MARYLHURST — In spring 1988, I took my 16-year-old son Joe, who was born with severe blood problems, to Medjugorje to put him before our Blessed Virgin. We joined his Marist High School pilgrimage group for a week at the site.

The village of 400 suddenly held 25,000 extra souls for the anniversary of Mary’s initial appearance in 1981. They came for healings, restoration, conversions, clarity and/or mercy. What Mary was offering was a bit different: fasting and perseverance in prayer, and cleansing confessions, and finally increased faith, for the possibility of God’s healing peace.

Most pilgrims slept in the courtyard of St. James Church, with its tall crucifix. As I passed, I kissed Christ’s feet and continued on to the confessionals lining the side of this large, new church. After confession, I went to a gift shop a few yards beyond to look at the usual candles and plastic objects for sale.

ln line, I checked my time; seven minutes until our Lady would appear in the choir loft of the church. I marveled that the locals had her timed so well, or that she would come at the behest of the waiting seers. The line stopped moving and I nervously watched minutes tick by.

Finally, I walked to the front of the line to see what was the holdup. It was an elderly, black-garbed woman with a pile of books and mementos she hoped to buy. Perhaps she had children and grandchildren who did not believe and they had to be helped to return to our ancestral beliefs. The exasperated clerk said: “She has no money.” My eyes got big with surprise. “Well, how much would it all come to in U.S.?” The Virgin was waiting for us. I quickly put down 72 dollars. Mumbles of surprise arose from the line as l flied back to my spot. All of us got into the church in time.

My son had stayed in bed for three days when I caught hold of the sleeve of a confessor-priest. “Please, my son is very ill.”

“Well, have you done what’s prescribed? Did you even confess your sins?”

“Yes, yes, I did …” I let go of his sleeve. Bible imagery flooded my mind.

There was a huge procession up to Mount Podgora. All the people were grouped by countries. The Italians were all over, leading the singing. The Germans marched precisely in a straight line. Americans

tried to squeeze into the tiniest spaces. I hoped and prayed.

The next day, I came upon an elderly woman sitting at a card table among knitted wool sweaters. Seated at her right was a thin, black-haired younger woman. I tried not to stare, for I knew this young woman and her story. She was a pickpocket. But she lacked skill and so kept getting arrested. I’d read of her.

The judge had been angry to see her again. But instead of jail, he put her in a program that matched convicts with infirm people as live-in caregivers. The young thief had been sentenced to care for the old knitter, and from the disdainful look on her face, the young woman disliked her sentence.

I fingered one of the sweaters, studying seams and buttonholes. I decided to buy four, one for me and one for each of my sisters.

Surprise and wonderment came over the young woman’s face. She leaned forward and paid attention as the old woman took my money, 10 dollars per sweater. I could see the young woman’s mind at work: There could be money in this knitting enterprise.

Maybe the pickpocket experienced a glimmer of hope for an entirely different future. I have no doubt the old woman could have taught her to card and spin the wool of the sheep I saw on Medjugorje’s streets. I was willing to bet the elder could also treat the younger with kindness, instilling Catholic values.

I took my sweaters and went back to our rental. There was Joe, shooting hoops with the teen son of the household. I was overjoyed; Joe was up and active. It was a real sign of hope and all the scenes I had witnessed of prayer, commerce and redemption seemed to make sense in a unified way.

We who study the phenomena of Marian apparitions learn there’s often a reason for her coming; she has an urgent message. The year after we Marist families visited Medjugorje, a horrible war emerged in the former Yugoslavia. Through God’s mercy, Medjugorje was spared.

In 1987, Mary had appeared in Ukraine. Two years later, Ukrainians freed themselves from 80 years of Soviet rule. Now, Russian troops have invaded to impose Russian will upon the Ukrainian people again.

And still in Medjugorje, Mary warns of chastisement. She urges vigilance, prayer, sacrifices, and good works. She points us to Jesus, for through him we find safety and true happiness.

Perhaps all the stories will converge and again point toward joy and healing in the end.

Sumich is a Catholic who lives at Mary's Woods.

Editor’s note: The writer’s son, 30 years later, has a degree from the University of Portland and has been working steadily in computer security.