SALT LAKE CITY — Four local Catholics have experienced a renewed closeness to the Virgin Mary and to Jesus Christ, thanks to a recent pilgrimage to the village of Medjugorje, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Since 1981, Our Lady allegedly has appeared there more than 40,000 times to six young people there, known as visionaries, giving them messages for the world. Each year, more than 3 million pilgrims visit the shrine in Medjugorje, according to Catholic News Service.
While the Church has not recognized as authentic the alleged Marian apparitions, in May Pope Francis lifted the ban on official pilgrimages to Medjugorje, following the recommendation of a papal commission.
Recently, Phil Hofstetter, Kate O’Keefe, Tracy Harden and Albert Malloy traveled with eight others to Medjugorje as part of an unofficial pilgrimage organized by Hofstetter, who was one of first Catholics from Utah to visit the area and to evangelize its message here.
“The official status has not changed my experience,” said Hofstetter, a Blessed Sacrament parishioner. “I am, of course, happy and encouraged to see official approval taking shape. The messages are so simple and basic, but the extraordinary grace that is given to those who visit is so bountiful and extraordinary. I am clearly a different and better person today because of grace, and grace through Our Lady and this special site.”
In September, the pilgrims – who had each been to Medjugorje before (most in the 1990s) – laid aside the accoutrements of their 21st-century life for 10 days of prayer and reflection in the small town, attending Mass, praying the rosary, at Eucharistic Adoration or in solitary meditation and prayer. Each experienced the power of praying together with so many people and also alone.
““There is a lot of time for meditation,” said Harden, a St. Mary of the Assumption parishioner. “The beauty of Medjugorje is there are no distractions for you and you can really focus on what is important to you. Medjugorje is the absolute epicenter of Catholic Christian prayer in the world; the power coming out of Medjugorje is immense.”
“The thing that is so magical about Medjugorje is that the rosary replaces your cell phone,” she said. “It’s so refreshing, and you see the universality of our world. We have people from all different countries praying and singing in their native languages, praying the rosary on the street.”
Each day in Medjugorje at 5:40 p.m. local time the Virgin Mary is said to appear to the remaining visionaries (some have received all the messages promised them) wherever they are. While they were not physically present for the apparitions, all four pilgrims said the whole area is impacted spiritually by the event and even nature stills during those minutes.
“The interesting thing about Medjugorje is that the spiritual, the invisible, becomes visible and the visible, the tangible, becomes less important,” Hofstetter said.
The primary reason for the apparitions is for the conversion of mankind, O’Keefe said. “Our Blessed Mother, as a mother would, is worried about the spiritual health of her children. She is reminding us that as Catholics we need to partake in the sacraments and that these sacraments have a really beautiful implication for the condition of our soul.”
All four reiterated that the essence of the messages the Blessed Virgin shares is love; her love and the love of the Father and Jesus for all mankind.
“What Medjugorje has done to me is really fill me with joy that I am Catholic,” O’Keefe said. “It really fills me with joy that I’m going to go home some day to Jesus.”
While all four say it is difficult to convey to their families and friends the depth of their experience, each says they have taken away a lesson or message specifically meant for them. They each desire to become a better person, to evolve spiritually, to try harder and to be more charitable, they said.
Harden said the experience “changes your purpose for being here and living your life as a Christian. You better understand that your goal is to get to heaven.”
“What it really did for me was show me where my soul still needs work,” Malloy said of the pilgrimage.
“Blessed Mother is putting together her army of faithful and each of us has an opportunity to give our lives to God; it’s a personal choice how far we go with that,” O’Keefe said. “It’s my feeling that with Medjugorje that no matter where you are, God’s going to put you to work.”
Some of the four say they have witnessed miracles in Medjugorje and elsewhere in connection with the apparitions; however, while diocesan commissions and the Yugoslavian bishops’ conference have studied the alleged apparitions several times, they could not confirm that supernatural events are occurring in Medjugorje.