My Trip to Mariastern in Banja-Luka
by Fr. Thamsanqa Paulos Njiyela, CMM
It is with joy and gratitude that I share with you my experience of the journey I went on. From the 15th of June to the 15th of July 2019 I visited the first Monastery founded by Abbot Francis Pfanner, in 1869, that of Mariastern, and a few other sites. Together with the diocese of Banja- Luka, the Trappists and its surrounding community were celebrating the 150 years of the foun- dation of that monastery. The celebration took place on the 21st and 22nd of June 2019.
Where it all started
It all started on my Facebook page for the promotion of Abbot Francis. I was invited by a lady called Drina Caver, who is from Zagreb in Croatia. Through our chatting I realized that she was one of those who admire and respect Abbot Francis for what he did in Banja-Luka, Bosnia.
She founded an Association called Kristov Stol, which specializes in cycling in honor of Abbot Francis and of Saint John Paul II. The members do this for the two because they left a mark in the life of the people of Croatia and Bosnia. Drina is the one arranging all the trips for the cy- clers. It is amazing that, for instance, they have cycled from Croatia to Rome. In short, this is the background for my invitation to the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the foundation of Mariastern.
On the 15th of June I started my journey from Mariannhill to Croatia via Rome, where I stopped at our generalate. There I received a warm welcome by our Superior General, Fr. Thulani Mbuyisa, and the whole community. I stayed there only two days. They showed me a few places in the city of Rome, for which I am grateful. On the 19th I proceeded to Croatia where I was warmly welcomed at the airport of Zagreb by Drina and her family. Their welcome was re- ally amazing. Furthermore, thanks to the rector, Fr Matija Pavlakovic, who welcomed me so well, I slept in Salata, a minor seminary of Zagreb. The following day I had an opportunity to move around and see special places and churches illustrating the history of the Church in Za- greb. I spent at least two days in Zagreb, thanks to Drina and her family.
On the 21st of June we left Zagreb, Croatia, for Banja-Luka for the celebration of the 150th anni- versary of the foundation of Mariastern. On our way we saw many bikers also travelling from Zagreb to Banja-Luka for the same celebration. As mentioned earlier, this is a group that pro- motes Abbot Francis Pfanner in Croatia. The joy animating them was just amazing. They truly love Abbot Francis! Their effort really amazed me. To cycle such a long distance just for the love of Abbot Francis! Besides, they were not the only ones: on the 22nd two buses from Zagreb also followed to take part in the celebration.
I cannot really express how I felt upon arrival at Mariastern. It was like a dream come through. The place was so quiet and peaceful! That spirit of prayer when you enter! I was welcomed by two monks. They are the only ones remaining in the Monastery. They were over the moon when they saw someone from Mariannhill, where Abbot Francis died. Moved to the point of sharing tears! That was a touching moment for me because they had been looking forward to hear someone coming directly from Mariannhill. We shared a lot together during my stay. The painful thing they communicated to me is that the Monastery will be closing down because they remain only two and they are rather old, in their seventies. The church has already been taken over by the diocese. The two monks are no longer able to care for the monastery.
In the course of the afternoon the bishop of the diocese, His Excellency Franjo Komarica, and Cardinal Vinko Puljic arrived for the opening celebration. They also welcomed me, among many, very well. The celebration consisted mainly in the opening of the Abbot Francis and of the 150 years of Mariastern museum.
The celebration was attended by many church officials, some civil representatives and many faithful. Abbot Francis and the Trappists who came after him did a lot at Mariastern. They managed to preserve the place for 150 years. It still looks good, although many things have been closed down and some taken over by the government.
The exhibition was followed be a Holy Mass, led by Cardinal Vinko Puljic. He emphasized the importance of appreciating all that Abbot Francis did, among other things the way he fought for the foundation of Mariastern. It is so clear that he was a zealous man, who truly loved peo- ple. The Cardinal also mentioned that, even from his time at Mariastern, Abbot Francis already clearly showed a missionary spirit. He would go and hear confessions and would not come back on time to the monastery, just for the good of the people. I must say, the opening celebration was well prepared.
The main celebration started in the morning of the 22nd of June. The main celebrant was Bish- op Franjo Komarica. It was also attended by a good number of priests and faithful. The theme was still Abbot Francis Pfanner and all he did at Mariastern. The bishop expressed his sadness about the state of the Monastery, that is, about the fact that there are no monks any longer to continue the legacy of Abbot Francis and so to preserve his heritage. In his personal talk to me, he even suggested that if the Mariannhill Congregation could make itself available, he would be more than happy to welcome it.
During this celebration I was given an opportunity to say something about Abbot Francis. I talked mainly about the beatification process and the importance of promoting the devotion to him. I actually invited the people to come together and especially to pray for their needs through him, so that a miracle may come. The audience really appreciated my presence and my sharing. I was even given time, after lunch, to present something I had prepared in advance. My presentation was about what Abbot Francis did in Africa. About a hundred people listened to it. All were amazed by his achievements there. Many of them already knew that he had gone to South Africa, but that was all: they didn’t know all that I shared with them.
They really appreciated that additional information. This really showed their love for Abbot Francis. Honest- ly, I gained a lot of strength for the promotion work I am doing.
Days after Mariastern
I got an opportunity to visit Podmilacje. The people were celebrating the feast of St John the Baptist there. This was an amazing pilgrimage, where I realized the strong faith of the Catholic Church in that part of the world. I also visited Medjugorje, where the people were celebrating the anniversary of the apparitions. I stayed there, in the Castle of Nancy and Patrick Latta, for a week. This family built the place for priests who come to visit Madjugorje. It has been an amaz- ing experience to be there; it uplifted my spiritual life. On our way back to Zagreb I visited some interesting places like Split, Primosten and Zada, where there is a lot to see and learn. I finally left Zagreb for Rome on the 3rd of July and Rome for Mariannhill on the 16th of July.
From what I saw and experienced, I can say it is really true that Abbot Francis Pfanner was a strong, courageous, and zealous man. Wherever he went, he left a mark that can never be for- gotten. Mariastern is still standing, and that is one of the visible signs he left in Banja-Luka. Tre Fontane is another one he left in Rome. There, even today, one can see the trees he planted after everyone had failed to deal with the difficult situation. He was also a true missionary. I am always captivated by his words to the Trappists of Mariannhill: “It is a pity that I am no longer thirty years of age. If I were, I would go before you everywhere seeking new places and start- ing new mission stations.” We also need to develop our vision and to cultivate the zeal he showed. We can only do so if we love him and appreciate all that he did. This challenges us to look back at him with a strong faith in him and to promote his person and his greatness.
My last word is to say that I am truly grateful for the opportunity I was given and to all those who supported me during that journey, those mentioned and those not mentioned in this re- port. I will always admire Abbot Francis Pfanner.