A Jewish man is bought to his knees three times by our Blessed Mother
By Bernard Ellis
My wife Suzanne who was born a Catholic first heard about Medjugorje in 1983. She remembered the stories that the nuns had told her when she attended a convent in her childhood, about Bernadette and the apparitions in Lourdes and she immediately recognised Our Blessed Mother’s appearances in Medjugorje as having come from the same Mother of God. She had a deep conviction of being called there by our Lady and she begged me to take her there. I said to her at the time “It was very unfair of her to expect me to go to an overtly pious Catholic Shrine where I would feel so uncomfortable and if she really loved me she wouldn’t ask me to go there”. She replied “If you loved me Bernard you would take me there.” But we didn’t go.
Nine months later in August 1983 we went on holiday to Dubrovnik. It had been Sue’s choice that we should go there. I had not been too keen to go to a Communist Country for a holiday but I went to please her. Whilst we were there she begged me to take her to Medjugorje for just one day. I had realised when she had chosen Dubrovnik for a holiday that she had something else on her mind so again just to please her I agreed to visit the shrine for just one day.
To my surprise when we arrived there everything was very normal, no enormous shows of piety, no people laying on the ground pounding their breasts, walking about in sack cloth and ashes, just ordinary people like Sue and I. The villagers were very welcoming and they showed hospitality which I had never experienced before. I had heard that Catholics in that area were anti-
At about 5 o’clock we were by the church where the rosary was being recited and we met somebody who we had known in London a woman called Anita Curtis. When she saw me there she said “Oh it’s wonderful that a Jewish man is visiting Medjugorje and Our Blessed Mother will be so happy to see you here” She suggested that it would be possible for me to go into the room where the apparition would take place but I thought this was not appropriate because I didn’t believe in what was happening there, I didn’t know Jesus yet alone his Blessed Mother and I really didn’t believe that she could be appearing to six young people.
I found myself standing outside the presbytery with a crowd of other people who were all imploring Sister Yanya who was there in office at the time and Father Tomislav Pervan who was the parish Priest to allow them in when the apparition took place. Anita Curtis told Sister Yanya that I was a Jewish man and that I should go into the room of the apparitions because Our Blessed Mother would be happy to see me. At the same time I noticed that there was an Italian woman who had a very sick child. She was crying and imploring Sister Yanya to let her go into the room believing that the child would be healed. I said to Sister Yanya “Please let this Italian woman go in, it’s not right that I should go in because I don’t really believe what’s happening there” Father Pervin came out and saw all these people arguing and grabbed hold of the Italian woman and me and before I knew where I was I was walking across the altar and I was hustled into the room in the side chapel where the apparitions took place. The room was small and very crowded It was unbearably hot. There were people squeezed shoulder to shoulder and there wasn’t an inch to spare. Soon the six visionaries came in, they started to pray and then they fell to their knees. I was looking at the wall to see if I could see anything unusual, if I could see the Mother of God, but I just saw the wall and a rather badly painted statue of the Virgin Mary As everybody knelt so did I, there was no alternative. We were packed so tightly together that when one knelt down we all had to kneel down. I remember thinking that it was impossible for any more people to get in the room and standing up it was crowded enough but kneeling down we were taking up twice the space. So there was a knee in my calf, and there was another knee on my heel and I felt most uncomfortable. The room was silent just the sound of the people breathing and then the silence was broken by the sound of crying, it was the Italian lady with the sick child. I began to notice that there was some special presence, something was happening in that room which I didn’t understand. And then before I knew where I was and what was happening everybody was standing up and we went outside.
My wife was waiting with tears streaming down her face saying to me “You’ll never know just what a wonderful Grace this has been for all of our family.” Sue was so happy that I had been in the room of the apparition, it’s something I didn’t understand at the time because although I didn’t believe what was happening, I reasoned that if by chance the Mother of God was travelling through time and space to appear to six visionaries in Medjugorje it made little difference whether I was inside the room or the other side of the wall, she would have been able to see me anyway, something I just could not comprehend.
So this was the first occasion that I was forced to kneel, by tradition Jewish people do not kneel for fear that they would be breaking one of the Commandments by bowing down in front of a graven image and so this was contrary to the Orthodox Jewish teachings that I had received when I was a young man and I felt guilty that I had knelt in this room in front of that badly painted statue.
I returned to Medjugorje many times with my wife because I found it such a pleasant and friendly place to visit which was very enjoyable and I knew something was happening there which I didn’t understand, but whatever was happening it had the effect of making everybody that visited there extremely nice and friendly and loving towards one another.
So I went there without believing but enjoying the environment. I continued to visit Medjugorje for many years and I recognised it as a place where I could escape to find peace and wonderful relaxation and friendship.
About two years later I think it was 1985. Sue and I were on one of our regular visits to the Shrine when one evening we decided to climb Mount Kritevac because we had been told that an apparition would take place and that Maria Pavlovic would be there. We arrived at the foot of the Cross very early and we sat down on the steps just in front of the Cross. We were talking about our lives and our beliefs Sue about her Catholic faith, myself about my Jewish upbringing. Sue was trying to convince me that Jesus Christ was my Messiah and Saviour and I was saying to her that for every good reason to prove that he was the Messiah there is an equally good reason to say that he wasn’t. So of cause I know now that this is a matter from the heart and not the head, but my head was ruling my judgement and I still could not accept that Jesus was the Messiah and that his Blessed Mother was visiting the visionaries in Medjugorje. We spoke for some long time and hadn’t noticed that it had got quite dark and a great crowd had assembled at the foot of the Cross. I heard some singing and I saw a lantern coming towards us. It was Maria Pavlovic with her prayer group. The crowd parted and she came to the foot of the Cross. By chance she stood against my shoulder. She started to pray and then she fell to her knees. As she did this a man standing next to her turned to me and said “Are you English” I said “Yes” He said tell the crowd in English that the Mother of God is appearing to Maria, everybody kneel, no photographs and pray. So I turned round and I shouted out into the darkness to the great crowd “Everybody kneel, the Mother of God is appearing to Maria Pablobic, no photographs, everybody pray” and with that everybody knelt, apart from myself who through tradition did not kneel. But on this occasion I felt that as I had told everyone else to kneel it would be impolite for me not to kneel. So I knelt next to Maria, and it was the second time I had knelt.
I remember thinking this was a very uncomfortable thing to do. There were stones on the ground and they were cutting into my knees, I felt very uncomfortable. I wondered whether Catholics had special kneecaps that allow them to kneel. These were the thoughts that were going through my head when the apparition was taking place. Then I felt a drop of rain fall on my head and I thought it was going to pour with rain and here we were on the top of a mountain in a great crowd of people. We’ll have to walk down slowly, it would be dangerous and slippery because the mountain would be wet, we were going to get soaked and I wondered what any Jewish man was doing in such a situation, no place for him to be. The apparition ended and every body stood up and very quickly little recorders were placed in front of Maria and various guides translated the message into different languages and then it came to English the message was translated and I can’t remember the exact words but it was something to do with returning to living in the light of the Gospel otherwise the World would inflict a great tragedy upon itself and then at the end of the message it said “a tear rolled down the cheek of Our Blessed Mother and landed on the cloud on which she was standing. I thought to myself I must have been right under that cloud. That night it did not rain.
When I returned to the guest house that we were staying at I told a young American Priest named Robert Cox about my experience and he told me “Bernard, you are being called to Baptism.” Which I didn’t understand and I asked him to explain. He said when you go back to England go to your Parish Priest and tell him you’re being called to Baptism. I still didn’t understand so when I got back to England I didn’t do anything about it.
However, the thought of that drop of water falling on my head stayed on my mind and I thought about it very often.
The following year we were again in Medjugorje and on one of the occasions when we visited Father Jozo to hear his talk I told Sue that I wanted to stay behind and pray with Father Jozo. There was the usual enormous great crowd and Sue said “There’s so many people here, we should get back to Medjugorje” and I said “I want him to pray with me” and Sue said “He has already prayed with you in the church and he’s already blessed you, there was no point in staying any longer” But I was insistent because I had a feeling that I had to pray with him on a one to one basis. So we waited and waited and waited and the crowd slowly dwindled until we were near the front of the queue. By that time all the coaches and all the buses had gone back to Medjugorje we were practically the last ones there. Eventually it came to my turn and I said to Anca who was translating for Father Jozo that I was Jewish and that I wanted Father Jozo to prayer that The Holy Spirit (and Jewish people recognise The Holy Spirit) would enlighten me that I would do what was right for myself. Father Jozo placed one hand on my heart he and put his other arm around Sue and myself. He prayed in Croatian. I didn’t understand the words but it sounded very sincere. During the prayers I felt an enormous pounding in my heart. Sue told me later she felt it as well as if my heart was going to burst through my shirt. Then the prayers ended and we had to get a taxi and we went back to Medjugorje. Back in England I thought about my meeting with fr Jozo and that tear from heaven but still I did not take instruction into the Catholic faith and still I didn’t believe.
A year after that in August of 1987 Father Slavko was attending a Catholic charismatic renewal service in the Catholic shrine of Walsingham in Norfolk England and Sue and I had attended. It was on the night of the reconciliation service after which Father Slavko was going to celebrate Eucharistic adoration. The assembled had gone forward to Priests who were standing in the front of the tent and they had confessed one sin. After which they had lit a candle and had gone out into the darkness in a symbolic gesture. They were elated at the thought that Gods love had forgiven their sin and they were celebrating, singing and dancing with joy at having been set free. Eventually this procession of singing, dancing, noisy people entered into the reconciliation chapel in Walsingham where Eucharistic adoration was going to be celebrated by Father Slavko.
Father Slavko came onto the altar and looked down at this bustling, noisy, excited crowd. He just stood there, he didn’t move, he just stared at them. Obviously waiting for them to place themselves in the right frame of mind for adoration. He waited a long time, it was quite a few minutes. Normally I would have left for fear that I would be breaking the Commandment that I had learnt in my youth. “You shall not worship a graven image, you shall not bow down yourself to them” but on this occasion I stayed. I was fascinated by what was happening, Father Slavko waiting and the crowd becoming quieter and quieter and still, they became motionless, silent, calm. There was not a sound in the room. It reminded me of the silence in the room of the apparition all those years ago. Father Slavko slowly placed the Monstrance on the Altar and presented the Blessed Sacrament to the assembled. There was a perfect peacefulness a sublime stillness. Everybody fell to their knees. Again I was the last person left standing but on that occasion I felt an inward conviction that I should also kneel but on this third occasion it was because I wanted to. So I knelt and as I did so in that all embracing moment in time I looked at the faces of the people around me who were staring at the Blessed Sacrament and then I looked at the Blessed Sacrament and in some way I felt that there was a presence there that was looking back at the people kneeling before it’s very being. At that moment I was given a gift, one which can never be explained because it’s pure gift. I knew that God was truly present in the Blessed Sacrament. At that same moment Jesus called me to accept him as my Saviour and I did.
I returned to England and I asked My Parish priest to instruct me in the Catholic faith. Coming from a Jewish culture I had not been baptised and during my instruction I was taught about the Sacrament of Baptism and I realised that I was being given a wonderful opportunity to make a new start and through Baptism I would be washed pure as a new born child. I would be born again and everything that had happened to me and everything that I had ever done in the past would be as though it had never happened. There were many things that were difficult for me to understand but which I accepted because I was overwhelmed by this wonderful opportunity that God was giving me. I looked forward to the day when I would be received into the Church and Baptised. I learnt about the real presence in the Euracarist something that I had recognised and I learnt that God comes to us each day through Holy Mass to nourish us physically and spiritually and then when we will make the inevitable mistakes that we all do through our human frailty I could go to the Priest in the Sacrament of Confession and if I was truly repentant the sins that I had committed would be forgiven. Being a convert .and having had a Jewish education I realise that everything that was present in the Catholic Faith was routed deeply in the Jewish Faith. So I was not becoming a Catholic so much as a completed Jew and I am truly thankful that God in his infinite Mercy has given me this wonderful opportunity.
I was received into the Catholic Church, Confirmed and Baptised and received my first Holy Communion on Thursday 13 April 1987. Coincidentally, it was also the first night of the Jewish Passover. The first night of the Jewish Passover and Holy Thursday do not always fall on the same day, but on this year it did. For Jewish people the Messiah will come on the first night of the Passover, it’s a tradition and they wait for the Messiah to come on that night. For me the Messiah did come on that night when I was Baptised Confirmed and received my first Holy Communion.
There was one extra little gift which I’m sure was a present from our Blessed Mother. This momentous day for me, the 13 April 1987 also happened to be my birthday and I’m sure it was a gift from my Blessed Mother who had been calling me and persuading me to kneel on those three occasions that had arranged for this day to coincide with my birthday. Born again on my birthday. What a wonderful Grace for this Jewish man.
During the years that followed, I visited Medjugorje on many occasions and I became very friendly with all the Franciscans Fr. Ivan, Fr. Oric Fr, Pervan. Fr. Svet and Fr. Slavko who were always welcoming to me accepting me as a Jewish man who had become a Catholic through his Medjugorje experience. I had the privilege of getting to know Father Slavko closely who has a great love for the Jewish people and was always interested in their culture, When the war broke out in 1990 I formed a charity in England which through the generosity of the people of this country delivered over ten million pounds worth of aid to the whole of Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina. We wanted to help those people who had helped us so much by their examples of faith, hospitality and friendship. Apart from food and medical supplies we delivered one hundred and sixty vehicles which were left in the region so that the local people could assist themselves by delivering aid and medical supplies to remote areas where it was most needed to places which were in the midst of hostile fighting.
My efforts were greatly praised but I only represented the many people who joined in to help, the convoy drivers, the people who donated money, the people who donated food and medical supplies. I had the strongest feeling and the knowledge of the reality which was that we who helped were those who were privileged and rather than the people of Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina thanking us we should thank them. The people who were suffering in Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina during this horrendous war were the victims and became Christ like in their suffering. Through their hardship and suffering they gave us the opportunity to help them and to prove we loved one another as God loves us. We were the privileged who were given the gift of being able to help them and this was a grace for us.
During the years of the war I worked very closely with all the Franciscans and it was then that I became very close to Fr. Slavko. We spent a great deal of time together. It must have been a strange thing for many people that Father Slavko and I could have formed such as friendship because our personalities and backgrounds were so different. Father Slavko once said to me “Bernard you are a true friend” and these are words which I treasure, He said that
“when I ask you to help you always said yes straight away you never asked what do you want me to do, how can I do it or why do you want my help, You just said yes I will help. You knew instinctively that I would not ask you to do anything that you could not do. You trusted me. That he said was a real measure of true trust and friendship and that is why I consider you a true friend”.
Father Slavko is undoubtedly a Saint and with our Lord in Heaven now and for me a Jewish convert to be counted as a friend of a Saint is a privilege which goes beyond any words.