While I was practising as a dentist, people at parties often asked me what I did for a living. Telling them what I did often brought the conversation to a quick conclusion.
Medjugorje is a small town in Bosnia and Herzogovina. Between 1942 and ’45 during the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia, over sixty Roman Catholic friars were killed there, allegedly by Communist resistance fighters. In 1981, when this area was still part of the former Yugoslavia, some six children claimed to have seen visions of the Virgin Mary. Despite opposition by the Yugoslav authorities, Medjugorje rapidly became a place of pilgrimage. The authorities softened their opposition to this during the last few years leading up to the country’s tragic disintegration.
I used to visit friends in Belgrade often during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. I flew back and forth, often on flights operated by Jugoslovenski Aerotransport (‘JAT’), one of Yugoslavia’s two major airlines, the other being the former Aviogenex. A friend of mine in Belgrade was once looking after some visiting German bankers, when he told them:
“Yugoslavia has two state airlines. Germany only has one … now that the Luftwaffe has been closed down.”
Many of the JAT flights between Belgrade and London touched down at Zagreb to pick up passengers. In the ‘80s, Zagreb was an airport used by pilgrims visiting Medjugorje. I was travelling back to London with a friend from Belgrade. We had occupied two of a set of three seats. We used the middle seat, which was free when we boarded, to store some of our hand-baggage. Many people boarded at Zagreb, including a man who occupied the middle seat. He told us that he had just been to Medjugorje, and asked my friend:
“Do you believe in the Blessed Virgin Mary?”
“I would love to discuss that with you,” she said, “but not now because I have a terrible headache.”
The pilgrim turned to me, and then asked me something.
Not having heard it properly because of the noise made by the ‘plane’s engines, I replied:
“I am a dentist, actually.”
After that, our initially chatty pilgrim neighbour did not say a word during the flight to London.