A Jew Visits Medjugorje

A Jew Visits Medjugorje

© David Burton 2023

Apparition Hill

     Medjugorje is a Catholic pilgrimage site is today’s Bosnia-Herzegovina. My family – my wife, my two daughters and myself – are Jewish. In the late 1980’s, my wife joined in a pilgrimage to Medjugorje (in what was then Yugoslavia) along with a local Catholic family and a local Catholic priest. So what was this lone Jew doing on a Catholic pilgrimage to a foreign Catholic pilgrimage site?

     First, some background on Medjugorje.

     Medjugorje is a town located in southwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina, about 16 miles southwest of Mostar 12 miles east of the border with Croatia. The town is geographically part of Herzegovina. Since 1981, it has become a popular site of Catholic pilgrimages due to Our Lady of Medjugorje, a purported series of apparitions of Mary, the mother of Jesus, to six local children that are supposedly still happening to this day.
     The name Medjugorje literally means "between mountains". At an altitude of 660 feet above sea level, it has a mild Mediterranean climate. The town consists of an ethnically homogeneous Croat population of 2,306. The Roman Catholic parish includes four neighboring villages. Since 2019, pilgrimages to Medjugorje have been authorized by the Vatican.
     During World War II, the Franciscan Catholica of Bosnia and Herzegovina played a leading role in the slaughter and forced conversions of Serbs. 66 Catholic friars of the Franciscan order were killed by the Partisans, mostly at the end of the war. This was the place where, some 40 years after these atrocities took place and exactly 10 years before the Bosnian War broke out, residents began reporting apparitions in Medjugorje, which called for prayer, conversion, fasting, penance and peace.
     In 1981, six local children said they had seen visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Medjugorje then became an unapproved destination of Catholic pilgrimages.
     "Our Lady of Medjugorje" is the title given to the apparition by those who believe that Mary, mother of Jesus, has been appearing from 24 June 1981 until today to six children, now adults, in Medjugorje (then part of communist Yugoslavia). "Most Blessed Virgin Mary", "Queen of Peace" and "Mother of God" are words the apparition has allegedly introduced herself with.
     The messages attributed to Our Lady of Medjugorje have a strong following among Catholics worldwide. Medjugorje has become one of the most popular pilgrimage sites for Catholics in the world and has turned into Europe's third most important apparition site, where each year more than 1 million people visit. It has been estimated that 30 million pilgrims have come to Medjugorje since the reputed apparitions began in 1981.
     On August 21, 1996, the Vatican Press Office spokesman declared that Catholics could travel on pilgrimage to Medjugorje and that priests could accompany them.
     A Vatican commission to study the Medjugorje question was set up by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010. It was reported on 18 January 2014 to have completed its work, to be communicated to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The commission's findings were positive towards recognizing the supernatural nature of the first appearances, and rejected the hypothesis of a demonic origin of the apparitions. But it could not reach a finding on the reported subsequent apparitions, despite a majority of the commission recognizing the spiritual benefits that Medjugorje had brought to pilgrims.
     In the years leading up to the breakup of Yugoslavia, travel of pilgrims was not hindered by the state. During the Bosnian War, Medjugorje remained in the hands of the Croatian Defence Council and in 1993 became part of the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia. By the Dayton Agreement in 1995, Medjugorje was incorporated into the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, populated mostly by Bosniaks and Croats. It lies within the Herzegovina-Neretva Canton, one of ten autonomous regions established so that no ethnic group could dominate the Federation. After the Bosnian War ended, peace came to the area and UN peace troops were stationed in western Herzegovina.
     The town and its environs have boomed economically since the war. Over a thousand hotel and hostel beds are available for pilgrims to the town. With approximately one million visitors annually, the municipality of Medjugorje has the most overnight stays in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Mostar International Airport, located approximately 12 miles to the northeast and which was closed in 1991, reopened for civil aviation in 1998 and has made air travel to region easier since then. The road network was expanded after the Bosnian War.
     On 12 May 2019, the Vatican officially authorized pilgrimage to Medjugorje. The first Vatican sanctioned pilgrimage then took place for five days from 2-6 August 2019.[301]

     In the latter half of the 1980’s my younger daughter, E, was still in high school. Her closest friend, K, went out early one Saturday morning for a bicycle ride. A few miles from her house, she was struck by a car driven by a drunk driver and was paralyzed from the waist down. After weeks of intensive care, it became apparent that medical actions were not going to reverse the paralysis. K, her parents, and her family were (and are) devout Catholics. As such, they prayed for a miracle.

     Following K’s accident, her high school friends, including my daughter, all came together to support her and her family. Shortly after K came home for the hospital, my daughter came to me and asked if I would buy her a car so she could transport K and her wheel chair around. That was a no-brainer and E quickly had a second-hand Datson (now Nissan) to chauffer K to school and to various other places.

     From high school, E was accepted to Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. A year later, K was also accepted to Brown and she and my daughter spent the next few years as roommates there. Both graduated from Brown University. Nearly forty years later K and E stay in touch and they still periodically get together with their high school friends.

     Getting back to the Medjugorje pilgrimage, sometime after K’s accident, her family became aware of the reported miracles that were occurring in a place called Medjugorje in what was then Yugoslavia. Several family members and the local Catholic priest decided to make a pilgrimage to Medjugorje in the hope of receiving a miraculous cure for K. When my wife learned of the forthcoming trip to Yugoslavia, she quickly decided that she had to accompany K’s family and provide them with whatever support she could. The group of a half dozen or more – one Jew and the rest Catholics - joined other Christians making the pilgrimage to Medjugorje. Remember that this trip took place more than 20 years before the Vatican officially authorized pilgrimages to Medjugorje.

     That is how a lone Jew joined a group of devout Catholics on their pilgrimage to a foreign Catholic pilgrimage site.

     Clearly, Christians - Catholics in particular - make pilgrimages to their various holy sites. So do adherents of other religions. What About Jews? Do Jews make pilgrimages?

     Yes we do! And we Jews have been making pilgrimages ever since we first settled in the Holy Land, some four or five thousand years ago. According to the Bible, the Israelites were instructed to make pilgrimages to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem after the Exodus from Egypt and prior to their conquest of the Holy Land.

     A major category of Jewish holidays is the pilgrimage festival. Described in the Hebrew Bible as celebrating both agricultural festivals and historical events in the history of the Jewish people, these three holidays were set aside in biblical times for people to travel to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. These three holidays are Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.
     According to the Torah , God commanded the Israelites: “Three times a year shall all your men appear before the Lord your God in the place that God will choose [referring presumably to the Temple in Jerusalem], on the festivals of Pesach (Passover), Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks), and Sukkot (the Festival of Booths). They shall not appear empty handed. Each shall bring his own gift, appropriate to the blessing which the Lord your God has given you” (Deuteronomy 16:16).
     Essentially, in this passage, God expresses a desire for all of the male Israelites to travel to Jerusalem (this is why they are called “pilgrimage” festivals) and have the priest offer the animal sacrifice that was incumbent on each of them. It is important to note that the Torah refers only to men in this passage, because in ancient times women were not accorded the same legal or religious status as men. Despite this omission, women did have the same religious and spiritual obligations as men in offering personal sacrifices for thanksgiving and the expiation of sins.
     Passover celebrates the Exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt, as well as the beginning of the new planting season after the winter rains in Israel, since it falls in the early spring.
     Shavuot, biblically is solely an agricultural celebration. Falling exactly seven weeks after Passover, which places it occurs at the time of the late spring harvest.
     Sukkot celebrates the wandering of the Israelites in the desert for 40 years, when they had to rely only upon God for food and protection. This also celebrates the last harvest festival before the onset of the winter rains in the land of Israel. It falls five days after Yom Kippur, usually in mid-autumn.
     The pilgrimage festivals created an opportunity for the Israelite community to reaffirm their communal commitment to the covenant with God, strengthen the self-identification of the nation as a religious community, and entrench the sanctity of Jerusalem and the place where the Temple stood in the religious consciousness of the people.
     Historical texts and archeological evidence indicate that in late antiquity, during the Hellenistic and Roman eras, the pilgrimage festivals were a profoundly significant social and religious institution, bringing Jews from all over the ancient world of the Mediterranean to Jerusalem. Thousands upon thousands of Jews made these pilgrimages throughout the year and supported a vast commercial enterprise including the raising of animals for sacrifices, a lively animal market, a complex banking community to enable pilgrims to exchange currencies, and hundreds of inns and taverns to lodge the travelers.
     While there are no verifiable numbers of yearly pilgrims, by the end of the first century B.C.E., King Herod the Great, the Roman-appointed ruler of the vassal kingdom of Judea, apparently responded to the pilgrimage needs of the city and built a vast courtyard, surrounding the Temple. This dramatically increased the space of the Temple environs making it possible for thousands more pilgrims to attend religious ceremonies in the sacred precincts of the Temple. In fact, the Harem esh-Sharif (Arabic for “Noble Sanctuary) in Jerusalem, upon which stand the golden Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque, is built upon the Herodian foundations for the Temple. The Western or “Wailing” Wall is one of the supporting walls of this enormous Herodian Temple courtyard.
     After the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. at the conclusion of the failed Great Revolt of the Jews against the Roman Empire, the pilgrimage festivals continued to be celebrated, but primarily as synagogue-based worship services. For the past 2,000 years, since the cessation of the pilgrimages to the actual Temple in Jerusalem, these holidays have retained the title of “pilgrimage” festivals. Prayers have replaced the animal sacrifices, and the historical and agricultural themes of the festivals have become the dominant aspects of the holidays wherever they are celebrated throughout the Diaspora. In Israel itself, many people continue to make what many consider to be a pilgrimage to the Western Wall [the remnant of the Temple and one of the holiest sites in Judaism], feeling that in so doing, they are following in the footsteps of their ancestors.[2]

  1. Medjugorje, Wikipedia, Accessed 17 February 2023.
  2. What Are Pilgrimage Festivals?, Rabbi Daniel Kohn, My Jewish Learning, Accessed 20 February 2023.

  18 May 2023 {Article 575; Suggestions?_79}    
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