Madonna In The Balkans The Word In Medjugorje, A Remote Mountain Village In Yugoslavia, Is That The Virgin Mary Has Been Around, Like Clockwork, For 10 Years. And A Former Wall Streeter, Mary Fistler, Is Acting As A Tour Guide To Pilgrims.

Posted: June 21, 1991

MEDJUGORJE, Yugoslavia — The word began to trickle out Monday morning, and by noon, the hundreds of Catholic pilgrims staying in the guesthouses along the nameless main street here were buzzing with the news.

The Virgin Mary would appear at 10 p.m.

"Hey, are you coming to the apparition?" asked Mary Fistler, who left her Wall Street job four years ago to work as a tour guide in this remote mountain village midway down the Balkan peninsula. The way Fistler asked the question, she might have been planning a party. Several people were sprawled around her kitchen in cutoffs and monk sandals. All nodded vigorously.

"Ivan, we'll have a regular apparition at 6:40 tonight," Fistler continued, reviewing the evening's schedule. "Then there will be 7 o'clock Mass. Healings will go until 9. Then we'll assemble on Apparition Hill. Our Lady will appear at 10."

Miracles are regularly scheduled events in Medjugorje; that's one reason why pilgrims have traveled here by the millions over the last decade. Unlike the better-known Marian shrines at Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal, where the visions were limited to a brief period, Medjugorje is still a place where the Virgin Mary is said to be present and still able to work miracles. To skeptics who question the promptness of the Virgin Mary's appearances, Fistler responds, "She's the mother of God. She can do whatever she wants to do."

Nearly every day, someone reports another sign of her presence: The sun spins in the sky. The cross on a rocky hilltop disappears. A silver rosary turns to gold. And thousands of lukewarm and lapsed Catholics, whether they see these things or not, renew their faith during visits to Medjugorje.

It all started 10 years ago, on June 25, when two village girls reported seeing the Virgin Mary as they led their flock of sheep down the steep promontory, now known as Apparition Hill. Four friends who rushed to the spot say they also witnessed this vision of a beautiful, veiled woman in a gray

dress, with dark hair and rosy cheeks.

The six original visionaries are now young adults, but to this day they still claim regular visits from the Virgin Mary. Two of them, Ivan Dragicevic, 26, and Vicka Ivankovic, 27, say they receive daily messages from her at 6:40 p.m., and twice on Mondays and Fridays. It was after one of these sessions, that Dragicevic announced that the Virgin Mary would make a special public appearance on Apparition Hill.

Most of the time, visiting pilgrims only hear the substance of these messages at Dragicevic's daily public briefings from the terrace of his home. Crowds of 200 and more sometimes gather outside under the basketball net, asking questions such as, "What language does Our Lady speak?"

"Croatian," answers Dragicevic, a somber young man who rarely smiles. ''She doesn't want to torture me by making me learn a new language."

The public apparition "is really something rare," Fistler said on the afternoon of the big event. "We're very, very fortunate."

Like all miracles in Medjugorje, the timing of this one was well-chosen. The stream of pilgrims was off by 40 percent in spring because of ethnic tensions in Yugoslavia. The Croatian hamlet of Medjugorje - the name means ''between two hills" - lies in the predominantly Muslim republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But with the approach of the 10th anniversary, guesthouses started filling up this week.

Many pilgrims were hoping that the Virgin Mary might use the occasion to present a sign about the future of the world. The special public apparition only heightened the expectation. Pamela Luceno of Rye, N.Y., who converted to Catholicism from a Protestant faith during a visit in 1988, was certain the sign would be "something lasting, perhaps something in the sky." She could hardly wait until nightfall for a glimpse of the Virgin Mary on Apparition Hill.

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Ten years ago, when the visionaries reported their first encounters with the Virgin Mary, Medjugorje was a collection of crude stone houses in a scrubby valley between two hills of white stone. The stone reflects heat, giving the region the reputation of being the hottest in Yugoslavia.

When pilgrims first started coming to Medjugorje, they had no choice but to camp in the shadeless field. There wasn't a single guesthouse or public toilet.

Yugoslavia's communist government tried for years to snuff out the fledgling shrine by resisting construction and harassing Catholics. The pastor of the town's St. James Church spent 18 months in jail. Even the local bishops denounced the visions as hallucinations and refused to preach in Medjugorje.

The pilgrims kept coming anyway, bringing hard currency and a resilient faith: Americans in belly packs and sneakers. Elegant Italians in strappy sandals. Ruddy Irish teenagers toting guitars. French girls with streaming hair and unshaven legs.

The courtyard outside the church still echoes with a babel of languages. A row of outdoor confessionals offers forgiveness in a dozen tongues.

Today, Medjugorje's main street looks like that of dozens of other small tourist towns. At the modest stucco church, pilgrims can now stream across the street to one of the many shady cafes for a cooling ice-cream sundae. They browse in souvenir shops trading in rosaries and a stunning assortment of Virgin Mary statues, from pint-size to life-size.

The Vatican still does not recognize the miracle at Medjugorje, and its official policy discourages pilgrimages. But on Monday, the afternoon before the public apparition, the Bishop of Mostar made a conciliatory visit to Medjugorje. He announced that the church was forming a commission to investigate the visions and oversee Medjugorje's religious program - the first step in making this site a church-sanctioned Marian shrine.

The main emphasis at Medjugorje is on spiritual renewal through intensive prayer. Pilgrims spend their days commuting between Masses, prayer groups, lectures and rosary circles. They make arduous climbs up Medjugorje's two

hills, dubbed Apparition Hill and Mount Crucifix, waking at 5 a.m. to avoid the heat. Many walk barefoot up the rocky path, hoping for special heavenly consideration. Every evening at 6:40, small crowds gather outside the church in the hope of catching a sign of the Virgin Mary's presence.

The talk is of peace and love, faith in God. People sleep on benches outside the church and wear layers of rosaries around their necks, giving the place the atmosphere of a '60s be-in. There are even several communal houses in Medjugorje. A small group of expatriates can always be found in Mary Fistler's kitchen.

Fistler, 35, who looks like an unreconstructed hippie, with Earth sandals and a copy of the Laurel's Kitchen cookbook, said she was dabbling in crystals and new-age rituals, searching for meaning in life, when she came to Medjugorje. "My life was all twisted," she said, looking at the ceiling as she talked. "Medjugorje was the beginning of my being able to enjoy life, to have fun."

Those who visit Medjugorje for a few days, like Luceno, come to reinforce their faith. During her first visit three years ago, Luceno found that converting to Catholicism helped her weather a difficult time in her personal life.

Luceno, about 40, whose white linen shorts and gold jewelry set off a deep tan, still finds it difficult to describe the impact of Medjugorje.

"I had been in an abusive marriage for years. I had a lot of anger. Here I found peace," she began. "Even if the visions aren't true, if for some reason it's found the Blessed Mother never appeared here, so many people were converted, were healed. It's been a blessed event for 10 years."

She recently remarried, to another devout Catholic, and has started to alter the way she conducts her life. She feels uncomfortable with her country- club friends. "My husband and I are moving toward people who are good Christians," she said.

It is past 9 p.m., but there is still some light in the sky as pilgrims stream through the fields and up the unforgiving path of Apparition Hill, stepping lightly over sharp rocks, sun-bleached and brittle as petrified bone. An Irish woman, Molly Smith, picks her way with a cane. Blind and barely able to walk, she is determined to experience the apparition.

A young man, also Irish, named Robbie Hurley, steers her over the difficult terrain. Hurley, who gave up a career in a rock band to work as a Medjugorje guide, regales Smith with anecdotes about the six visionaries.

People in Medjugorje often discuss the visionaries' relations with the Virgin Mary in intimate detail. Hurley recalls when Mirjana Soldo knelt in prayer with the Virgin Mary for four hours.

"The Virgin Mary kept looking over at Mirjana, who was pregnant at the time," Hurley says. "Four hours they were kneeling there. And Our Lady says to Mirjana, 'Look at your condition. Go get yourself a pillow.' "

"Ah," says Smith, stopping to rest. "She's so human."

At the top of the hill, almost a thousand pilgrims gather around a wooden cross. They come to this spot as if drawn by the deep well of memory, like the early Christians who gathered around prayer rocks. Dragicevic leads the rosary, and the pilgrims repeat the words in a dozen languages at once. Their voices reverberate with conviction; everyone knows that only those with a rock-solid faith have a chance to experience the apparition.

Candles flicker at the base of the cross. Overhead, a rare cloud is sealing off the sky. A sign, maybe? Doesn't it look a little like the veiled head of the Virgin Mary?

A moment before 10 p.m., a translator announces that Dragicevic has said, ''This is the moment of the apparition. Please face the cross. And no pictures."

A thousand people kneel amid the rock, their eyes riveted on the cross. Minutes pass in silence, but for the singing of the mosquitoes. No one dares look away. A few break the rules and snap their cameras. One woman, sick with cancer, cries out, "Jesus, help me. I'm in pain."

Other than that, the casual observer sees nothing extraordinary happen. After 10 minutes, Dragicevic announces that he has seen the Virgin Mary and that she has given him a message. She promises to pray for everyone present, ''especially the sick lady." And then it is over.

People stand around talking, comparing experiences: "I didn't see her, but I felt her." And the long trek down the hill begins.

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