(June 14, 1958 March 4, 2008)
Little did I know that when I made my first pilgrimage to Medjugorje in 1985 that I would find myself drawn to return again and again. This past June I made another pilgrimage to spend two weeks in prayer and reflection. I had the joy of being present for the 26th anniversary of the apparitions and attending the priest's retreat. However, this is the first time that I am writing a reflection on my experience in Medjugorje. A good friend of mine, Mate, suggested that it was time for me to start writing about my experiences. Actually his exact words were, "Yo, Father don't you think its time to start writing about all that has happened to you!" (By the way, unlike me who only speaks English and a bit of Spanish, my friend was able to ask me the same question in 5 different languages! ) I was touched by his invitation and sat down to write this reflection.
When I was studying theology as I was preparing to be ordained a Jesuit priest, I learned that "symbols/signs (given by God) have an excess of meaning." This insight came alive again this past June while I was in Medjugorje for the anniversary of the apparition and the priest's retreat (this trip was either my ninth or tenth trip - I have lost count - now instead of counting how many times I have been, I thank the Blessed Mother for her loving invitation to come and stay!)
Undoubtedly, the extraordinary symbol that we are given in Medjugorje is that the Blessed Mother has been appearing here for the past twenty six years. We must understand that the Blessed Mother always points us to a greater sign than herself. She always draws us to her Son. In Medjugorje, we are truly given a gift because Mary calls us to her Son through the sacraments. As a priest, I am touched and moved when I see pilgrims returning to the Eucharist and to confession. I find that when I celebrate mass and hear confessions, I experience a little bit of heaven. As a sinner myself, I often feel unworthy when I am listening to pilgrims during confession and they generously open their hearts and their lives to me. It is through the sacraments of the Eucharist and Confession that we are given the grace to be healed and to courageously become signs to the world of God's fidelity and love. This is one of the many graces that exist in Medjugorje - the grace to be a sign like our Blessed Mother. If we live and embrace the messages of Medjugorje we too will point other people to Jesus.
This time in Medjugorje, I had a feeling of being at home. I was no longer a visitor...I was returning home...home where I would experience peace and be filled with awe and wonder. This feeling of being at home began the minute I arrived. Within minutes of my arrival I was given the gift of being present for an apparition. I have experienced this gift many times, but this time, while I was kneeling and praying I had a sense that Mary wanted me to again open my heart to how God would use me during my stay. This feeling of being at home is both a grace and a challenge. Since, when you are at home you can no longer sit on the side lines and wait for God to act. When you are at home you are called to labor with God. When you are at home you are called to live the Gospel with all your mind, heart and soul.
There are so many stories that I can share of my time in Medjugorje, so many experiences of God's love and Mary's presence that even thinking of them makes me feel humble and grateful! However, let me share with you one experience of how God works through our Blessed Mother. During my two weeks in Medjugorje, I had been praying to celebrate mass for the Cenacolo community. As a matter of fact, I had started praying for this even before I arrived in Medjugorje. As circumstances were in Medjugorje, it appeared that my prayer was not going to be answered, since during my first week I was not asked to celebrate mass and during my second week there were plenty of priests present for the retreat. The Cenacolo community had many priests to celebrate mass for them. As my time in Medjugorje was drawing to a close I had resigned myself to the fact that I would not be celebrating mass for the Cenacolo community. As a matter of fact, on Friday as part of my fast and prayer I said to the Blessed Mother "Mary thank you for all the gifts you have given me during my two weeks here. Thank you even for the fact that this time I will not be celebrating mass for the Cenacolo community. Also thank you for allowing us, the priests, to be present at an apparition. (We, the priests, on retreat had been told that the visionaries would be present that evening and we were invited to attend the apparition.)"
Little did I know that even though I thought I was being generous in my prayer Our Blessed Mother had other plans. Within moments of my prayer, my friend and my gracious host, Mate, received a call from the Cenacolo community. He said, Father, the women's community of the Cenacolo needs a priest to celebrate mass tonight at six, can you do it? They have no one else? I asked myself can I celebrate mass for the community. Now my prayer was finally answered, but not the way I expected. What was I supposed to do? If I celebrated mass I would miss the apparition. At that moment, I had a great sense of peace. I felt as if Mary said to me, be at peace I will honor whatever decision you make. After a few moments, I said to Mate, yes, I will do it. Without hesitation I will celebrate mass. I realized that the invitation Mary had given me to open my heart meant just that - open your heart to my Son in every way possible. It is only when you open your heart and even more so when it breaks that you begin to understand the love that Jesus has for you.
I had a wonderful and blessed experience celebrating mass for the women of the Cenacolo community. I felt again as if I was in heaven. Their singing and their prayers (in Italian) filled me with joy! I felt as if I was on holy ground. I told the women a story about when I returned from my first trip to Medjugorje. My first trip was in 1985, and on the plane ride home I fell sound asleep. When I was asleep, I saw in my mind's eye Mary and she was holding the baby Jesus. I heard Mary say to me, Peter, my son, take my Son back with you to the United States. In the background, I heard singing, it sounded like angels to me. I had never heard these voices again - until I celebrated mass for the women of the Cenacolo community. I told them that their voices reminded me of angels.
So now, I am back in New York City. I am preparing to begin my new assignment as a teacher of theology at one of our Jesuit high schools in Manhattan. Each day, I face the challenge of living from the graces I experienced in Medjugorje, but more importantly, living from the grace of the sacraments. So you see, next time you receive a sign from God - open your hearts - for He wants to use you as an instrument of His love and care for all whom you meet.