In terms of healing people, Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina is a sign for what parishes and religious communities should aim to be themselves.
That was one of the messages delivered by Medjugorje-based Fr Robert Rieger, a New Zealand priest who works in a ministry of healing for people with addictions. He works with pilgrims at Medjugorje.
Fr Rieger, a member of the Oasis of Peace community, spoke and prayed with people at St Benedict’s church in Newton, Auckland, on the evening of Saturday, May 7.
But the priest said that working in “rehabilitation communities”, with people who have different dependencies, is now “probably my most joyful ministry”.
In this work, with the Community Cenacolo and with another group, he accompanies men, mostly. This is because addiction is “mainly a male problem”, and this is because it is a “father problem”.
“I am simplifying it, there are a lot of other complications. But, usually, where there is addictions or dependencies, there is a father problem, a father wound,” Fr Rieger said in response to a request to discuss his work in this area.
“For us men, who have not had a good mentor in front of us, a father-figure in front of ourselves, someone greater than ourselves, who has called us out to be greater than we [are], to grow, and to push us ahead, and to resist us when we are trying to be stupid, we need men in front of us who help us to become men.
“It is not the same for women, but for men this is very important. When men [don’t] have a good father figure, it is very difficult that they are secure and stable in themselves. They might not all go to prison, no, they might not all become drug addicts, but they are going to limp in their life, trying to find a figure who will help them to grow up.”
Fr Rieger said that, in these rehabilitation communities, he tries “to be a father figure”.
“I try to listen deeply to their wounds, I try to resist them and hold them back, and give them boundaries to their visions and their fantasies and their upheavals, and all of their disorder. I try to be there as a loving presence who forgives and knocks them down a wee bit. It is not just love, it is, well it is love. It is a strong ‘no’, [which] is as important as a strong ‘yes’, when people need to grow.”
In a discussion with Bishop Michael Gielen last year, Fr Rieger explained that the programme for those with addictions takes three years. This programme is structured on “being together, working together, talking together, and praying together”.
Ultimately, healing involves coming back to God, he told Bishop Gielen.
“Medjugorje is great for this. There is a lot of healing of deep wounds in Medjugorje,” Fr Rieger told his St Benedict’s audience.
Asked to speak further about this, Fr Rieger responded that “we all carry wounds in our soul”.
“All family wounds, all relationship wounds, or humiliation wounds, or traumas of any description, and they leave traces of fear inside of us. So often, people who are very angry, are the people who are very wounded and very sad. You see the anger and you think they are just arrogant and aggressive, because we can’t see the sadness, and they have to sort of defend the vulnerability with a lot of aggression, and it is me, me, me, me.
“And it is very difficult for them to learn to listen to other people, because listening means being vulnerable. So healing means being able to break through the mask and the shield that they put up to protect themselves and their sadness and vulnerability, and learn to trust, and learn to listen, and learn to forgive. Medjugorje offers an environment which facilitates that.”
Much of Fr Rieger’s St Benedict’s talk saw him describe his own journey of healing, in which Medjugorje was very significant.
Growing up in Palmerston North, and after finishing at university, he spent a time of wandering, which led him to a hippy commune in Australia, then on to monastery in Western Australia, and eventually to Medjugorje, when he had a deep spiritual experience.
He made a real confession, which didn’t leave anything out, and felt a huge weight lifted from him.
A key word he gleaned from messages delivered by the visionaries in Medjugorje was “surrender”. Eventually, he was prompted to move on to find an “oasis of peace”, and this took him to Switzerland, where he visited an Oasis of Peace community.
He was stunned by the spiritual life there, but was given more ordinary tasks such as weeding the garden and washing lettuce leaves in the kitchen.
“While washing the leaves, I was overcome by a new sense of joy, one of those tidal waves of joy that I had experienced in the beginning of my time in Medjugorje.
“It is a sort of unbelievable joy of knowing that you are loved and are special to God. . . . It is the sort of joy that you know you don’t need anything else but him [God].”
“Community life is the process of bringing down the mask, letting people see you the way you really are. But the way you are is the way of conversion . . . the way you are is difficult, but you can become a saint, you can become great, if God is allowed to work through you.”
He described the Oasis of Peace as “a community of men and women where, in an environment of prayer and of work together, [in] a very intense life together, we are trying to learn acceptance, trying to learn tolerance and forgiveness, collaboration, and purity, and harmony between us”.
Photo: Fr Robert Rieger speaks at St Benedict’s church (Photo: Jana Cerquettini)