By Capt. Randy ReadyAugust 20, 2013
LETNICA, Kosovo -Kosovo Force soldiers took part in a pilgrimage to the Church of the Black Madonna in Letnica to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Aug. 15.
The ceremony commemorates the death of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her assumption into heaven.
People have been making the pilgrimage to the Church of the Black Madonna for more than 400 years, despite various political and religious turmoil that has occurred throughout the Balkan's history.
U.S. Army Chaplain (Maj.) Timothy Meier, S.J., the Multinational Battle Group-East Chaplain and a member of the California National Guard, believes it is the church's openness to those of all faiths that has helped it survive all these years.
"The parish has flourished in part, I think, because they have a centuries old tradition of welcoming people of any faith to come pray there," said Meier.
That tradition of openness continued as the church welcomed more than 200 KFOR soldiers, representing several countries and faiths, to take part in the day's activities.
The KFOR soldiers' pilgrimage started with a 3 kilometer walk through the Kosovo countryside to the Church of the Black Madonna, where soldiers attended an Albanian Mass and were able to tour the church and the town.
For U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Edmund Unutoa, a crew chief repairman for Task Force Aviation and a member of the Florida National Guard, the best part of the day was interacting not just with the KFOR soldiers, but also with the thousands of civilians from throughout the Balkans who made the pilgrimage.
"Even though we didn't speak the same language, just a smile and a handshake really meant a lot to me, and I'm pretty sure it meant a lot to them too," said Unutoa, a native of Brooksville, Fla.
For others the visit to the Church of the Black Madonna had another special meaning.
"Eighty-five years ago, Mother Theresa, then 19 years old, came with her family from Skopje to celebrate the Feast of the Assumption," said Meier. "While she was here for that celebration she experienced God's call to change her life completely and become a religious woman, a nun."
That was the best part of the trip for U.S. Army Pfc. Gary Burnett, a UH-60 Black Hawk mechanic from Port St.Lucie, Fla.
"Back home we're very big on missions, very big on going to different countries and spreading the gospel," said Burnett, a Florida National Guardsman. "So to be able to see someone as influential as Mother Theresa and where she got her calling from meant quite a lot to me."
Meier, who was able to read the Gospel during a Mass held outside the church, enjoyed the number of missionaries of charity who were at the ceremony.
"I found it especially wonderful that they were there today because that religious order got founded as a consequence, ultimately, of Mother Theresa becoming Mother Theresa subsequent to being here on the 15 of August in 1928," said Meier.
Though the pilgrimage gave KFOR soldiers the unique opportunity to participate in the ceremony and visit where Mother Theresa received her calling, Meier also believes KFOR's participation provided a good example to the people of the Balkans about what can happen when people of different backgrounds, religions and nationalities agree to get along with each other.
"I believe that countries being able to work together, to play together, to pray together will do much more for a guarantee of peace and prosperity in the world than pretty much anything else," said Meier.