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Seeking Answers With Field Trips in Faith
Bosnian Hill Is Among World's Sites Drawing Ever More Pilgrims

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.

McNulty knows the Vatican hasn't recognized that anything miraculous happened here, as it has with Lourdes in France and Fatima in Portugal. But that didn't stop her from saving all year to pay for the $840 week-long trip. She said she believes in miracles, and she noted that the six children who said they saw the Virgin Mary are now in their 30s and 40s and have told unchanging stories of their experience for 26 years.

The Rev. William Fraser, a Catholic priest who accompanied the group from Scotland, said that even if the Vatican never endorses Medjugorje, "it wouldn't affect what it has meant for me."

Fraser first came here in the early 1980s and has returned many times. He said he believes more people make religious pilgrimages now because "the physical journey to a place is similar to our own walk in life, not just to a place, but within ourselves. The physical going helps open ourselves to the pilgrimage within. It helps us find the answer to what we are searching for."

It was almost 4 a.m. Sunday when buses carrying the large group from Scotland pulled into Medjugorje. Fraser recalled that when he first visited, around 1984, this sunny patch of the Balkans was home to a few hundred poor farmers tending tobacco fields and vineyards, and there wasn't a single guest room or restaurant.

Today there are 15,000 beds for tourists and more guesthouses are being built to accommodate the growing throngs. Dirt paths have been paved and there are souvenir shops, tourist agencies and pizzerias. The number of visitors on any given day often exceeds the estimated 4,000 population.

"Even with the crowds it is spiritually refreshing," Fraser said.

Skeptics suggest -- quietly -- that villagers' steadfast belief in the Virgin Mary appearances, which the faithful claim are still happening, might have something to do with the economic boom the visitors have brought. Even a local bishop has asked people to stop talking about sightings of the mother of Jesus, which, he notes, church officials have not confirmed. Vatican officials say they are studying the situation in Medjugorje.

The official jobless rate in Bosnia is over 40 percent, and in many villages nearly all those able to work leave for Germany, Austria or other countries. But in Medjugorje, which means "between the hills," local people are building new homes to accommodate more paying guests, and they are earning profits from selling such things as folding stools for those in line at confessionals or "Pray Hard" shirts with a picture of jeans with holes in the knees.

Mario Vasilj, 40, said that "everyone is touched economically" by the ever-growing number of foreigners who walk around the village with rosary beads in their hands. He works for a tour company that opened just four years ago but now brings 10,000 pilgrims a year from overseas. There are at least eight travel agencies with offices here that specialize in pilgrimage travel, now a global multibillion-dollar industry catering to those seeking not a beach or Paris, but a destination for introspection.

"I enjoyed Disneyland but this is better," McNulty said.

She recalled the thrill on her granddaughter's face when the girl saw Disney characters. "But seeing Snow White doesn't give you the peace and closeness to God," she said. "If I had more money, I would go on more pilgrimages."

'Spiritual Recharge'

In spotless white sneakers, McNulty stepped on the rocks worn to a shine by the multitudes who had gone before her. The sun was still rising, and it was already muggy on a day when the midday temperature would reach into the humid 80s.

The Rev. Dominic Towey, an Irish priest, began to say the rosary, and McNulty and the others joined in with Hail Marys as they climbed what is now called Apparition Hill. They reached the top an hour later and stood at the foot of a white statue of the Virgin Mary, which overlooks the vineyards and village below.

Towey asked for silence, which he said was rare in today's busy world. He asked his fellow pilgrims to reflect quietly on why they had come.

Some knelt, most stood. Back home they ran companies, raised families, worked at large accounting firms or on muddy construction sites. Most were church-going Catholics, though some belonged to other faiths and a few were not sure what they believed.

Interviewed later, some said that there on the silent hillside, they were heavy with a feeling they could have done more with their lives. Some were searching for ways to come to terms with disappointments or deaths. Many described their sadness about living in a world convulsed with war. Although this village wasn't directly touched by the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Muslims, Orthodox Christians and Catholics were all killed in sectarian fighting that raged not far away.

Nearly everyone interviewed said they had come in search of, as one put it, "a spiritual recharge," or as another said, "something beautiful in today's assault of negativity."

"I am a worrier," said McNulty, after she had knelt and prayed and studied some of the handwritten notes and names carved into smooth slabs of marble and jagged rock. She said the place left her with "a feeling of being away from the rat race, of being closer to God. . . . Here you have the solitude to put your mind on prayer, the time and chance to have peace and quiet."

As she hiked back down the rocky path, streams of people came up. Most were from Italy and the United States, including four men carrying an ill middle-age woman on a canvas stretcher. Many described themselves as unlikely pilgrims, including Ted Rice, 65, a retired whiskey blender who said he spent 30 years away from the church and is turned off by the "holy, holy Bible thumpers." He had never flown before, but applied for a passport and boarded a plane in hopes that this place could bring his faith to "the next level."

For the rest of her week here, McNulty said she didn't worry about buying groceries or the other concerns of her daily life; her sparse guesthouse had no computer or phone. She went to daily Mass and enjoyed being in a rare gathering of people focused on their faith.

Sitting outside the village church one afternoon, McNulty said she normally found it hard to talk aloud about religion.

"I wouldn't talk about this in a mall. . . . I wouldn't say to someone, 'I'll pray for you,' " she said. "But here I am not timid about talking about faith, prayer."

Special correspondent Karla Adam in London and researcher Samuel Sockol in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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