Pilgrimage of Life– July 17-23, 2012
I’ve just begun to unpack my suitcase. I’ve returned home with it crammed full and a bit messy. It needs to be sorted….but here it sits. I left home with it containing all that I thought I needed as I dove into the unknown. Medjugorje. All I knew was it was a village. A beautiful village. A town where Our Lady appeared to children many years ago and gave them messages. We would stay at a “castle.” I knew I would stay with my daughter, Lizzy, 17 who packed her own suitcase–very full. We were both loaded with things we needed, items we thought we needed, and gifts to give. Our plan was to deliver these gifts and use the excess room to return home with gifts. I went prepared to teach ob/gyn medical students about our love for our youngest two children with Down syndrome. We would join their “Pilgrimage of LIfe.”
After nearly 24 hours of travel we arrived just before the other pilgrims and were greeted by our dear Valentyna–our friend, our guide. She was the reason we were able to be there.
After meeting Valentyna 2 years ago in Zaporoyszhe, Ukraine, when we adopted Stas, our youngest of eight children who has Down syndrome, we fell in love with her mission.
The mission of Chalice of Mercy is to serve physically and spiritually to the needs of the people of Ukraine. With the assistance of Bishop John (then Fr. John) and now Fr. Andrew as well, they are doing this. They live in a city that means “A City without God.” God is there but not known. They serve to make Him known. They serve to be the hands of Christ; to be a living witness of Christ’s love. They desire to bring an understanding of the gift of life to the people of Ukraine and help them see themselves as gifts. It is not until we can see our own beauty and the gift that we are that we can see others around us as gifts. Communism stripped this region of all signs of God. These are people void of Truth for which they hunger.
During our three weeks in Zaporoyszhe in 2010, Fr. Andrew showed us Chalice of Mercy’s pro-life efforts. We saw video screens mounted in the waiting room of abortion clinics running a loop of unborn life. Really? Yes! Fr. Andrew and Valentyna told us they were in need of more of these DVD screens because more clinics were ASKING for them. They graciously begged for twelve-week fetal models from the U.S. and footprint lapel pins because they KNEW the effect they would have on these “hungry” people. They said they wanted to give them to ob/gyn doctors. We desired to help. To think in the U.S. we barely have the right to stand outside an abortion clinic to pray and here they are doing bold things…in government run hospitals. Indeed they are hungry and seemingly void of real joy. Through our adoption of Stas, we witnessed how children with special needs are frequently treated as trash. We saw the disgust they had for them. Stas and the others, abandoned at the hospital at birth because of their “imperfection.” I was told only 4% of these children are taken home. We came home deeply scarred. Lizzy even more so. But, how could the people of Ukraine appreciate the gift of a sweet boy with Down syndrome if they couldn’t appreciate their own dignity, the gift they themselves are, and the gift all life is?
Here we were two years later and ready to meet 46 Ukrainians, many from the very city we grew to love. I couldn’t wait to be reunited with Genya, a friend and leader of the pro-life movement in Ukraine, whom we grew to love during our stay in 2010. She would be right here with us leading this pilgrimage along side Valentyna and Fr. Andrew. Most pilgrims were coming only baptized per Ukrainian custom in the Greek Orthodox Faith. Most having never been in a church since that day. Many atheists… agnostics. Why did they come? Because they were invited. Unable to travel otherwise, because of expense, this trip was paid for. They were told they were going on a pilgrimage. They were told this would be a journey filled with sacrifices. They knew they would pray…prayers they never heard. They would attend Holy Mass, Adoration and pray on the beads of the Rosary. They would sit in seminars each day. They had no idea what it would all mean. They came with their own crammed, heavy suitcases….
We met Nancy, and eventually her husband Patrick. They provided us with our home for a week. Many served selflessly and at times, they cooked throughout the night! For US! After giving up EVERYTHING of their life in Canada, Patrick and Nancy came to build a “castle” in Medjugorje. It was built to serve the priests and religious who come on pilgrimage. It is the priests after all who keep us alive, through the anointed hands of Christ. They bring life to our soul though the sacraments. They feed us the Bread of Life–Christ—in the Holy Eucharist. They cleanse and restore our soul through the sacrament of Penance. Why was it then that WE were there, us and the medical students we joined? Why were the other Ob/Gyn physicians who were from Ukraine, many of whom were abortionists, making pilgrimages to Medjugorje over the past year or so and staying at this “castle?” Nancy explained, they were welcomed because just as the priests act as the Divine Physician who brings life to our souls, these physicians will be the first to hold LIFE in their hands. Through prayer they made the decision that these doctors, in hope for the future, needed to understand the preciousness of LIFE. They felt this was a place where they could experience God’s love.
That is why we were at Medjugorje. To learn and teach about the love God has for us. A love so great that he gave us His Mother, and here in Medjugorje we were going to meet her and grow to love her. We would learn to come to her for our needs. We would learn that her greatest love, God’s Divine will, is what she wants for us. In getting to know her, she would lead us closer to her Son, Jesus. And knowing Jesus, we would learn to sacrifice. We would learn that this is the life of a Christian. We would learn about the joy in suffering. We would learn that a Christian serves with Love, and a smile.
I was enriched by many events that happened on our trip. We were grateful to be able to have good conversation with one particular young woman, who spoke English well. She also was a blessing as she translated many things for us. During our first full day on our walk to Apparition Hill, she shared a bit about her family and I had the opportunity to tell her about our family. She learned we had 8 children, three adopted, two of whom have Down syndrome. She could not understand WHY we would have “such children” with Down syndrome. I learned later she was actually “mad” that we adopted these children when there were many other children in need. She said that “these children” were historically thrown from mountaintops in disgrace. I learned at the end of the trip in her testimonial how our witness and obvious love for our boys changed her heart. She recalled me telling her that God grew our heart when we adopted a child from Guatemala to love people of all colors of skin. And that He grew our heart when we adopted a child with Down syndrome to love ALL people who have special needs. She shared with the whole group how she recalled me telling her that these children were “teachers of our soul.” That conversation, and all that followed throughout the week, brought her to a point to realize that if we can learn to love “the least of these” that we can love everyone.
Valentyna arranged for us to visit Community of Cenacolo. We were told it was a home for addicts. It was not at all what I expected to see. What we saw was beautiful. While there is a campus also for women, we visited the community for men. Community Cenacolo was founded by Sister Elvira Petrozzi in 1983. Sister Elvira felt a strong desire to reach out to young people who had taken a wrong path. Based in Saluzzo, Italy, Community Cenacolo, is a worldwide organization with 33 fraternities throughout Italy, France, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina (Medjugorje), Ireland, Brazil, Austria, Dominican Republic, USA (Florida) and Mexico. Community Cenacolo accommodates about 900 young men and women. Many are drug addicted desperate lost souls. Passing through the doors of Community Cenacolo, these young people begin to feel hope and a sense of being, and family. The aim of the Community is to renew the family; to help the families meet Jesus Christ, Savior and Redeemer, also, to bring support, love, healing and faith. Two members of the community described their stories of addiction and their desperate situations.
There stories were touching as we could hear how two people, completely lost, were found. They still struggle, and while they can leave the open gate whenever they want, they stay because they know they are not yet ready to live healthy outside the gates. The day begins at six o’clock in the morning, in the chapel, where the rosary is recited. Making bread, cleaning the house, masonry work, gardening, woodworking, etc… all these things are done by the members of the community. By the end of the day, much has been done, and much has been learned, the 20 decades of the Rosary said, and the Gospel shared.
I asked Valentyna, repeatedly each day, for a schedule. I rarely was told beyond what was scheduled next. She told me that she has learned not to plan too much. I witnessed her steadfast prayer. She TRUSTS. She sees where God leads the pilgrimage. She wasn’t kidding.
To Valentyna’s surprise, just weeks before this group of students was to arrive, she had learned that another group would be at the castle at the same time–50 religious sisters. They would come on retreat. Can you even imagine what they thought when they learned that 50 college-age students, not even Catholic, or “believers” would be sharing their meals and space with them. Never had two groups this size been at the castle at the same time. Nancy and Patrick agreed that if this is what God set up they would let it happen. Both groups were a gift to each other. The students learned what it meant to completely surrender your life to Christ as a bride to Him. They watched how the sisters in full habit, in 90+ degree heat remained joyful. The sisters agreed to pray for the students and seeing the transformation in our group was a way of renewing their own faith. At mealtimes with the sisters, there was an abundance of song and teaching moments. For example, Nancy would tiptoe in and whisper to everyone “I have a surprise.” It was one of the sister’s birthdays. She explained to the students why birthdays are so special…because we are celebrating the gift of life. Nancy took every moment to teach: the gift of life, the necessity of modesty, the significance of marriage and the reason why the sister’s birth names and chosen religious names are so significant. I remember her telling me as I was setting plates out abruptly, “do everything with love as Mary would.” Her kisses were curious at first and contagious in the end.
On Sunday morning, we were told we would have Mass in a field at Mother’s Village, specifically St. Francis Garden.
Mother’s Village was an orphanage started by Fr. Slavko Barbaric’, the spiritual director to the visionaries of Medjugorje. Many children were left orphans after the Bosnian war and Mother’s Village evolved out of the need for protection and care for these children who were wounded by the loss of their family. We then learned we would travel to Kay Center nearby which was a home for women in crisis. The students heard how prayer and the trust in God’s Divine Providence, and specifically through Our Lady’s intercession sustain the center.
While the Holy Mass was beautiful, none of us expected to hear that Sunday morning about a beautiful event that would take place AT the Mass. Darinka, a beautiful young woman who had been on the pilgrimage, was preparing to be received into the Church. She had asked Fr. Andrew just the day before if she could receive Jesus for the first time in Medjugorje. Fr. Andrew got permission from Bishop John to administer the sacrament at this outdoor Mass. With his approval, she made her first confession that evening. Darinka looked truly angelic as she was presented to us this Sunday morning in her pure white dress. She had bought one of the only two white dresses she found in all of Medjugorje. What a witness she was to all of her fellow pilgrims on this day. She glowed.
The pilgrimage was designed brilliantly. While I wanted to get my talk “over with” to lighten my mind, Valentyna and Genya knew it couldn’t be “heard” right away. The information I would share–my gift— wasn’t ready to be received. The students listened to seminars that bit by bit unfolded all they needed to learn. Through various speakers they discovered the meaning and truth of life.
In order, they learned: John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, the gift of chastity, unborn human development, the destruction of life through abortion, the issues related to Reproductive Technology, Natural Family Planning, NaPro Technology, and finally Down syndrome. After learning about the gift that all life was, they were able to see my boys in a more special way. I realize now that it wasn’t only through the seminars that they came to this point. It was through the graces they were receiving in attending Holy Mass each day, staying with Jesus for an hour in Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament most evenings, fasting on bread and water on Wednesday and Friday, climbed Apparition Hill while learning to pray the Holy Rosary, and culminating their week with a climb up Cross Mountain.
As they climbed Cross Mountain, a LONG and tiresome journey, several went barefoot, most all carried rocks of various sized to represent their sins and they learned about the Stations of the Cross, the journey from Christ’s Condemnation to his Crucifixion.
They learned about Christ falling three times and rising and carrying His cross high and Him asking us to carry ours in love. They learned that He did all that He had done as an example of sacrifice and that as a physician they will need to sacrifice.
At the top of the mountain, they encountered Christ’s Cross. There they were asked to see their sins and ask for God’s most merciful forgiveness. They, the tired, stoic Ukrainians who arrived on a bus, just 7 days prior, held their hands joined and high as they sang “Nada nos separara del amor de Dios.” The guitar-playing Spanish priest, Fr. Pablo, who was dropped from heaven on our first day of pilgrimage, taught us that song, and it became the theme song for the week. There at the peek, they sang in Spanish, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.”
The joy was indescribable.
They gave each other a kiss on the cheek as they looked each other in the eyes and said, “I’m sorry.” Their “sorry” was symbolic of all their offenses. They each kissed me and said “I’m sorry.” I now pause to think why they, whom I never met until this past week, would apologize to me. I realize that just as each act of love is an act that elevates the whole Kingdom, so does every sin bring down each one of us. I, too, kissed them and said “I’m sorry.”
On July 17, 2012, forty-six people arrived on the bus in Medjugorje. Miracles happened. I witnessed no spinning sun. No rosary beads that turned to gold. No “tears” from the knee of the Risen Christ statue. None of which do I doubt happen. I, however, witnessed miracles of conversion. My daughter and I had a few “goals” on our trip. We hoped to teach these students about the blessing of Down syndrome and we both, while not really saying it, hoped to see some sort of tangible miracle. Witnessing conversions was the greatest gift. What started out as sparks in the hearts of God’s Ukrainian children, became for many a roaring flame that they wanted to take home to ignite the passion in the hearts of the people in their homeland. Zaporoyszhe, the city that was named “A City without God,” will need to be renamed. Because God it there in the hearts of His people. And He is rising up.
My suitcase, representative of my journey to Medjugorje, has begun to be unpacked. It will take time to sort through all that I brought home, to fully unpack it. I realize that the needs that I came with were in the end my gifts. My needs were: healing for both me and my daughter, spiritual renewal, an increase in Faith, a renewed purpose in the Holy Rosary, a deeper relationship with our Mother, and a deeper desire to sacrifice….I returned home with these gifts. The young pilgrims that return home to Ukraine have heavy loads to unpack. And they return to a world that won’t understand what they have learned. Please pray for them. Pray they have strength to share what they have learned, that they and each group of doctors that come on this Pilgrimage of Life will continue to seek God and turn to Him in His mercy.
I believe the gift that we brought, our LOVE for our special children, was received by the other pilgrims. They sent us on our way with kisses and hugs….they gave two extra kisses…one for Stas and one for Ricky. Boys they never met. They told us they LOVE them. And I believe they do!