Author: Heather Parsons,
"Love One Another!" 13/2009 → Catholic Church
It is now over two decades since I first set foot on the red soil of Medjugorje in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina. I went to this place, where the Mother of God had allegedly been appearing daily to six young visionaries for a period of four years, not as a pilgrim, but as a skeptical Protestant journalist. Little did I know what changes were in store for me, for I witnessed there an event, which, had I heard of it from anyone else, I would never have believed.
I arrived in Medjugorje on June 24, 1985. Almost exactly seventeen years earlier I had entered the fascinating but all-too-cynical world of journalism. During that time I worked on national newspapers and a variety of magazines in areas ranging from women’s and human-interest stories to news and investigative reports.
If anybody had then asked me about my career, I would have said I had been everywhere, seen it all — from the brash, unreal world of music and movie stars to a meeting with Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and even a private audience with Pope Paul VI in the Vatican. (A real scoop, that one!) I covered stories of great human courage and achievement as well as those of utter degradation and inhumanity. And through all that time, I had managed to remain detached and objective.
When asked to investigate the events allegedly occurring in an obscure mountain valley of what was then Communist Yugoslavia, I little knew that, while my objectivity would remain intact, my detachment would be challenged in a way I had never before experienced.
What made me particularly suitable for this assignment was the fact that I was not a Roman Catholic. Since I had been brought up as a member of the minority (Protestant) Church of Ireland, the news editor of the Irish national Sunday newspaper I worked for felt I would bring both objectivity and a dash of reality to the assignment, a view with which I entirely concurred. Besides, the story was sure to be an interesting one, for it was the first time a national Irish newspaper would be reporting on the alleged apparitions.
It was very hot when, at four o’clock in the afternoon, the driver of the car I was traveling in pulled up in front of the twin-spired church of St. James in Medjugorje. We arranged to have him pick me up later and take me to a nearby village where I was to spend the night.
My first impressions were of the enormous crowds around the church. I learned later that a crowd of pilgrims 100,000 strong had gathered in the valley that day to celebrate the fourth anniversary of the apparitions of the “Queen of Peace.”
Introducing myself to the person assisting the English-speaking pilgrims, I asked if I could meet and interview the “visionaries” and the priests ministering to them. She told me with a slight smile that the evening services were just beginning. Perhaps I could just walk around and take in something of the local atmosphere. Tomorrow morning, she promised, she would help me arrange whatever interviews I required.
After making a firm appointment for the following day, I took her advice and for the next hour or so wandered about the grounds, watching, observing, and taking notes on all that I saw. My first impression — from the very moment I got out of the car and made my way around the church grounds — was of the total peace that seemed to reign in this (then) still uncommercialized place, despite the huge throngs of people.
Under the trees, I saw groups of people talking with priests and the brown-robed Franciscan friars based at St. James. Others sat or knelt, alone or in small groups, praying, reading, or talking quietly in various languages. Four years after the first reports of these Marian apparitions, people from almost every country imaginable had gathered here, drawn by something that struck me as utterly unbelievable and absurd.
Shortly after six o’clock I managed to find a place to stand. It was by the right outer wall of St. James’ Church, which served as the focal point for the numerous tiny hamlets dotting the valley. The late-June sunshine was strong and bright. I closed my eyes and leaned back against the warmth of the stone wall. The evening services had begun, the church was packed to capacity, and the crowd overflowed to the sides and front of the church, stretching way back under the trees.
Loudspeakers relayed everything, in the Croatian language, to the crowds outside. Only later did I learn that they were praying the Rosary and that what I was then about to experience coincided with the daily apparition. All I knew at the time was that the sun was shining, the atmosphere was peaceful, my driver would not be returning for several hours, and I might even catch a tan as I turned my face, eyes closed, toward the sun, which shone down so strongly above the line of trees opposite the church wall.
Basking in the warm sunlight and mulling over the hard-nosed questions I would be asking during tomorrow’s interviews, I suddenly became aware of the shrill sounds of children’s voices. They were calling loudly and urgently to their parents. Looking around, I saw that they were pointing into the sky in front of me.
Lifting my hand to shade my eyes from the sun’s glare, I followed the direction of their fingers and, for one short, stark moment, doubted the reality of my own sight. Closing my eyes momentarily, I looked again. No mistake about it. The sun above me was spinning like a giant top!
As I watched, rings of colors came streaming out of it: red, green, yellow, blue, circling independently, and all the while the sun continued to spin. Its core turned red, then black, then regained its usual brightness. Above it, slightly to the right, I saw white cloud-like letters taking shape. As I watched, the word ‘Peace” appeared in the sky above the dancing sun — in English, but in what I would have described as Celtic script, like that of the ancient Book of Kells, which Irish monks had transcribed many centuries before. After remaining in the sky for what seemed like twenty or thirty seconds — although to be honest I was not keeping time — the word began to melt away, and all the while the sun continued to spin and dance.
Now and then I tore my gaze away from the sky to look at the reactions of others. Seconds after the amazing spectacle began, I realized that I had no need to shade my eyes. I could look at the sun directly, something that would be impossible under normal circumstances. Most of the people around me were also watching, wide-eyed, apparently witnessing the same extraordinary scene. Others, walking by, stared at us gazing into the sky. They followed our eyes and, though some stopped and stared in amazement or disbelief, others looked back at us and, shaking their heads, walked on, obviously seeing nothing out of the ordinary.
At one point, as I continued to stare at the sky (the whole experience lasted about thirty-five minutes), the spinning sun with its surrounding swirl of colors seemed to break away from the heavens and come rushing down toward us. All around I heard cries of fear mingled with prayerful ejaculations. The sun came closer and closer until all I could see was a great golden light. Strangely, I felt no fear at all. Then, abruptly, the sun stopped in its descent and withdrew back into the sky, where it continued to spin.
It was just after this that there occurred the part of this event that affected my life most profoundly. As I continued to stare at the sun, I saw, gushing up from it, what looked like a fountain of light. Just as with a real beating fountain, when the water reaches its highest point, this fountain of light broke away and, to my utter astonishment, there appeared in its place a dazzling robed figure with outstretched arms. It shone so brightly that I could never describe the whiteness of the garment. But in that figure, despite my lack of religious interest for so many years, I instantly recognized the Risen Christ.
Though I could clearly make out the sleeves that hung from the wrists and flowed down to the hem of the garment where it touched the feet, I could not see the face. Try as I might, I could not make out the features of that dazzling countenance, although I knew it was there, framed by the hair that fell to the shoulders.
All around me, people were pulling at my arms, asking, “Do you see the Host coming up out of the sun?” Knowing nothing of the Host, I kept replying, “No. But do you see the figure coming out of the sun?”
Nine times this figure vanished only to reappear immediately, always preceded by that fountain of light. At one point I recall holding my hand in front of my face and still seeing the figure, as if my hand were not there!
As I stood there looking up at the sky, I realized that my face was awash with tears; and the only thought in my mind was that I was standing in the presence of God.
Afterwards, when the sun regained its natural, still position in the sky, I spoke to about three-dozen people who had been standing close to me. Without mentioning my own experience, I asked them about theirs. Many had had a similar experience, seeing the sun spin, with the colors swirling around it; and most of them had witnessed its inexplicable rush toward earth. Some claimed to have seen the figure of a woman holding a child in the center of its brightness, others to have seen a cross. None had seen the word, “Peace.”
But what most surprised me was that no one mentioned the shining figure I had repeatedly seen. It was only after my returning home that my husband, a Roman Catholic with a deep faith (though he had never been able to sway me from my Protestant beliefs), said to me quietly, but with utter conviction: “But don’t you realize what happened? Those others saw the Host come out of the sun and recognized Jesus in it. You saw the Body, because you had no concept of the Host.”
The realization, which came to me then, would completely change my life. But in the days immediately following the event, I put the whole experience behind me and set about interviewing the visionaries, the priests, and whoever else I could arrange meetings with. What I had expected to find, on setting out for Medjugorje, was Marian propaganda. Instead what I discovered there was the Gospel message. “Turn back to my Son!” the six young visionaries reported the Virgin as saying. “Repent. Confess. Pray. Fast. Change your lives.” It was a Mother’s call; and it appeared to evoke a heartfelt response from almost every person who visited the valley.
The next day I was introduced to a priest who had been praying over the people. Thinking his behavior strange and abnormal (after all, I had never seen this sort of thing before), I had decided not to go near him. But my English-speaking contact introduced us. Then to my horror, I heard her say, “Father, would you pray with Heather?”
Before I knew what had happened I was sitting on a large rock close to the church with the priest holding his hands over my head and invoking the Holy Spirit upon me. He prayed for my life, my family, and my work as a journalist. He asked the Holy Spirit to guide me. He told me that he saw before me two roads leading from Medjugorje. There was the one by which I had traveled into the valley, and I could go back by that road, if I so wished. But he said that God was opening up another road for me. If I took it, God would change my life forever. He also said God had a special message for me, and that if I prayed and opened my Bible, He would speak to me. All I could think was why God would want to speak to me — a person who had ignored His existence for so many years.
The night before leaving Medjugorje, I reflected on everything I had experienced. I understood that I had come face to face with the reality of God’s existence. And now what was I going to do about it? I suddenly found myself on my knees beside my bed. But how, or what, was I to pray after so many years! And then I recalled something that had occurred that day. A pilgrim standing in front of me at the English-language Mass that morning (I had attended it mainly from professional interest) had turned to me and handed me a piece of paper with a prayer written on it. I had thrust it into my pocket, intending to throw it into the first wastebasket I saw.
Now, reaching into my pocket, I pulled out that paper and began to read. It was a prayer to the Holy Spirit inviting Him to enter into my life and to change and heal my heart from within. As I read the prayer, my eyes filled with tears. I remembered what the priest had said about opening my Bible and allowing God to speak to me. Oddly enough, the day before my departure for Medjugorje, while packing my suitcase, I had thrown in my Bible at the last moment. Why? I have no idea. Perhaps because I was going to a “religious shrine” and might need ammunition to repudiate the claims being made for it! Now, I rose to my feet, went to my suitcase, and took out the Bible. An aunt, a missionary in Kenya, had presented it to me on my twenty-first birthday. The only times I had ever opened it was when I was asked to look up a short verse to append to a family obituary notice in a national newspaper. Now, recalling the priest’s words, yet at a loss as to how God would speak to me, I opened it at random.
The Bible had never been used and could have opened anywhere. But when I looked down, my eyes were immediately drawn to a group of verses, which I then read. They were from the sixth chapter of Gospel of St. John, where Jesus spoke to His disciples about the Bread of Life, saying: “If you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you will not have life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood will have life eternal, and I will raise him up on the last day, for my flesh is real flesh, and my blood real drink.”
The “Real Presence” of Jesus in the Eucharist was the one article of the Catholic faith that I had always rejected out of hand. But now, in the quiet of that room in that far-off country, a feeling of profound peace entered my heart. I heard myself saying to Jesus, “You know this is my real stumbling block about the Catholic faith. But if you wish it, give me the grace to understand and accept it.”
It would take me a week after returning home to get up the nerve to write the story of what I had witnessed at Medjugorje. Even then I could not bring myself to relate some of the more personal details. And, after the ensuing (nationwide) publicity, that should have been the end of it. But try as I might, I could not ignore what I had experienced at Medjugorje. I began to attend Holy Mass with my family. I joined a local prayer group where the deep faith and disarming honesty of a wonderful Spirit-filled priest touched my heart even further. And thus, by degrees, I came to believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and its powerful healing effect upon our lives.
More and more I wanted to join this Church and experience for myself the joy of this great gift of the Eucharistic Presence of Jesus. But to turn my back on my family and the faith-filled community in which I had been raised was not an easy decision to make. I prayed and agonized over the pain I would cause them. Then one day, upon accompanying a group of people on an all-night vigil to the Basilica in Knock — the place in the West of Ireland where, a century earlier, the Mother of God had appeared to a group of villagers (the apparitions have since been recognized by the Holy See) — I did what I should have done all along. I entrusted the whole matter to Jesus and His Blessed Mother and asked them to show me the way forward.
That night, in the Basilica, an Irish nun with a special ministry toward priests gave the address. Sister Briege McKenna spoke with passion about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and its healing power. Everything she said was what I had come to believe in my own heart but had lacked the courage to act on. As I listened, weeping, God gave me the courage to make the decision. I returned home and sought instruction in the Roman Catholic faith.
On December 8, 1988, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, three and a half years after I had first traveled to Medjugorje to expose the “fraud” occurring there, I was received into the Church. The belief I had come to have in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist would become the foundation of my new life. Now I too recognized Him in the Host, just as did those around me on that June evening in that much-blessed place called Medjugorje.