Reported Visions of Virgin Mary Draw Hordes of Pilgrims to Bosnian Village

Believers say that Mary calls to them through signs and miracles.

July 1, 2011, 4:17 PM

July 5, 2011— -- The warm surf of La Jolla, Calif., isn't a setting people associate with the Virgin Mary. But on many days, there is a surfer whose passion for the perfect wave is nothing compared to his head-over-heels love for the Holy Mother.

His name is Donald Calloway and he picked up surfing as a military brat bouncing around the United States and Japan.

He also picked up marijuana, heroin, LSD, shoplifting and money laundering for the Japanese mafia. By the age of 20, he had a rap sheet, a drug habit and serious thoughts of suicide.

"After having gone to two rehabs, been in jail, kicked out of a foreign country, I was at my crisis in life. ... I picked up a book that my parents had on their bookshelf about the Virgin Mary," Calloway said.

He devoured it, fascinated particularly by the story of villagers in Medjugorje, Bosnia, who said they saw Mary in all her supernatural beauty. About 200,000 people flooded the tiny town last week to mark the 30th anniversary of Mary's first reported appearance.

"They claimed to see her, and they actually cried because she was so beautiful. ... [When] I got up the next morning, I knew that I had to go talk to a Catholic priest, and I did," he said.

"That began a radical change of life for me, a transformation. I cut my long hair, cleaned up my act and became what I am today."

Today he is the Rev. Donald Calloway, the surfer priest.

"When I paddle out, I say a Hail Mary," he said. "On some of my boards, I actually have little sayings about her ... to keep the sharks away."

Ten years after he was ordained, he finally made the pilgrimage to Medjugorje, the place in his mother's book. It is the biggest ongoing apparition site in the world: "Catholic Woodstock," in Calloway's words. In the past three decades, nearly 40 million people have come to experience the reported monthly apparitions of Mary to six residents.

The story is that almost 30 years ago, two teenagers named Mirjana and Ivanka -- they are now 46 and 45, respectively -- were on a rocky hill behind the village when Ivanka noticed a bright light and said, "Look, it's Our Lady."

Mirjana laughed. "I said to her, 'Yes, sure,'" she said in an interview with "Nightline" anchor Bill Weir. "Blessed Mary have nothing else to do, and she comes to two of us."

But then a boy herding goats joined them, and all three allegedly saw and heard something that would alter their lives, their village and the Catholic world forever.

"I saw in the middle of the hill, one lady in the long dress, with the little baby in the hands. ... She present herself, she said, 'My dear children, don't be afraid of me, I am Queen of Peace,'" Mirjana said.

Three more kids eventually joined them, and in the following days the six would fall to their knees with eerie synchronicity, claiming to see the same 19-year-old dark-haired, blue-eyed woman. They said she was more beautiful than any human.

"We ask her childish question," Mirjana recalled. "We ask her, 'How is possible that you are so beautiful?' And she smile and she said, 'Because I love. If you want to be beautiful, love.'"

When the children told people in their village, there were doubters, including the local parish priest. He was upset that most of his congregation was skipping church to hike the hill, where believers had erected a cross.

The police for the Communist regime then governing Yugoslavia threatened to arrest those who climbed the hill. But every time they tore down the humble metal cross, someone would sneak back up in the middle of the night and replace it.

Are the 'Visionaries' Real?

The authorities were convinced the "visionaries" were part of some subversive plot, but the more they tried to suppress the story, the further it spread.

As support for the visionaries grew, the authorities tried to scare them into admitting it was all an elaborate lie, beginning a campaign of persecution.

"They were taken to the police, they were taken to the hospital, they were harassed, they were hunted for, they were given every hardship possible and they were willing to endure all that," said the Rev. Svet, a priest from a nearby village who was studying in New York when he first heard about the apparitions.

Mirjana said, "I was thinking, 'What they can do to me, kill me? I will go with Blessed Mary, forever.'"

Eventually, Mirjana and her family were forced out of Medjugorje, and she was placed in a school for troubled youth.

"They ask me, 'What you taking? You have always peace and smile. Cocaine? Heroin?'" Mirjana said, laughing. "I said, 'Jesus is my peace.'"

When the threat from the government faded with Communism's collapse, Church politics took over. There were power plays between the local Franciscans and the Vatican's bishop. Priests were punished for getting too close to the visionaries. The visionaries claimed Mary disagreed with the bishop.

Embarrassed by the turf wars, the Vatican stepped in last year. Pope Benedict XVI launched an unprecedented commission to look into Medjugorje. The process is highly confidential but Dr. Mark Miravalle, a leading Mariologist and Vatican insider who has investigated other apparition sites for the Church, thinks it's likely it will pass the Vatican's test.

"After 25 or 30 years ... the church can have a pretty good idea about whether this is of God, or whether it's of Satan. The message is very sound. The spiritual fruits are undeniable," Miravalle said.

The vast majority of Medjugorje pilgrims report renewed relationships and profound experiences of grace, healing and blessing, he said.

The Vatican has never approved an ongoing apparition for fear that the visionaries might prove themselves frauds or insane.

But the Vatican hasn't condemned it, either, so the faithful continue to come. Many believe that Mary called them through signs and miracles.

"I asked the Blessed Mother to show me a sign of whether I should come or not," one woman said. "And my rosary turned gold, so I took that as a sure sign. ... Well, it's gold color anyway."

Most rise before dawn to make the arduous hike up Apparition Hill. Each bears his or her own needs and burdens. To prove devotion and suffer in Christ's name, some even go barefoot.

We traveled there with the Trinity Pilgrimage, of Scottsdale, Ariz., and it was a return trip for many. One pilgrim, Flerida Gutierrez, was here 21 years ago.

But this time she needs a miracle; she is battling Stage 4 cancer.

When she and the others reach the top, the spot where the visionaries say Mary first appeared, their praying and weeping fill the morning air.

"I do believe that the only one who can heal really is Jesus," Gutierrez said. "But there are people … some are visionaries who can pray for you. And there will be results that you cannot imagine that will happen."

If Medjugorje is the "Catholic Woodstock," one of the favorite headliners is Vicka, another of the six visionaries who claim to see and talk to the Mother of Jesus. They claim Mary gave each of them a "specialty," and Vicka is known as "The Healer."