Nestled between the Adriatic Sea and the Dinaric Alps, some 5,000 miles from Chicago, lies Medjugorje, Bosnia and Herzegovina. If on your drive from Dubrovnik, Croatia, you see a sign welcoming you to Veliki Ogradenik, well, you’ve gone a bridge too far.

While Medjugorje may sound like an Icelandic resort town, devout Catholics are mindful of its spiritual significance. It’s where six children witnessed visions of the Virgin Mary back in the early 1980s on land that would eventually be called Apparition Hill. Though the Church did not officially recognize Medjugorje as a pilgrimage site until 2019, scores of individuals have trekked to the Eastern European countryside and underwent a spiritual awakening and conversion to Catholicism.

The summer of 2020 presented Catholics with a chance for a mass pilgrimage to Medjugorje in celebration. COVID-19 torpedoed those plans. Earlier this month, though, three Marquette alumni answered the call. Literally.

“We received a phone call from ‘Totally Yours’, a Catholic tour group based out of Chicago, asking if we wanted to re-book our trip in two weeks,” Sam Salyer ’19 recalls.

So, Sam, Claire Salyer ’19, Luke Salyer ’14, and Emma (Salyer) Keene said yes, packed their bags, and departed the United States for the first time in their lives.

What awaited the Salyers was a life-changing, eight-day retreat in Medjugorje. They celebrated outdoor mass daily alongside over 340 priests, nuns, friars, Cardinals, and thousands of youth from six-dozen countries. 

“It was like Heaven on Earth. Even though we all spoke different languages, we were there to praise God,” Sam said.

Anyone who didn’t speak Croatian had an earpiece to translate the service into their native language. With songs in Spanish, Latin, and other languages, Sam mentioned the music was “out of this world.”

The trip sparked a series of culture shocks for Salyer. 

The first came on the three-hour bus ride on a narrow, winding road through the mountains. Spend a day on foreign roadways, and one can develop an immediate yearning for the things that keep American insurance companies in business: guardrails, curbs, speed bumps. When the vehicles around their bus weren’t taking part in their own Cannonball Run, Salyer was blown away by the crystal-clear waters of the Adriatic Sea, the olive trees that lined the coast, and the aforementioned Dinaric Alps.

The second eye-opener took place as part of the reverence and introspection experienced during the retreat itself. 

“It was so spiritual-centric in the mindfulness and prayer. We drew so much closer to God through praying with other people, hiking up hills and mountains, and experiencing nature and God’s presence,” the typically soft-spoken Salyer said with such a confident energy.

The global retreat wasn’t just a relationship-builder for Salyer and God. He developed an even deeper connection with Mary. When he looks back on his journey to Medjujorge, that will be the one aspect forever cemented. 

“If we believe in Jesus, then we believe Mary is our mother, too. Mary will show us the best way to God. She doesn’t let her children go. Love Mary the best you can because she’s our mother, too,” Salyer remarked.
 
Sam spent much of 2020 - a gap year - at Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy in Massachusetts doing missionary work on a farm. 

“We grew our own food, raised pigs, sheep, and chicken, and read faith-based books together. It made me not take for granted where our food comes from,” he said. At Marian Missionaries of Divine Mercy, evangelization is done through action and not words, something that Salyer admired.

Sam will return to Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio this fall for his second year. He’s studying theology with the hopes of teaching high school religion and immersing himself in youth ministry. Marquette made such an impact that the thought of returning to his alma mater brings about a winsome smile.  

“What inspired me to pursue my degree in theology is that you can come back and show excitement and beauty in the faith and what it means to be sons and daughters of God. I was in their shoes not long ago,” he concluded.