A Journey of Faith
Every year thousands of pilgrims from Northern Ireland flock to Medjugorje, the supposed site of apparitions of the Virgin Mary. Ahead of a BBC One NI documentary tonight, the filmmakers give their impressions of the phenomenon
What is faith? How do you measure it? Is “seeing” believing? The answers for many can be found in the Marian Shrine of Medjugorje in Bosnia Herzegovina.
It is here that Mary, the Mother of God, is said to appear to a number of visionaries every day; a phenomenon which has been going on now for 28 years.
As remarkable and unbelievable as this may seem, the shrine has been host to more than 40 million pilgrims from most religious denominations from all over the world. An estimated 25,000 people from Ireland visit it every year.
I remember, as a teenager in June 1981, when it all started. Reports of six children seeing Mary were circulating and everybody was talking about it: they said a bright light illuminated the sky and there, floating above the hill before them, was the figure of a beautiful woman. This figure spoke to them saying she was Mary, the Mother of God.
This fantastical story caused an absolute frenzy around the corridors of my school: Mary had appeared to six children giving them 10 secrets which foretold ‘the end of the world’.
Panic was in the air; something mystical was happening and everyone wanted in on it.
The trips to Medjugorje started and before long busloads of my peers were setting off there, hoping to see something. Could they be blessed with a vision? Would some sort of miracle happen when they were there? Would the world really end? Well, nobody seemed to know. It was just a case of paying your money and going. I had no money, so I couldn’t go.
On their return I recall incredulous stories of students seeing the visionaries from afar through thousands of people; the sun spinning in the sky; miracle cures; even the devil himself appearing to some, dressed as a monk.
I was told that a mystery figure had followed a friend up Apparition Hill snarling, and that, upon closer inspection, it revealed itself as a dog-like creature with glowing, red eyes. I had nightmares after that!
Unlike the apparitions in Lourdes, Fatima and Knock where Mary only appeared for a short time, the visions in Medjugorje seem to have continued to the present day. They have endured a communist regime bitterly opposed to the Catholic Church, a bloody civil war were thousands were killed yet the village of Medjugorje remained unscathed, and ongoing scepticism from the Vatican which still refuses to authenticate the visionaries’ claims.
Pope Benedict has defrocked a priest, Fr Tomislaw Vlasic, on accusations of heresy, schism and sexual immorality. He was one of the original advisers to the children who claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary.
So, when my co-director Gerard Stratton and I were researching a film about exorcism for our company Triplevision Productions and Medjugorje happened to be mentioned by a contributor, I was a little surprised. Could this place still be going? After all the world hadn’t, to the best of my knowledge, ended? I was naturally intrigued Now, 25 years on, the apparitions are still happening and I found it fascinating when I discovered that thousands of people from here have kept the faith and are still flocking to it on pilgrimages. Perhaps this was worthy of a documentary in its own right.
My first step in my research was to return to some of my former classmates from my school days — now 25 years older and hopefully wiser — and ask them about what they really thought.
One remembered very vividly a little pizza place on the side of the mountain that “made the best pizza he had ever tasted”. Another reminisced about “the craic and all the near romances with the girls from the other schools”.
It is fair to say that these were not really the enlightened comments I was hoping for on my mission to look at faith.
“What of the visions?” I asked? “What of the stories of conversions and miracles?”
“Yeah, we remember that too but it was all a bit of a laugh,” came a reply. Even the priests were talked about with a warm glow.
There was one person left to speak to from my school days — the friend who was said to have been followed up the mountain by the red-eyed devil dog. Surely he would have something to say of more substance. “I don’t talk about that anymore,” he said. Dead end there then.
Despite this, we headed off for Medjugorje with a camera and more than a burning curiosity. Something was inspiring the pilgrims to travel to this little place. Could going there ourselves provide us with the answers to our mission? Would we have a better understanding of faith?
At the International Airport we were welcomed by around 200 pilgrims from a Northern Ireland-run Medjugorje tour company which west Belfast man Reggie Donnelly helps organise.
Immediately the stories started: many of the pilgrims shared their own unique experiences about what had happened to them on previous visits; many were simply ill hoping for Our Lady to look kindly on them; many were hurt and wanting some answers. They all had something to tell us and they were all delighted that we were filming. According to some ‘we were sent by Our Lady to tell the world about Medjugorje and that it hadn’t gone away’.
We kept explaining to these believers that we were only recording a pilot film and that the documentary hadn’t even been commissioned. The truth, in fact, was that at this point BBC Northern Ireland knew nothing about it. We were just hoping there might be enough there to make a documentary they would be interested in.
This was our own leap of faith, in a way. We were making a short pilot in the hope of a commission and our future rested on it. The credit crunch was biting hard. While we were filming we were told that “Medjugorje would turn that hope into a reality and that, “we would get our film commissioned” and that “Our Lady would bless your film — just have faith”.
As it turned out, when we arrived home and pitched our idea to BBC Northern Ireland they liked it and commissioned our observational documentary, Pilgrims. And so, ironically, our journey into faith would begin.
I think that what we capture in this film is that the pilgrims who come here appear to get something out of their visit. They say they get the answers to their prayers. They may not always be positive answers, but they are answers nonetheless: If a loved one who is sick is not healed, then they believe that this is God’s will.
Medjugorje, somehow, seems to bring some people to that place: in their mind that enables them to accept the great tragedy and mystery of life. They leave saying they feel fulfilled and closer to their God. For some, I suppose, that is faith, blind though it seems.
The experience of making this documentary was an unforgettable experience. I was able to meet the visionaries who claim they saw Mary, the pilgrims who believe them and witness the effect Medjugorje seems to have on these people. Not everyone can get what they want out of life, but for some, could having hope or faith in something or someone maybe be all they need?
‘The news spread quickly we had been sent there by a higher force’
From the outset this documentary was not intended to be investigative. That would have been the wrong approach. How could we prove or disprove the apparitions? That would be like trying to prove or disprove the existence of God, and neither the church nor science has been able to that. The most important part of the Medjugorje story is faith. And, for all who have faith, faith is simply faith! For them, it cannot be questioned.
I am not a regular church-goer but witnessing the faith and devotion of the Northern Ireland pilgrims on this journey gave me a great respect for those who give their lives over to God. There are those who go to Medjugorje in search of apparitions of Our Lady, of phenomena like the spinning sun and the weeping knee, and I have no issue with this if it helps them strengthen their faith.
However, it’s the people who go for their own personal reasons that I have most admiration. People like west Belfast man Emmanuel Strong whose mother died in Medjugorje whilst on a pilgrimage. He wanted to visit the place where his mother sadly passed away and takes great comfort in being there, feeling closer to her.
It was stories like these that appealed more to me than the mysticism that surrounds this beautiful part of the world. However, whilst filming in Medjugorje, it was only a matter of days before I felt drawn into the more mystical element. Rumours constantly circulate there about strange and unusual happenings: people taking pictures of the mountains and ghostly figures of a woman appearing in the background, people asking to look at our footage to see whether we had managed to capture anything special. From the outset we knew that making this documentary was certainly going to be interesting!
When we were making the film we wanted to meet Father Jozo Zovko, the priest who acted as one of the spiritual guardians of the six visionaries — a priest, who was portrayed by actor Martin Sheen in the Hollywood movie Gospa.
We asked a local fixer to set up an interview but she thought the chances were slim. To her amazement, however, Father Jozo agreed to be interviewed straight away. When we met him his first words to us were that he had been expecting us. Eamonn and I looked at each other a little bemused.
He went on to tell us that he had been told by Our Lady that we had been sent to him, by her, and that he should speak to us. News spread quickly to the pilgrims of our fortunate encounter and gossip circulated that we had been sent by a higher force.
We were also granted two rare interviews with Vicka Ivankovic, one of the few visionaries who continues to see the Blessed Virgin every day as she is awaiting to hear all 10 secrets to be imparted on to her. Putting all the hype to one side, one thing I am sure of is that Medjugorje is a very special place; a place that gives people peace of mind, a break from their hardships and a chance to pray for others’ intentions. Surely, a place that does this can only be a positive thing whether you believe in God or not.
Pilgrims, BBC One NI, tonight 9pm, produced by Eamonn Devlin and filmed by Gerard Stratton from Triplevision Productions