressively or too confidently, can be hard on your knees and back as well.

A photo of the view from the fourth station.
The view of Medjugorje and the valley below from the Fourth Station of The Way Of The Cross

The summer weather during my pilgrimage was very hot and dry, which happens to suit me perfectly. I prefer Herzegovina's climate so my climbs were not so much an increased level of suffering, but more of an extraordinary effort, which I united to Christ's passion.

One of the advantages of making this climb during the hottest part of the day was the opportunity to be alone, immersed in prayer undisturbed, seeking the Divine Intimacy that I so desired to have in Medjugorje. I was not to be disappointed; it was just one of the many gifts I received.

Some of the locals and fellow pilgrims that were aware of my climbs, charitably recommended (others very candidly) that I reconsider for a cooler time of the day. I assured them it was nothing to worry about. Part of the assurance I gave was based on my trust in God and Our Lady during my pilgrimage and the prudent approach I took; a properly paced climb with plenty of fluids, that ensured I took into account the heat of the day and that the effort to ascend the mountain would in no way diminish the spirit of prayer.

My pace was so slow that I did not breath heavily or become exhausted during the ascent. What affected me most was the time standing still in front of each station, reading reflections and praying in the sun, which typically took me 5-8 minutes to complete. 

Once the ascent has been completed, I quickly segued into an encounter with Jesus at the foot of the Cross (which contains a splinter from the original Cross that Jesus was crucified on), immersed in deep prayer. The anticipation of this moment brings with it the joy and relief of having finally arrived at the peak. 

This is one of, if not, the most important moments of the climb. How long you pray and how much time you spend at the foot of the Cross is a matter for each individual to determine; there are no restrictions and I recommend you spend what ever amount of time your heart desires.

A photo of the white Cross at Cross Mountain, Medjugorje
View of the Cross upon completion of the Way Of The Cross prayer

All things considered, climbing Križevac at the hottest part of the day is only an option for those who are in good health and young enough to take on such a physical challenge. No matter what your age or fitness level, it will drain your energy and require rest and recuperation afterwards. My recuperation typically included several bottles of soda and a steak dinner. It was the only way I could regain some strength and energy to coherently attend the Evening Prayer Program after such a climb.

I encourage anyone currently in or on route to Medjugorje, to climb Križevac as often as possible, at whatever preferable time of the day or night. Each climb is an renewed encounter with Jesus, a time of Divine Intimacy. I would like to recommend that you accompany your climb with the prayerful reflections of Father Slavko Barbarić's book Pray With The Heart; a book that became my prayer companion during my pilgrimage this summer. In it there are prayers for: the Way Of The Cross, Rosary, Apparition Hill, Adoration, Veneration of the Cross, before and after Confession, fast days, healing prayers, prayers before and after Mass, morning and evening prayers. This book is available right in Medjugorje at the Franciscan Book Store, next to the Pošta (Post Office) and Information Center, near St. James Church.

Here is what Fr. Slavko recommends to pilgrims once they reach to the top of Križevac, noted in the chapter The Places Of Prayer In Medjugorje, "...Unite yourself with Jesus. When you reach the top, pray under the Cross, be the weather nice or bad. Take courage. Pray your fullest under the Cross. Cry your heart out because of your sins. Open your heart before the Cross and you will know what it means..." (14) For those that do this, they are sure to experience the peace and joy that comes from having reached the peak of Cross Mountain.

A photo of me in prayer, resting and reflecting at the peak of Cross Mountain
Me enjoying quiet time with God at the back part of Križevac

Once you have finished praying at the Cross, there is the option of experiencing continued Divine Intimacy at the back part of the Cross. This area of the Mountain's peak is quite large and affords you the opportunity to pick a spot for some private time and rest. There are several trees to shade you from the sun and the view is absolutely spectacular; the full range of mountains, the valley below and Medjugorje. It is the perfect place to hear and listen to God.

For all those called to Medjugorje, may Our Blessed Mother clear the way for you, protect and guide you on your pilgrimage and grant you an abundance of graces. Be assured of my prayers for you.

Our Lady Queen of Peace, pray for us.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Marian Apparition Experience In Medjugorje

The Blue Cross where Our Lady appears to the seer Mirjana Soldo every second of the month
My vantage point from the Blue Cross (middle of photo) approximately 50ft away from it.

Recently I arrived back from my pilgrimage in Medjugorje. My time there proved to be one of new discoveries about myself and my faith journey, meeting new people and making new friendships, the opportunity to immerse myself in deep prayer and further experience the local culture. Overall my time this summer in Medjugorje was a faith strengthening experience; a recharging of my "spiritual batteries." These are just some of the gifts that pilgrims receive in Medjugorje; a land of great graces, peace and reconciliation.

While in Medjugorje, I had the privilege of attending Our Lady's apparition to the visionary Mirjana Soldo on July 2 at the Blue Cross. Today's post shares that apparition experience, which I hope will especially benefit those new to Medjugorje and those who have been called by Our Lady to go there on a pilgrimage.

Arriving in Medjugorje only a couple of days before the July 2 apparition, I had just the right amount of time to situate myself back into Medjugorje. I began my daily attendance at the Evening Prayer Program (recitation of the Joyful, Sorrowful and Glorious Mysteries, Mass, blessing of religious objects, healing prayers, veneration of the Cross and adoration) and reconnected with some friends and fellow pilgrims.

On the day of the apparition, I comfortably set out to acquire a location where I could not only be somewhat close to the Blue Cross (where Our Lady appears), but also to have a good vantage point to shoot this event as it unfolded.

I was not to be disappointed as I found the perfect location, an unfinished construction project, whose concrete base served as a platform for me to stand on and take several photographs. The photograph below shows that unfinished project, with a view of the street and path to the Blue Cross that Mirjana takes. Directly behind me in this shot is the Blue Cross, approximately 50ft away, higher up on the hill.

My vantage point in front of the Blue Cross, looking back down at the street
The concrete platform of an unfinished construction project, that served as the perfect vantage point to capture the day.

I began July 2, by waking up in the middle of the night to recite my personal prayers, shower and get ready to leave my pension at 4:45am. It was approximately a twenty minute walk to the Blue Crosses (there are actually two "blue crosses," the original and the newer one where Our Lady appears to Mirjana). The walk to the Blue Crosses afforded me the opportunity to begin my daily recitation of the Rosary. It was a perfect continuation of a wonderful start to my day, that with each step built up my joyful anticipation of attending Our Lady's apparition. 

Upon arrival, I was pleased to see that the hill was not packed with pilgrims. I knew that this would soon change so I searched for an ideal vantage point and quickly found it; the aforementioned unfinished construction project. I immediately took possession of its base (approximately 3 ft by 8 ft), reserving three square feet solely for me so I could comfortably stand and move around as needed.

My wait for the visionary Mirjana was approximately three and a half hours. In that time, I recited part of the Rosary and watched for any familiar faces so that I could offer them a place beside my vantage point. The opportunity to do that quickly vanished as the apparition time (8:30am) drew near. It wasn't long before many individuals, small and large groups began arriving.

The atmosphere at the apparition site was joyous and prayerful, filled with anticipation. All who were there early, like myself, were somewhat sleep deprived, but that did not negatively impact any of us at all; everyone was filled with great enthusiasm and expectation of Our Lady's apparition, fatigue was not a factor. Many pilgrims actually sleep overnight on the hill so as to reserve a spot very close to the Blue Cross.

Leading the pilgrims in group recitation of the Rosary were several priests from various countries, who recited the Rosary in different languages. To accompany the Rosary, there were was singing in Croatian, English and Italian. It was an amazing atmosphere of Marian devotion and a privilege to be in attendance.

The seer Mirjana ascending to the Blue Cross.
The blond woman flanked by two escorts in yellow t-shirts is the visionary Mirjana being escorted to the Blue Cross,
which is just left of this photo.

Well in advance of the arrival of pilgrims, camera crews set up live streaming for the internet, capturing the entire apparition experience, which was published and made available by MaryTV. You can also watch the entire apparition on MaryTV YouTube Channel, MarytvMedjugorje. In addition, speakers were set up throughout the hill to make the prayers and singing easier to hear for all pilgrims regardless where they were situated.

As 8:00am approached, the hill was packed with pilgrims. Sunrise was at about 5:30am and you could begin to feel the heat of the day upon us. The only remaining people climbing the hill were those who had been selected to sit near Mirjana at the Blue Cross (priests and laity). The air was filled with anticipation as we all anxiously awaited for Mirjana's arrival.

Mirjana arrived on time at 8:30am and all eyes were on her at the bottom of the hill, where the path intersects with the main street. The crowd seemed to break out in a frenzy joy and relief of her arrival, with many of us, including myself, preparing our selves to photograph Mirjana as she walked by us. The above photo is one such example, where Mirjana was almost at the top of the path where she was then escorted to the left of that location, to arrive at the Blue Cross.

As Mirjana arrived at the Blue Cross, prayer and singing continued. Mirjana kneeled down and joined in on the group recitation of the Rosary. At any point in time from this moment on, Our Lady appears to Mirjana. The actual moment occurs when Mirjana is alerted to her presence, which is immediately noticeable. She no longer responds to her immediate surroundings, ceases praying and looks up to encounter Our Lady. No one else sees or hears Our Lady, but it is clear from Mirjana's body and facial expression, that she is in complete divine intimacy with Our Lady.

Once the apparition is finished, Mirjana returns to her immediate surroundings, which is typically met with tears and what can only be described as a great sense of being overwhelmed. Immediately Mirjana's assistant and translator receives a dictation from her of Our Lady's message. It is then read out loud in Croatian, English and Italian. The official translation is provided to the parish office. It is then published on line and through other mediums throughout the world. Below is the July 2 Message:
"Dear children, I am calling you to spread the faith in my Son - your faith. You, my children illuminated by the Holy Spirit, my apostles, transmit it to others - to those who do not believe, who do not know, who do not want to know - but for that you must pray a lot for the gift of love, because love is the mark of true faith - and you will be apostles of my love. Love always, anew, revives the pain and the joy of the Eucharist, it revives the pain of the Passion of my Son, by which He showed you what it means to love immeasurably; it revives the joy for having left you His body and blood to feed you with Himself - and in this way, to be one with you. Looking at you with tenderness, I feel immeasurable love which strengthens me in my desire to bring you to a firm faith. Firm faith will give you joy and happiness on earth and in the end the encounter with my Son. This is His desire. Therefore, live Him, live love, live the light that always illuminates you in the Eucharist. I implore you to pray a lot for your shepherds, to pray so as to have all the more love for them because my Son gave them to you to feed you with His body and to teach you love. Therefore, also you are to love them. But, my children, remember, love means to endure and to give, and never, ever to judge. Thank you."

Mirjana descending from the Blue Cross after the apparition.
Mirjana's descent from the hill with two escorts after the apparition is finished.

One thing you may have noticed about this apparition are the escorts. There are several throughout the path that Mirjana takes to ascend and descend from the Blue Cross. The reason for them might not be obvious if you have never been to these apparitions. So many pilgrims want to have personal contact with Mirjana, but this is not permitted. Even upon the completion of the apparition, many come to her and the descent down the hill takes quite some time. At times, upon her own initiative, Mirjana will stop and speak with some pilgrims.

Mirjana stopping to speak with some pilgrims
Mirjana and the very bottom and middle of this photo, stopping to speak with a pilgrim.

Once Mirjana has made it down the path, pilgrims soon follow and it is not long before she is completely surrounded. The great thing about all this is that Mirjana is respected and she has no problem getting through the crowd. Pilgrims understand how much she has gone through prior to and during the apparition.

One fact that may interest you is how Mirjana prepares for the apparition the day before. As you might assume, she is immersed in prayer, but what you probably don't know is that she is up all night in prayer. Mirjana has been quoted as saying that she can not sleep knowing she will see the Blessed Mother the next day. That time awake is well spent in prayer preparing for that encounter.

Mirjana at the street in front of the path to the Blue Crosses
The scene when Mirjana arrives at the bottom of the path at the street level. You can barely see here, her blond hair
is visible just at the lower right side of the photo, next to the red baseball cap to the far right.

I too descended with other pilgrims in attempt to capture the scene and to give myself an opportunity to beat much of the crowd. Once I cleared the crowd, I went back to my pension to upload my photos on my computer and went about with the rest of my day.

For those of you who will be called by Our Lady to go to Medjugorje, may Our Lady clear the way for you. I hope you too will be granted the opportunity to be apart of the Marian experience in Medjugorje. Rest assured of my prayers for you and your pilgrimage.

Our Lady Queen of Peace, pray for us.