David Whitley stops off in Medjugorje, once a small village and now a town fully prepared to exploit its Virgin Mary myth.
The driver’s contempt for the extraordinary circus is poorly concealed. He points to a stone house. “Before it happened, this was a small village,” he says. “All the houses were like this.”
“Now there are villas, nice hotels with pools and tennis courts, clothing boutiques. Look – everywhere there are new apartments for sale.”
He’s probably a bit off-script here, as the Italians arriving in their droves clearly think Medjugorje is wonderful. They pile onto the ferries in Ancona, sail over to Split and pack into the squadrons of tour buses to get here. They make up the bulk of the million-plus visitors that arrive every year. But the most significant visitor came in 1981. On June 24th that year, six children were looking after goats on a hillside. They claim they were visited by an apparition of the Virgin Mary, and from that moment onwards the marketing machine went into full effect.
One of the girls who saw the original apparition reckons she gets daily visits and has been told nine “secrets”, whilst pilgrims have reported seeing odd phenomena in the skies.
The priest who was the initial driving force behind the publicity has since been defrocked following various rumours of unpriestly behaviour and sexual impropriety. The Archbishop of Mostar – under whose remit Medjugorje falls – has made it clear that he regards the whole thing as nonsense. And the Vatican, never usually shy of promoting total baloney that works in its interests, has not even come close to backing the claims up.
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That doesn’t stop people coming, however. Medjugorje now serves as a milking pen for the highly gullible. The church is suspiciously new and huge for what is ostensibly a small village, and a huge open-air prayer arena sits at the back of it. Here, thousands of wooden benches are arranged in a semi-circle around a stage where masses are churned out hourly in numerous different languages. At the end of each mass, predictably enough someone comes around collecting money.
By the side of the church is a toilet complex with hundreds of stalls for the conveyor belt of penitents coming to be absolved of their their sins. It’s next to the 32 confessional booths, each marked with the language of the priest who happens to be inside.
Towards the giant car park is an iron statue of Jesus. The pilgrims queue up to wrap bits of cloth around its legs. Apparently it sometimes oozes a liquid – which is most definitely not rainwater, oh no. A sign of holiness, naturally.
In the rare moments when a hysterical elderly woman is not wrapping rags around the iron Jesus’ legs, it is possible to see the statue in its full majesty. From the knees down it has rusted – probably due to being rubbed with cloths all the time – and looks remarkably silly.
Medjugorje’s real high point, however, is the souvenir shopping. Four out of five buildings appear to be shops, all flogging models of the Virgin Mary in every form you can possibly conceive. She’s made out of plaster of paris, she’s etched onto wood, she’s painted onto fridge markets and the shelves are stocked high with such idiot bait.
Sometimes opportunistic cynicism is so rife, so obvious and so unabashed that it becomes an art form. As with millions of pilgrims before me, I leave Medjugorje in awe.