Seeking Answers With Field Trips in Faith

By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 25, 2007

MEDJUGORJE, Bosnia -- Nora McNulty, a Scottish grandmother, began climbing the hill at 5:50 a.m., having traveled 1,300 miles in search of something hard to find at home.

"Everybody is looking for peace, a calmness," she said. "Here I can take my mind off everyday living."

Long before farmers began tending their vineyards, at an hour when chatty crickets hiding among the wild pomegranate and fig trees made the only sound, McNulty, 63, started up the slope with 50 other pilgrims.

People have been coming to this rocky slope since June 24, 1981, when six children said the Virgin Mary appeared to them here. The crowds have grown so rapidly that an estimated 1 million people will visit this year, part of a global surge in spiritual travel.

According to travel agencies, religious Internet sites and analysts who study trends in spirituality, more people of just about every faith are visiting places with religious significance. Ten times more people are coming to Medjugorje now than a decade ago, and last year a record 6 million people visited the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall, in Jerusalem. Saudi Arabia said 2.1 million people went to Mecca last December, 300,000 more than in 2000. An estimated 70 million Hindus went to the Ganges River in January and February for spiritual cleansing.

Todd M. Johnson, director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Massachusetts, said 7 percent of the world's Christians -- about 150 million people -- are "on the move as pilgrims" each year.

"Perhaps the most important reason," he said, "is that people are increasingly interested in experiencing their faith through more than just reading or singing."

Growing numbers of religious travelers are also spending considerable time and money going to lesser-known spots, such as Santiago de Compostela in northeast Spain, where the apostle James is believed to be buried, and Czestochowa in Poland, where the apostle Luke is said to have painted the revered Black Madonna icon.

The Internet has allowed millions of people to learn about places they otherwise might never have heard of, and for many, cheaper airfare has made it easier to get there. Millions of people, including McNulty and others visiting this Balkan village, travel not as tourists but as pilgrims, seeking a chance to confirm, deepen or reflect upon their faith.

"Some people come expecting a miracle, but I've just come for peace, to feel free from worry and this horrible feeling that the world is ugly," said McNulty, finding her footing on the rocky path with a walking stick in one hand and rosary beads in the other.

The Pilgrimage Within

One recent Saturday evening, 166 people gathered at Gate 27C in the Glasgow airport to fly to Split on Croatia's Adriatic coast, one of the hottest tourist destinations in Europe. When they arrived, McNulty and her fellow Scots walked quickly past taxis waiting to take tourists to resort hotels. Instead they boarded buses that carried them four hours into the mountains of Bosnia, past quiet villages to a bustling town transformed by religious pilgrims.

"I have been hearing about this place for years," said McNulty, who has kind brown eyes, feathery gray hair and a soft, soothing voice. A Catholic who raised six boys and now helps care for her grandchildren, McNulty is a quiet believer who doesn't make a show of her faith. She began considering a pilgrimage at the urging of her sister, who had come here three times. Then one Sunday at Mass she heard about Medjugorje again, and signed up.

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