Associated Press

June 26, 1997


GRADINA, Croatia - For a chance to catch a glimpse of the Virgin Mary, Marija Plavsic and five members of her family trekked almost 125 miles to this quiet village in the lush meadows of northern Croatia.

She is among the thousands of pilgrims, skeptics and would-be souvenir vendors who have flocked to tiny Gradina since June 13, when about 50 schoolchildren said they saw a vision of the Virgin Mary.

Sightings of the revered figure aren't unusual in this region. People are also flocking to nearby Medjugorje this week to mark the 16th anniversary of another sighting of the Virgin Mary.

Some regard the visions as optical illusions or cruel hoaxes. For Plavsic, they are divine miracles. Her trek from Croatia's westernmost city is a journey of belief.

"My faith is strong and I'm inclined to believe the children," she said, cradling her son in her arms.

Eyes squinting in the glaring sun, she stared at a vague silhouette in the branches of a group of trees, several yards away across a field of turnips and corn.

Most said the strange image in the branches was that of the Holy Mother, adorned in white veil and blue robe.

"I'm not sure what I see, but I'd much rather believe than not," said Sladjana Toth, a local resident, fingering a rosary. "I do feel something warm and special has happened."

Stjepan Tomic, 7, was one of the dozens of boys and girls aged 8 to 14 who said he had witnessed the apparition.

"She rose from the bushes and hovered above," the boy said calmly. "Then she moved forwards and backwards holding a baby, I think Jesus."

He said that she appeared to most of his friends on the last day of school as they played on a football pitch or in nearby fields.

Dejan Matic, 13, nodded in agreement. He said Mary only spoke to one boy, Krunoslav Timor, forbidding him to reveal her words.

Many elder Gradina residents tending their farms that day concurred about a flashing light emanating from the forest, which they said was beamed into the sky, forming a shining crucifix.

On the outskirts of town, 69 miles east of Zagreb, villagers told of "unusual" behavior of the clear blue skies beforehand, of glittering lightning bolts and loud rumbles of thunder.

None, however, confessed to have seen the Virgin Mary.

Parish priest Stjepan Biber spoke to each child after the reported vision. "We can't be indifferent," he said. "Individually, the children describe very consistently the Holy Mother."

He said the sighting recalled a similar episode some 50 years ago when Mary also reportedly appeared. The incident was hushed up under the then-ruling Communists, who repressed religion, he said.

The Roman Catholic Church is very cautious about any reported visions. It has only acknowledged apparitions in Lourdes, France, in 1858 and Fatima, Portugal in 1917.

Church policy dictates that the local bishop first investigate -- if warranted. Then, the Vatican may authenticate any findings. The process can take decades.

Father Biber said he notified the diocese of the children's sightings.

Thousands of Croats haven't waited for the church's word, flocking to Gradina since Friday, June 13.

Medjugorje, one of Europe's best-visited shrines, is in Croat territory in neighboring Bosnia. It has yet to be authenticated by the Church. The Holy Virgin is said to have appeared to six youths in that impoverished mountainous region in 1981.

Visions of Mary have been reported thousands of times over the centuries.

With his focus firmly fixed on the distant trees, Goran Suvak, 64, wasn't sure what to make of it all.

"Miracle or not," he concluded, "at least it's a sign of hope."