Something Beautiful for God – My Experience of a Chalice of Mercy Pilgrimage
“Beauty will save the world.” Thus wrote the famous Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky.
I love this quote, because it reminds us that what really draws people to believe in Jesus Christ and to change their lives is the evidence of the beauty, the radiance, the splendor of the Lord. Certainly, what is most beautiful about Jesus is His Love, which we often glimpse through other people (think of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta). When we are inspired by an example of great goodness, great kindness, we frequently say, “That is so beautiful!” Our hearts hunger for this kind of beauty, and we are filled with joy when we find it.
Praise God, I have recently experienced such beauty, for I have just returned from participating in the Sept. 12-18 doctors’ pilgrimage to Medjugorge. This pilgrimage marked a major milestone, because it brought the number of doctors who have participated (in 8 pilgrimages so far) to more than 300! This sign of God’s blessing coincided with the 5th anniversary of the founding of Chalice of Mercy on September 14th, the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross.
As Director of the Office of Ministries and Social Concerns for the Diocese of La Crosse, it has only been within the last year that I have been blessed to know the work of Chalice of Mercy and its founder, Valentyna Pavsyukova. I first met Valentyna in January of 2012, when she spoke about her mission at a diocesan pro-life meeting. Later that month she also accompanied and addressed hundreds of young people from our Diocese at the March for Life in Washington, D.C. On each of these occasions the light and love – the beauty – of Christ shone joyfully in her eyes and in her words. As I learned more of her remarkable mission to Ukrainian doctors, I wanted very much to see this for myself. Seeing that I had sufficient frequent flyer miles, I got my ticket and made the trip.
There I stood on the afternoon of Tuesday, Sept. 12, as the busload of pilgrim doctors pulled up to the “Pansion” (hotel) in Medjugorge. Valentyna couldn’t contain her joy. She eagerly boarded the bus as soon as the doors opened and began welcoming everyone as if they were long-lost friends. I followed with my camcorder to capture the moment, and the first person I saw was Fr. Andry, the faithful priest of Zapahroze, Ukraine who accompanies every pilgrimage. He gave me a smile and a wave. I would soon discover that we shared the ability to speak Italian, so we would be able to communicate and to establish a special bond of friendship.
As usual, most of those on this pilgrimage were doctors of Obstetrics and Gynecology, and some were even directors of women’s clinics. That first afternoon, after everyone had been given their room keys and a chance to freshen up, all of us sat in a circle in the large room at the back of the hotel that would double as dining hall and conference room.
As we introduced ourselves to one another, with Valentyna quietly translating for me, I studied their eyes, thinking how each doctor was such a unique mystery, with a unique personal story. Each was called to this pilgrimage in the beautiful design of God’s Providence. What did He have for them? What would they take home in their hearts? What renewal would come to their healing vocation, to their care of patients – which is never about the body alone, but touches the very soul?
In some of her first remarks to the doctors, Valentyna described Medjugorge as a “hospital for souls.” Of course this implied that here it was they who would be the patients, called to submit to the Divine Physician and His merciful, healing touch. As they listened to these words, I saw a humble readiness in their faces. After all, they had already submitted to more than 2 days on a bus to get here, even if they had only a vague sense of the spiritual itinerary that lay ahead.
In the days to come, these doctors would be told – many for the first time – of the sanctity of human life and God’s beautiful plan for marriage, sexuality and procreation. For some more than others, this would be a challenge and they would feel the tension between what they were hearing and what they were doing in their practices. They would wrestle painfully, but the wrestling would happen under the loving gaze of Jesus and Mary and surrounded by the loving friendship, prayer and joy of friends.
As for me, the foreign “Americanski” in their midst, the pilgrims and leadership team made me feel like I was truly a brother to them, completely at home. So often in our days together they would cheerfully (and patiently) teach me Ukrainian words and expressions. This was frequently a source of amusement as I struggled to form sounds completely new to my mouth!
There were many grace-filled highlights over the seven-day pilgrimage. I would like to share some of those that touched me most.
Hospitality and a Spirit of Family
This was the hallmark of the entire pilgrimage and its importance cannot be overemphasized. Valentyna and the other members of the leadership team (Fr. Andry, Genya Samborska, Lyudmila Barakova, and two Sisters Veronika and Viktoriya of Basilian order who had come along especially for prayer support) showed such affection, such warmth, welcome and kindness to the doctors, that the entire week was filled with smiles and laughter.
This extended to all the details of hospitality at the hotel. The meals were served family style on platters at long tables, and everyone was encouraged to sit with different people each time, and to make a point of serving one another. Each meal began and ended with prayer led by Fr. Andry, and after the closing prayer a very loud Ukrainian “thank you” was chanted in unison to the cooks in the kitchen. A birthday of one of the doctors was announced and serenaded with the Ukrainian version of the “Happy Birthday” song. These aspects of hospitality, friendship and service may seem small and subtle in some ways, but they provided the foundation for all the rest, and I was reminded how the pagans marveled at the first Christian communities: “See how they love one another!”
Holy Mass, Rosary, Adoration
Many of the doctors were not familiar with our classic forms of prayer and worship. The majority were not Catholic. But when you feel embraced by the hospitality and love just described and your new pilgrim “family” is being invited to the beautiful outdoor altar at the church in Medjugorge, what do you do? You go!
And then when you are among tens of thousands of people praying and kneeling, and the Blessed Sacrament is shining in splendor in the monstrance on the altar, with the sweet sound of violin and chants in the background and holy priests around the altar, God has a way of beginning to touch your heart, even if you don’t know him so well yet. And that is what was happening to the doctors. They came day after day, to Holy Mass, to the Rosary, to Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. No one forced them. They wanted to be there.
On the second evening of the pilgrimage, Valentyna also explained the spiritual meaning and purpose of fasting, and she invited the doctors to fast on just bread and a little soup the next day, which was a Friday – but only if they wished to do so. She explained it so beautifully, with such sweetness and joy, that they all wanted to do it. It was inspiring to behold.
It was at the conferences that our pilgrim doctors were challenged with truth spoken in love. Lyudmila and Genya gave PowerPoint presentations that explained the beauty and effectiveness of natural family planning and the tragic effects of contraception, abortion and in vitro fertilization. It was not surprising that some of the doctors felt especially defensive regarding such topics. The presentations challenged long-held attitudes and common medical practices, and these would not be easily overcome.
Also, there is much ignorance in these matters even among doctors in the Ukraine. For example, they think of natural family planning as the old “rhythm method” and have little or no awareness of the newer, much more reliable natural methods. Even details about a woman’s reproductive cycle and the process of ovulation are not well known by many of them, because this has not received sufficient emphasis in their medical training.
Typically Valentyna translated the words of various speakers for me, but she explained before this session began that grace was so necessary during these challenging conferences, and that she needed to pray. She asked another young lady who spoke English to translate for me. I saw Valentyna’s rosary beads moving through her fingers, her head bowed. The sisters were doing the same. They continued to pray as one of the doctors, who was the director of an in vitro fertilization clinic, stood up and passionately defended her work. Lyudmila gently challenged her, saying there was no way to get around the fact that human lives were being discarded in the process of embryo selection.
This was the hard work of the pilgrimage, the necessary challenge of Truth, given with love but also without compromise. The workings of grace would be very rapid in some of the doctors, slower in others. In the end, it would be God’s work. Valentyna later told me that in the more difficult cases it is like a gardener encountering packed, dry earth. Sometimes the best one could do was to begin to break up the soil, to scatter some seeds, to water a little, and then to leave the rest to God. She asked me to please pray whenever she spoke. How beautiful, how full of faith.
I was privileged to give two brief presentations myself, the first on the reality of the human soul and its intimate connection with the body, and the second on the violation of freedom of religion and conscience in the U.S. posed by the HHS insurance mandate requiring coverage of contraception, sterilization and abortion-causing drugs.
Apparition Hill is the site where Mary is said to have appeared for the first time to the six children of Medjugorge in 1981. It is marked by the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary in beautiful sculpted relief. The doctors were given rosaries and prayer books and many prayed the rosary for the first time as we made our way up the hill. Valentyna gave a brief reflection as we reached the site of each mystery, and though I did not understand what she was saying, there was warmth and devotion in her voice and in her eyes. The doctors listened with great attention and respect, and we all joined in prayer.
At the top of Apparition Hill stands a beautiful white statue of Mary. When we reached it we stopped to kneel and pray and were all consecrated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary. Several moments of prayerful silence followed. As we were preparing to leave, we heard the sound of approaching thunder. It had been threatening rain, but now a cold wind began to blow and it was clear we were in for a storm. Rain began to fall, harder and harder, punctuated by occasional flashes of lightning. Rivulets of water formed and ran over and between the rocks, making them very slippery.
The men among us sought out the older women and took them by the arm, supporting them as we carefully made our way down the hill. Though virtually everyone had umbrellas, they were of limited help and our shoes were completely soaked by the time we reached the bottom. Thanks be to God (and Mary!) no one fell, we were all safe, and the perils of the storm had given us a special opportunity to practice love of neighbor.
Cross Mountain was the peak experience of the pilgrimage, figuratively and literally. The weather was sunny and warm (as were all but two of the seven days). The ascent is a long one, marked by the Stations of the Cross in sculpted stone relief. We were all invited to pick up a stone representing our sins and to make the climb with it, finally placing it at the foot of the white cross at the top. All of the doctors did this willingly. The group paused at each Station for prayer and reflection by Fr. Andry.
When we arrived at the towering white cross atop the mountain, we were prompted to gently toss our stone at the foot of the cross and to hold hands and pray for forgiveness and for God’s grace and new life. We were then asked to turn to one another and to ask for forgiveness for any ways we may have offended the other.
It was an emotional culmination. Nearly 20 minutes later, many were still kneeling in prayer at the foot of the cross, or leaning with head bowed against it. Valentyna came up to me and whispered, “Look at Alexander” (one of the doctors who had been most resistant at some of the conferences). He was leaning back against the cross, eyes closed, head upturned, and he remained like that for a long time. Beautiful.
So Much More….
There is so much more that could be recounted – the visits to Mother’s Village for orphaned children and to the Cenacle for recovering addicts; talks by Vicka and Ivan, two of the visionaries; the testimony of Patrick Latta, a Canadian whose life was transformed by the messages of Medjugorge and who built a castle there with his wife Nancy for pilgrims – but this must suffice.