Interview: Mario Vuknic, academic painter from Novi Sad (Voivodina, Serbia)
Other languages: English, Hrvatski
Date: July 26, 2005 , Originally published April 23, 2004
Mario Vuknic, academic painter and National Trust officer from Novi Sad, spent the Easter week in Medjugorje together with his family. Some years ago, he spent a whole year here, in a group led by Fr. Slavko Barbaric. He also renovated the paintings in the renewed Franciscan church in Konjic (Bosnia). In September 2003, the Association of Painters of Voivodina organized in Novi Sad the first autonomous exposition of his paintings. Faith and biblical themes are his main inspirations.
Visnja Spajic spoke with him for Radio “Mir” Medjugorje.
Visnja Spajic: You often compare your life with a car that had been driving on bad roads…
Mario Vuknic: As a painter, I was seeking myself on different places. The art is a large area; freedom that art and life offer to us can take us in different directions. One bad road took me to drug addiction, to alcoholism, to a bad life. I think that there are many great frauds in the world, and one can easily go astray. I grew up in a catholic family, but without a real faith. We only used to have a special meal for Easter and for Christmas; our faith was reduced to that.
Visnja Spajic: If you had known faith in all its fullness in your early childhood, do you think that your seeking would have taken such a direction?
Mario Vuknic: No, certainly not. Faith is a path that leads us closest to ourselves. We all seek ourselves in other people, but only Christian prayer and meditation allow us to really know ourselves. I think that those who live faith and prayer are less inclined to get lost.
Visnja Spajic: When did you get married, when did you have your first child?
Mario Vuknic: We were married when I was 30, and we got our first child when I was 32. I was seeking during four or five years. The last two or three years were most horrible. You do not enter quickly into a bad world. You enter progressively, and you are not able to see the possible consequences. The last part of the road is awful, worst; you stand in front of a wall…
Visnja Spajic: What does it mean?
Mario Vuknic: At this period of time, I was taking large amounts of drugs, of medicaments, of alcohol, and doctors were observing me and wondering that I was still alive, after all that I had taken and drunk.
Visnja Spajic: What was the turning point?
Mario Vuknic: A miracle happened. These are God’s ways. I was not even aware of how bad my situation was, but I felt it as a burden. My wife and myself said that we have to do something, but my willpower was too weak, I couldn’t change anything by myself. My father was born in Imotski, in Croatia, so we came to Imotski, in order to move away from Novi Sad, from my environment. After a couple of days in Imotski, my aunt – who used to come to Medjugorje – took me here, introduced me to Fr. Slavko Barbaric, and that was it… the turning point. It was in 1999. I was here for the New Year 2000.
Visnja Spajic: How did it all happen?
Mario Vuknic: I spoke with Fr. Slavko, I told him that I was confused, I asked him if he was ready to receive me, I asked if I could do something for him. Fr. Slavko told me: “Come, and we shall see”. This is how I slowly started working, praying, going to church… In the beginning, our group was accommodated in Domus Pacis, and a month later, we were transferred to Mario Mijatovic’s house in Hrehin Grac. In this first contact with spiritual realities, I thought like many other people do: there is no use of it. As for the work, we were carrying some wood from the forest in St. Francis’ Garden, it was autumn, it was raining, my depression was intensified… that was the decisive moment, when the healing process started: I began to think that it was better to see things clearly. Everything was somehow gray, but I was physically stronger. At this stage, the spiritual father and his capacity of counseling are very important.
Visnja Spajic: What came next? Was it difficult without drugs? How was it to know practical faith in reality?
Mario Vuknic: The crisis of abstinence in itself is not that terrible as we think. It is a paradox. We are terribly afraid of it, but it is not that dangerous. Our body can survive it. Those who see a person in crisis think that he needs more help that what the body really requires. There is another paradox: doctors try to heal this illness with medications and with resting, and we were doing exactly the opposite: we were working hard, we were not resting, we were not taking any medication.
Visnja Spajic: You know both methods. Which one is better?
Mario Vuknic: This one is certainly better. I think that very few people can be healed with medications, because, as Fr. Slavko says, this illness attacks the spirit, the soul and the body. Medication can stop the crisis of abstinence, which provokes pain, spasms, pains in muscles and in bones that you did not even know that you have. But this crisis is accompanied by a spiritual and a psychological depression.
Visnja Spajic: You have done many things in St. Francis’ Garden and you were restoring works of art in Konjic. At that time – compared with your former life – what did God and spirituality mean to you?
Mario Vuknic: It is not easy to leave drugs. It is not easy to forget. It is a very complex thing in our mental structure, in our communication with people, in our emotions concerning good and evil… It is good to replace drugs by work and spiritual life, by prayer, meditative prayer. To be isolated somewhere, to have time to clarify in front of oneself, to understand what happened in life that took a person that far. It was necessary to understand what kind of person I was: why I have allowed drugs to enter into my life, to have such a dominant role, to do so much harm. It is maybe more difficult for a drug addict than for other people to recognize Jesus, because Jesus is completely different that what we have lived in the world. Through prayer, through meditation, a person can gradually understand that genuine peace is coming from Jesus, and that Jesus is giving what we were looking for on wrong places.
Visnja Spajic: Were you reading the Bible, the Gospels?
Mario Vuknic: Yes, but that was a slow process. We were learning from Fr. Slavko. He had a really good relationship to us. There were several guys in our group. He was able to se within us. He knew what each one needed, and that is how we entered into Christian life.
Visnja Spajic: Your family – your wife and your child – were they patient during your crisis? When did you turn back to them?
Mario Vuknic: They were patient, they went through what was worse, and my stay here was a hope for all of us. With my wife, we were never practicing faith. My wife is Serbian and she traditionally belongs to the Orthodox faith, but she had absolutely no contact with religious customs, not even in her childhood. After three-four months of my stay here, Fr. Slavko invited her to come for a seminar. This was the first time that we were here together. In Novi Sad, my wife used to go and visit the Franciscans, but she was never seeking anything special. She gradually came in contact with spirituality, but she never recognized spiritual life. And here, another Medjugorje-miracle happened. Without any preparation and without any experience in prayer, she had a deep conversion here. It was marvelous. After that, we got married in the Church and we baptized our children.
Visnja Spajic: How is your family life today?
Mario Vuknic: Very strenuous. I am forty years old; I am an old car that drove on bad roads. Children are very active and it is not easy with them.
Visnja Spajic: Are you teaching them religious life? Are you taking them to Church? What does Medjugorje mean to all of you?
Mario Vuknic: Medjugorje is a place of our conversion and of the beginning of a new life. We are learning. We are not neglecting spiritual life and life of prayer. In the beginning, we had a period of grace and of peace, but now children ask so much of our attention. Worries, bills to pay… all this is a cross that we have to carry. Medjugorje is a place where we fill our batteries. We climb the mountains, we pull the children with us, we cannot have the same concentration, but this is how it is now.
Visnja Spajic: What are you doing in Novi Sad?
Mario Vuknic: This is another miracle. I am working in the National Trust Office. We are renovating mostly religious works of art. Painters, architects, archeologists are working there, we are renovating paintings. Our director had so much understanding for my situation. He had given me a whole year for my treatment. Often, people do not have much understanding for this kind of problems, and when it happens in a family, they try to keep it secret and to hide it, and when it comes out, it is a shame for all, and they do not try to solve the problem in a right way.
Visnja Spajic: Have you recognized the love of God in all these events?
Mario Vuknic: Certainly, yes! The world would not have been able to do it.
Visnja Spajic: How is it to be a genuine believer in Novi Sad?
Mario Vuknic: Our faith is teaching us that the essential in within us. In this sense, we can live mercy, love, tolerance, we can give time for others. We are going for Sunday Mass. Some are laughing at us, others just ignore us, but some become aware that - in their lives also - something is missing.
Visnja Spajic: Are your acquaintances recognizing that you are living the Gospel?
Mario Vuknic: I wish it were that way! People recognize that there is something more than just a healing. My need for drugs in not just covered by something else. I am not the same person any more. They see that there is something… that I have been born again.
Visnja Spajic: How did the family of your wife accept her as a Catholic?
Mario Vuknic: It is difficult. Some people are strange. I heard a man saying: “I am an Orthodox atheist!” The ignorance goes that far. But I do not think that they perceive it as a betrayal. People who do not know Jesus seek for exterior differences and divergences.
Visnja Spajic: Are you and your wife strong enough in your choices, in your faith, are you continuing to go towards your goal, are there hesitations?
Mario Vuknic: There are no hesitations, but there are difficulties, we stumble, we fall. This is the only right way, this is sure.
Visnja Spajic: Can your life be an inspiration for others?
Mario Vuknic: The group that I have in view is those who are in the grip of drugs and of vices. I like a thought that I heard from the boys in the Cenacolo community: Drugs are not having the last word. It is very difficult to handle them, sometimes drugs are stronger that people, but I would like that people hear that drugs are not having the last word. A life according to the Gospel brings the fullness of peace. There is no illness that God could not heal, physical or other. But what is most important is to be spiritually healed, to become able to carry one’s cross. To carry one’s cross with love, as Jesus is teaching us.
Visnja Spajic: Do you have a message inspired by Medjugorje, for you personally and for the world?
Mario Vuknic: I could not say it in just one sentence. Medjugorje is an invitation to a change of life, to put prayer in life, to a change that requires great efforts… There is always a fear of losing old habits. However, in changing our life, we receive much, much more: a greater fullness of life. Medjugorje is a place where miracles do happen. This is a fact. We are witnesses. And I know many others.