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For countess who gave it all up, Medjugorje is in the heart

By Nestor U. Torre, Philippine Daily Inquirer

(Editor’s Note: Medjugorje, a small village in western Bosnia-Herzegovina in the former Yugoslavia, is a popular pilgrimage site for Catholics worldwide because of reports of apparitions of the Virgin Mary to six young local Catholics on June 24, 1981. The visions were said to have continued until the six visionaries were given 10 special messages each. The phenomenon is not officially approved by the Catholic Church.)

When June Keithley introduced me to Countess Milona von Hapsburg last Thursday, Oct. 6, I was struck by the great contrast between her storied royal lineage and her sweet simplicity of dress and demeanor.

Here, clearly, was a person who had succeeded in transcending the trappings of "royalty” to focus exclusively on the more important aspects of life that now mattered most to her.

They were mostly significantly led by the spiritual mission that had prompted her many years ago to uproot herself and her family and live in the Marian apparition site of Medjugorje, a small village in the former Yugoslavia.

Unexpected blessing

June had invited some religious and lay leaders to have lunch with Milona and listen to her sharing, not about her privileged life and lineage, but about her unique mission in Medjugorje, and the deeply transformative effect it has had on her and her loved ones.

First off, June revealed to us that Milona’s visit was in itself an unexpected blessing, because she had not been scheduled to come here, certainly not this year. Recently, however, quite out of the (Marian?) blue, some Filipino friends requested her to pay a private visit to Dumaguete City to join a big religious celebration at the cathedral, and to Cagayan de Oro, to help mark the 10th anniversary of a religious radio program that promotes two of her most cherished involvements—Medjugorje itself, and the charitable movement known as Mary’s Meals.

Milona was scheduled to stay in the Philippines for only a few days, but June has been friends with her for years, so she succeeded in persuading her to spend a couple of days in Manila to speak at a couple of events, before she flew back home via Rome, where a visit had also been arranged for her with the Philippine envoy to the Vatican, Mercy Tuason.

Delighted by Filipinos

After June’s brief backgrounder, it was Milona’s turn to speak to us, and she immediately charmed us, not just with the simplicity of her demeanor, but also with her obvious delight at being in the country. What about her unexpected visit had made her so happy?

Milona said she was overwhelmed by many Filipinos’ obvious and unstinting love for Jesus and Mary, so rare to find in the world these days. "Even the poorest of the poor,” she said, greatly moved, "express this love, not just in their prayers, but also in the way they live their lives.”

This was deeply gratifying to Milona, because it vivified what Our Lady seeks to help effect in the world—a return to God in all ways, through peace, love, faith, conversion and fasting.

Life-changing pilgrimage

Milona recalled that her father had taken their family to other apparition sites in Europe, like Fatima, but they had not made that big or deep an impression on her. But, when she and her relatives went to Medjugorje on a three-day pilgrimage when she was in her 20s, the effect of that brief visit on her was profound, even life-changing.

In fact, it prompted her to eventually give up her high-flying and pampered life in Geneva to become a volunteer in Medjugorje, performing humble tasks like interpreting for Father Slavko and the six young Marian visionaries—Ivan, Ivanka, Jackov, Marija, Mirjana and Vicka—living there.

What was it about "the Medjugorje experience” that had given it such a profound charism and impact on Milona’s entire view of the world and her very existence? At times to the point of quiet tears, she shared:

"The minute we arrived in that small village in the western region of Bosnia, there was something in the air. Many people were on their knees! We realized later that we had arrived while the apparition that day was taking place!

"After that, things soon went back to ‘normal.’ Life went on. But, slowly but surely, the grace of the place started to work on us.

Personal encounter

"I myself was privileged to have a personal encounter: After a long and tiring climb uphill, I looked down at the valley beneath me—and a presence came around me and covered me like a mantle. It felt like two eyes were looking deeply into me, into my very soul, and for the first time, I saw my entire life, and what it amounted to. There was no judgment at all, just total truth.

"Then, I was asked questions about how I lived my life thus far, and why I had fallen so short of what God wanted. At that point, I felt the great desire to give my whole life back to Him!

"After that unforgettable encounter, when I went back to the place where my family was staying, I felt so content—but, they were shocked at my appearance, because I looked completely transformed—not the same face and eyes at all. In fact, my mother was so moved at the sight of the ‘new me’ that she prayed, begging, ‘Yes, you can have her, but please give us some more time with her before you take her!’”

"And, right after that day, my faith became the most important aspect of my life. I couldn’t live without daily Mass! I ran to Confession, desperately needing to instantly get rid of what separated me from The One.”

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