Holy mother draws millions of tourists to Bosnian village

2010-09-04 07:50

Medjugorje, Bosnia – How is it that in three decades Medjugorje, an unheard-of Bosnian village with a few houses and a church, has become an attraction visited every year by 2.3 million tourists from all over the world?

The village’s fame dates from 1981, when six children said they saw the Virgin Mary on the hilltop near the village.

Three of those original witnesses say they see Mary every day, and the other three say she reveals herself to them regularly.

The receivers of the messages say that Mary appears to them during prayer and speaks to them.

They memorise their words and write them down, before the priests distribute them further.

The story of apparitions quickly drew believers to Medjugorje, which is in the Croatian part of Bosnia, halfway between Mostar and the Adriatic port Of Ploce. Croats are overwhelmingly Catholics.

In the early days, there was no infrastructure to cater to the visitors, and drinking water had to be brought to Medjugorje, known for its scorching summers.

Where there once was just empty space, rows of benches now surround the village’s two-towered church.

The priest holds Holy Mass in an open tent in front of the church, but in the summer people tend to huddle in the shade of the few nearby trees.

There are many confessional booths lined up around the church, with priests inside capable of absolving sinners in no fewer than 16 languages.

The apparitions have been accompanied by flourishing commerce.

There are now hotels and hostels with room for 30?000 guests.

Dozens and dozens of shops offer religious memorabilia, and tour-operators from across the world organise visits.

But while Medjugorje thrives on the alleged apparition of the Mother of God, the head of the diocese, Mostar Bishop Ratko Peric, is sceptical.

On his internet site, the bishop noted that Mary’s appearance in other times and places has been much less frequent.

Since 1981, he pointed out, there have been more than 40?000 reported apparitions in Medjugorje.

He asks whether the whole business is “an unacceptable manipulation”, but he stops short of calling it a hoax.

In Medjugorje, Father Tomislav Pervan, a Franciscan priest who served in the local church in the 1980s and has since returned, balks at his own bishop’s suggestions.

“Initial apparitions happened without a priest at hand. For the children it was like lightning from clear sky. One cannot talk six children into telling exactly the same story,” he said.

In March, the Vatican established a commission to investigate the events at Medjugorje.

Whatever doubts there may be in the Catholic Church, they’ve done nothing to thin the ranks of visitors to Medjugorje.

At the peak of the season, 400 busloads of believers arrive each day to watch, pray and shop for souvenirs.

The typical tour includes several masses, confessions, prayers, a visit to one of the six people in touch with the Virgin Mary and a walk to the hilltop where she is said first to have showed herself.

Some visitors come out of desperation – to plead to the Holy Mother to cure an illness or to resolve a family problem, one of the guides said.

While even an unfavourable ruling by the Vatican’s commission is unlikely to discourage people from coming, a confirmation of the miracle would likely push the numbers up.

Two recognised places of apparition, Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal, receive six and five million visitors annually – more than twice the number who come to the Bosnian Croat village.

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