In February 2001 I was invited on a religious pilgrimage to one of the most controversial shrines in all of Christendom -- Medugorje, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, part of what was known as Yugoslavia. The shrine commemorates a hillside apparation of the Blessed Virgin Mary in 1981 to a group of schoolchildren. Presenting herself as Regina Pacis, the "Queen of Peace", the Virgin has continued to instruct members of this group in the virtues of humility, patience, and preservance in the face of the Balkan wars and the aftermath. The shrine is centered around this message and subsequent apparitions that some still claim to see in the rugged hills surrounding the (one time) farming hamlet of Medugorje.

Flying from New York I first landed in Zurich after a six-hour ride for a very early stop-over. Not in the mood to shop for overpriced watches, I boarded a two-hour small jet to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. Following a somewhat humorous language barrier incident at the metal detector, I boarded yet another flight to Split, the second largest city in Croatia. From what I could gather riding through downtown Split, the influence of American/Western European corporations has spread even to a part of the world recently rebuilding. Even Microsoft had its finger in the pie, an advertisment perched over the luggage conveyor.

The three-hour bus ride from Split to Medugorje yielded spectacular views of the mountainous Dalmatic coast. Following roads skirting the Adriatic, I could see the mountains approaching on the left side of the bus, the sea far below to the right, homes precariously perched on the sides of hills. Dodging suicidal Yugos seemingly bent on beating a bus driver skilled at throwing the bus through impossible hairpin turns, we climbed into a farming village at the base of a valley.

I was somewhat disappointed. What was once a small village semi-collectivized during the Communist regime for tobacco cultivation was now one of the largest cities on the central-western Bosnian-Croatian border. Mostly Croatian, Medugorje is also home to Bosnian Muslims and a small community of Italians. Following the pilgrimage boom beginning in the late 1980's, Serbs and Germans have moved in to run for-profit inns a level above the residences that the Croatians can afford to run. Opting to stay in a pension run by an elderly Croatian, I had the opportunity to be a bit closer to the neighborhoods and people, not the main thoroughfare crowded with expensive restaurants.

A large basilica dominates the village. Administered by the Franciscans, it hosts a full roster of liturgical activities and prayer services. The basilica's bells regulate the movement of nearly every pilgrim; once Vespers chime, thousands of pilgrims flock to kneel outside of the church, fanning out in every direction over flagstones. Many who come have already read about the apparitions at home; most crane their necks to hear the every word of the visionaries who seem to recite very similar stories. Hence the problem that many have with Medugorje. Is is simply a moneymaker, a way to boost the local economy through plasticine BVM's and other curios? Could it be that the messages are intentionally simplistic to get the message out to everyone?

Yes and no. Some argue that compared to Fatima or Lourdes, Mary does speak too much. Medugorje visionaries have also given conflicting stories of what the Virgin has said; even going as far to contradict doctrine of the Catholic Church. But after witnessing a pilgrim go up and try to embrace a visionary in a semi state of rapture, I'm convinced that the message of peace in troubled times must have relevance to anyone who is struggling in life. It may be argued that idolizing the visionaries is not a good way to convince a theologian of the appropriateness of the shrine.

The most solemn activity is a 4 km hike up a hill atop which is a 10m concrete cross. Erected in the 1930s, the cross now has become a symbol of the apparitions and messages recieved in Medugorje, and is a place of prayer and an opportunity to deposit messages around the base of the cross. Along the path are polished stone plaques engraved with the Stations of the Cross. Hiking slowly to account for various abilities within the group, I had the chance to notice the dusty crags along the path worn slick by heavy traffic; groups of ascetics bounded up the trail, unshod feet covered in bruises and soaked with blood. Using stunted tall tumbleweed as grips we arrived at the summit, treated to a full view of the valley below and the thin air above us. At ground level I was told that a monk used to hike up the mountain every day, picking garbage left by the tourists. Regardless of claims of fraud, anyone brave enough to hike a steep trail in any weather must be dedicated to a message with some credibility.

Battling dry but concentrated heat I had the opportunity to walk out into the housing developments skirting the shrine area. The economic opportunities that wealthy pilgrims bring have brought more suffering to those struggling to survive. Croatian innkeepers are simply not able to match the amenities and capital of Serbs and Germans. Roma (Gypsy) homeless and unskilled workers have crowded into the basilica compound. Curing figs, selling popcorn, and sometimes following pilgrims around for a dollar, deutchemark, or two, Roma are frequently followed by monks chasing the destitude out of the courtyards.

Medugorje is concentrated Christianity, a Christianity that promotes a charismatic, pentecostal way of worship. The emphasis on miracle and revelation, even nonsensical revelation, is woven into the very life of Medugorje: in the face of the beggars chased out of the church; in the eyes of the widow who cannot survive without more boarders who want hot showers and Coca-Cola in a Westernized hotel, and in the face of the visionaries themselves. Lips writhing, faces contorted while speaking in tongues, only the seers know the reason why so many tour buses descend on an unknown tobacco town.

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