I’m normally not one who enjoys attending Mass. Now before you condemn me, please understand, it’s not that I’m irreligious or an atheist; it’s just I get very little from attending. Add to that, I’m not a people person and I shun crowds. I sit in the middle where the fewest people sit, just so I don’t have to interact with many. I find it difficult at times to stay awake during the music; and when certain prayers in the liturgy are sung, I have to constantly reprimand myself for my impatience. And I find many prayers and petitions so mundane and automatic, it feels like they never leave the nave of the church.
So you ask why I go.
Because a beautiful miracle takes place at every Mass, and I’m a part of it. I witness the changing of bread and wine into the holiest substance on the face of the Earth. Not in any other doctrine, not in any other religion or belief will be found anything holier than the Body of Christ that is placed on my hand. And I take it into my mouth and become One with it!
That’s the awesome reason.
When I found I would be going to Medjugorje, I had a fear of being in a church interacting with a multitude of people and listening to hours and hours of prayers.
…which is exactly what I found. But I must comment here; I have been in many churches in my life, Catholic and non-Catholic, and have never felt totally at ease…. until I entered St. James.
The church was built long before the Holy Mother appeared in the area. Oversized at the time, the spirit of the people must’ve known they would one day need a large one.
The architecture of the church is similar to all of the churches in the surrounding area. Every town, no matter how small, has its own church. The heavy doors of St. James are wood and brass with little ornate scribing. Towering stain glass windows high above, add varying tints of colors to the walls. I was disappointed to find of all the 200+ pictures I took, none were of the windows.
One of the most unusual things I noticed in Medjugorje is the mingling of the Faith with everyday life. In the post office, I saw a crucifix placed on a shelf. The local bank teller had a picture of the Pope on the wall beside her. The idea of the separation of church and state (which is not even found in our constitution) just doesn’t exist there. It would be like driving a car without windows.
So many people attend the six daily masses, benches have been placed outside on either side of the church, with loud speakers relaying the prayers and music from inside. Behind the church is a very large gazebo to allow even more room. The Masses are of different languages. The Croatian Mass for the people of the area is the first one held at daybreak. The English Mass is at 10am, just after the German/Polish Mass. At 6pm a three hour service, mostly in Croatian, begins with reciting the rosary.
The Church is a church to all people, races, nationalities, and languages. And any priest visiting Medjugorje can co-celebrate Mass. On one particular Mass, I counted 33 priests on the altar, each one co-celebrating with the others! What a beautiful way to bring all nations together.
Even with all the benches inside and out, each Mass is crowded. The first service I attended, I found a spot near the back. An elderly gentleman walked by looking for a place to sit, and a young student gave him her seat and stood in the back. Within a minute, an elderly woman walked by, and he rose to give the seat to her. Across the aisle, people squeezed together to make room for him. This would be a scene that played itself time and time again at every Mass. It was so crowded; people were standing in rows along the sides and several rows deep in the back. And yet, I never felt a tense moment. The respect everyone had for each other was passed on like a warm ocean current. Moving slowly, everyone gave room to others along with a smile.
On the outside of the church is a row of confessionals. A place where people can unload their sins, faults and fears with a priest. Each cubicle has signs on it showing the languages the priest is able to speak. I watch people standing in line with deep reflection. Some with fear. Some looking for compassion. All serious about what was to take place.
Several years ago, I wrote a short piece about pockets. It referred to the pockets of the mind where we keep those things that are special to us. But we also have a tendency to keep those things that are not good for us. It is those deep pockets, where our fears are kept, that we can empty in the confessional. They seem to land on the floor, but when you look down, we see that they have been quickly swept away.
I wanted to photograph some of the people standing in line at the confessionals, as it seemed to reflect the true nature of the pilgrimage to Medjugorje; but I felt it would be violating their privacy. I told myself, I’m not a journalist, and that I will not do that.
Every day at precisely 6:40, when the Holy Mother is appearing to one of the visionaries, the church service stops in commemoration. I began to notice many people outside looking up in hopes of seeing the Miracle of the Sun. It took me a while to realize what they were doing. But when I did, I wanted to tell them, if they have to shield their eyes, they will not see it. Everyone but one, peeked through their fingers to no avail. I saw one woman staring straight into the sun with not even the slightest flinch. I had expected a profound expression on her face, but it was passive, as if reading.
On Thursday night, and again on Saturday night before we left, there was a service called The Exposition of the Holy Eucharist. It is a service, where the Body of Christ is placed in a large round gold colored disk, like that of a brilliant sun, called a monstrance. And the service is simply to adore the Precious Body. The Holy Eucharist.
Music is played. In the darkness of the church, words are shown on one of the front walls for those who wish to sing. Each verse is shown in a different language, so everyone can sing in their language or those of others. I loved hearing familiar music with different languages. The music along with the prayers had no boundaries. They did not have to rise up to God, because He was already with us. He just held out His hands and welcomed them.
I enjoy these services more than any other part of the trip. The people I went with are fantastic people. The food I had was incredible. The scenes I saw, the children at play, the languages, and the local residents all fascinated me. But none of these compared to the wonderful Adoration I quietly sat through.
I remember, during the first of these services, in a pause between the prayers of the priest and the music, a violin awakened. I have always loved the sound and music of that instrument. When I heard it, I took a deep breath and began to weep. Embarrassed, I looked around in the dimly lit church and realized I was not the only one with tears.
I have many times tried to describe the music of the violin but have been unable. I even discussed it with others, but to no avail. But I have realized, it is music with several emotions. It cries in agony and grief like a lover lost in death. It is the emotions of those solemn mysteries of Life like the birth of a child. I try to envision its notes as if they are small white butterflies escaping from within, but it doesn’t explain its strings of sadness. I see the notes as loneliness on a moonlit mountain, but it doesn’t define its strings of love and compassion, like a mother has for her children. I don’t know how else to describe its voice. I cannot. I even purchased an inexpensive one just to listen to it and feel its resonance. But all I discovered is, those who know how to play the violin are truly gifted.
On the last night we were there, I attended the second such Adoration. We had to get up in just a few hours for the 3-hour-trip to the nearest airport so I had meant to stay for just half the service. This time I chose to sit up in the balcony so I could watch the people. During the solemn music and gentle prayers of worship, I lost track of time. Before I realized it, the service was concluding. It had been a full hour! A bit disappointed, I slowly stood for the closing when the Holy Eucharist is placed back in the tabernacle. I watched the people down below. Very few stood. Out of over a thousand, maybe fifty. Then a few more rose here and there like bubbles slowly rising to the surface. By the time the service had concluded, only half of those below were standing. It seemed to me, no one wanted it to end.
I have never been in a church service before where the people didn’t want to leave. They were not in a hurry to run home so they could eat, or to the store, or to visit with one another. They were so at peace with the Holy Presence before them, they just didn’t want to leave.
What is it that holds people to one place?
It’s the mysteries of Eternity that binds us to our Faith. Whether we are Christian, Jewish, Muslim or the American Indian in tune with the Spirit; we cling to that which is our core. Unfortunately, most people never realize the importance of the Religions. After all on this Earth has passed away, the only thing of worth will be our beliefs and the history of what we have done with the life given us.
Very few of us will be able to stand with our head held high.