While church officials wait to see the ultimate shape of ongoing Marian apparitions at Medjugorje, Pope Francis last spring gave the green light for official pilgrimages to the site in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Meanwhile, armies of faithful there believe in the special presence of Mary because of personal experiences. In 2019, the parish in the small town recorded that it gave Communion to more than 1.8 million pilgrims. Almost 45,000 visiting priests concelebrated Mass at the church.

The place of the 1981 apparitions had been a scene of tragedy and martyrdom during World War II, when Franciscan friars were burned there by communist forces. Then, 39 years ago, with communism ruling the region, six teens herding sheep on the site claimed to receive messages from Mary. She advocated prayer and peace. That initial seven-day encounter has largely stood up under scrutiny from the Vatican, but the ongoing and regularly scheduled messages from Mary have met with official skepticism.

Still, many worshippers’ lives are changed when they visit Medjugorje.

“The real miracle of Medjugorje is the more than 35 million people who have gone there and started to put God back into their lives,” said Jeff Pettit, president of the board for Center for Peace West, a Medjugorje information center in Beaverton.

Pettit, a member of St. Anthony of Padua Parish in Forest Grove, made his first pilgrimage to Medjugorje in 2006 and has been back five more times. He has interviewed pilgrims and made online videos viewed by about a million people.

His own trek toward pilgrimage began years before with an accident that broke almost every bone in his body. After he recovered, a humbled Pettit heard about a fellow parishioner dying of cancer; he wrote the man a song focusing on the Gospel passage in which Jesus tells listeners not to worry about what they will eat or wear but to trust God.

Then he learned that the messages from Medjugorje were focusing on the same passage. Almost 60, he decided to try a pilgrimage.

It changed his life. For the first time, he cried tears of joy as he embarked on a closer relationship with Jesus through Mary.

“It was not like a falling off a horse conversion,” he said. “It was a slow steady thing that went on and on and on. Mary put me in touch with God’s love and mercy.”

The Bible became more interesting to him and seemed like a living text. For 14 years, he has gone to adoration of the Eucharist every week.

“One of the messages from Medjugorje is pray, pray, pray,” he said. “You see the world differently and you listen for God. You really try to interpret God’s will.”

Pettit said the faithful should not despair that the apparitions have yet to gain full approval. Vatican officials, he explained, must wait for the phenomena to stop before making an assessment.

“We won’t see it approved in our lifetimes,” he said, comparing the process to the rigorous investigation of those who are declared saints.

Pettit responds to skeptics in stride. “I know the effect it had on me was real, whether it is approved or not,” he said. “I know God exists and this put God back in my life. The fruits are real.”

Diane Puncochar, deeply involved at Center for Peace West for years, said many people do not realize that Pope Francis gave the go-ahead for Medjugorje pilgrimages. There has been only a slight uptick in numbers of those making the trip.

For those who do travel, it’s a unique experience, said Puncochar, who has led pilgrimages. In Italy, she said, religious pilgrims move from place to place. But at Medjugorje, pilgrims stay in one place — the small village with its church and holy hills.

“It is a retreat, not a tour,” Puncochar said. “You get off the bus and you feel it in the air; this place is different.”

Puncochar took her husband and both were surprised at how moved he felt. The parish church often is full. In good weather Mass is held outdoors. Pilgrims can climb a demanding mount to a holy site or take the gentler path to the hill of the apparitions. The hotels are mostly small family-run operations close to the sacred spots.

“You hear birds chirping and you walk from town across a field,” Puncochar says of her favorite spot, a clearing with a blue cross. “It is so spiritual. People are praying. People are walking around with rosaries in their hands, not cellphones. You are immersed the whole time.”

The experience is so intense that many pilgrims look for ways to extend it back at home. Puncochar, for example, asked her husband to erect a blue cross in their yard.

Like many Medjugorje pilgrims, Puncochar became a daily Massgoer.

“It’s all about being closer to Jesus,” she said. “Pray with the heart, read the Bible, go to Mass, go to confession and fast — that is what is in the messages.”

The Center for Peace West now is organizing a Medjugorje pilgrimage with Father John Marshall of St. John the Baptist Parish in Milwaukie as leader.