Pilgrims flock to the visitors center at the shrine of Our Lady of Medjugorje (below).

A Journey Inwards

Seeing the Light in Medjugorje

Businessman Rafael Sáenz de Santa María Pombo was a lost soul aimlessly drifting in the asphalt jungle of Bilbao when he unexpectedly rediscovered his faith.
Neguri, Spain: Getxo's Iglesia del Carmen in Neguri is a spiritual oasis for old-timers, Filipino expatriates and lately for young people who have formed a prayer group at my parish church. Responsible for organizing the prayer group every first and third Thursdays of the month and also the monthly family Sunday Mass is Rafael Sáenz de Santa María Pombo, a 46-year-old family man and devotee of Our Lady of Medjugorje (Our Lady of Peace). Indeed, we are blessed to have parishioners such as Rafael in our midst.

But the path of righteousness was not always the road he had taken until a trip to Medjugorje completely changed the trajectory of his life. Santa María de Pombo is a Spanish title of nobility (marquisate in this case) granted in 1872 to a forebear of Rafael–Santander Sen. Juan Pombo Cornejo–by King Amadeo I of Spain of the House of Savoy. With his privileged background, it is easy to see how he took a detour in his spiritual life, although he was born and raised Catholic.

Today, life in the fast lane is a thing of the past for Rafa. He has turned a new leaf and is now an observant Catholic and  good father and husband. It was while visiting  Medjugorje where the formerly lapsed Catholic underwent an intense spiritual experience and returned to his Catholic faith. Medjugorje is a place where in 1981, the Virgin Mary as Our Lady of Peace is said to have appeared before six local children. It now forms part of Bosnia and Herzegovina after the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia following the collapse of the Soviet Union. After his conversion, Rafa and his friends formed the group Salve, their vehicle for charitable works, and they have taken under their wings a Mexican gospel musician whose recording of religious songs they sponsor. Every year he goes with the Salve group on a religious pilgrimage to visit shrines abroad and in Spain, including one of his favorite destinations:  Garabandal.

Rafael was a college track star winning bronze in an intercollegiate sports competition while attending the Opus Dei-run Colegio El Prado in Madrid, where he received his first communion and where he was confirmed. As a student, he acted in school plays. He got married in 1997 to Isabel with whom he has four sons: Alvaro (aged 17) Rafael (15), Thomas (13) and Assisi (11). The four boys attend Gaztelueta College. Of Scottish descent, Rafael’s forebears got involved in Spanish politics and, through public service, earned the admiration of the Spanish Crown, which bestowed upon their family a title of nobility. 


His family is known in Spain as trailblazing aviators. A granduncle, Juan Ignacio Pombo, made aviation history on May 21, 1935 after successfully flying across the South Atlantic on a small plane from Santander to Mexico City. The flight, covering 1,963 miles, took sixteen hours and a half, the most distance a small plane had flown until then, a record that remained unbroken for more than fifty years. 

“We are a practicing Catholic family, and my wife and I direct all ours efforts towards both the human and spiritual formation of our children. We are convinced that our faith is the most important legacy we can give them,” Rafael says. Before returning home to his Catholic faith, Rafael was adrift in his spiritual life, caught up in the pursuit of providing a good life for himself and his family. Although his efforts were crowned with the commercial success of Trattoria La Casetta ( www.restauranteitaliano.com), a restaurant he owns in Getxo, it left an arid spot in his soul. 


To paraphrase a French philosopher and moralist, out of difficulties grew the small miracle that restored his religious beliefs. Tension at home caused by one of his son’s difficulties in school and other family issues almost posed an obstacle to his path towards his own Road to Damascus. Rafael recalls how it occurred: “The first time I heard of Medjugorje was from one of my sisters returning from a trip there in May 2010. Her enthusiasm and excitement about her trip encouraged her to return along with her three older children during the first week of August the following year, perhaps to escape the horde of at least 50,000 youth delegates who descended on Madrid for World Youth Day in 2011. My nephews did not want to go at first but they eventually relented to the wishes of their mother. When they returned home, my young nephews, between the ages of 18 and 21, encouraged me to go to Medgugorje as well. I had never seen them so happy and so excited, and it became clear to me that ‘something' happened to them in Medjugorje."

He planned a trip in October 2011, along with his wife and a close friend. “I have to admit that the days before our trip were not smooth as there was a lot of tension at home concerning the studies of our eldest son. I was also rusty in the sense that I had not taken a trip outside the country for seven years. I had my doubts whether I was wasting my time going to Medjugorje which to me was not an appealing tourist destination,” Rafael recalls.

Rafael the prodigal son saw no  blinding light nor heard any voice telling him to stop kicking against the goads as St. Paul had experienced on his way to Damascus. His conversion nevertheless was no less profound and life changing.

“We spent three days in Medjugorje attending religious services and hearing testimonials from pilgrims. The stream of people coming to pray was nonstop. But it was not until I was back in the bus, while leaving Medjugorje,  where I began to feel something that until then I had not noticed. There was great sadness in my heart that I had never acknowledged before I came to Medjugorje. It was a sadness — an emptiness, really— that became more intense as we drove away. It was like saying goodbye to your girlfriend and having a knot in your stomach because you may not be seeing her again.”


When Rafael returned to Spain, it took ten days for the enormous sadness he had felt to be lifted, during which his journey inwards started. “Whenever someone asked me about my trip, I started to mourn unintentionally, but it was a cry of happiness! God blessed me with me with the awareness that he loves me and that I am embraced and loved by the Virgin Mary. The feeling that the Virgin has ‘touched’ me with her mantle makes me completely happy.” 

According to Rafael, his scale of values ​​has changed completely. “If you stay close to God, everything goes well. If there is something you don’t see clearly, you have to entrust it in his hands. Then you have to pray and wait.”  Despite his spiritual transformation, Rafael admits he is far from being a saint, although he considers his present state of spirituality as being in a much better place than where he was almost five years ago.


As a pastor of souls, nothing gives me more joy than to see my parishioners growing in faith every day. Spiritual growth is a challenge in this day and age when many Christians in Europe, including Catholic Spain, appear to be drifting towards secularism and embracing moral relativism. Given its tradition of rubbing elbows with Spain’s rich and famous, one would think that Neguri would fit right into this mold. As most everyone knows in the Bilbao metropolitan area, Neguri is an exclusive neighborhood of palatial homes built in the beginning of the last century by Spain’s wealthiest families. Those captains of industry are credited for establishing the town of Getxo, where Neguri is situated, as their winter playground. They were drawn to the area because it is near pristine beaches and enjoys good weather all-year round. 

Thankfully, the strong winds of secularism which is— rightly or wrongly— often associated with the libertine lifestyle of the jet set have not touched my parish where the faithful express their deep spirituality not only by attending Mass and other religious services regularly but also, and more importantly, by having real concern for one another.

In my mind, what happened to Rafael in Medjugorje was a miracle which, according to St. Thomas of Aquinas, “to one who has faith, no explanation is necessary” but “to one without faith, no explanation is possible.”

"To paraphrase a French philosopher and moralist, out of difficulties grew the small miracle that restored his religious beliefs. Tension at home caused by his eldest son’s difficulties in school and other family issues almost posed an obstacle to his path towards his own Road to Damascus.
The young visionaries (above) at Garabandal during the early days of the miraculous apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary and Michael the Archangel at the northern Spanish town. Below is a statue of the Virgin Mary in Medjugorje.
Juan Pombo (center) flanked by his sons Teodosio (left) and Juan Ignacio (right) at the Estremera Pilot School where they were flight instructors in 1930-31.
"As a pastor of souls, nothing gives me more joy than to see my parishioners growing in faith every day. Spiritual growth is a challenge in this day and age when many Christians in Europe, including Catholic Spain, appear to be drifting towards secularism and embracing moral relativism....Thankfully, the strong winds of secularism which is— rightly or wrongly— often associated with the libertine lifestyle of the jet set have not touched my parish where the faithful express their deep spirituality not only by attending Mass and other religious services regularly but also, and more importantly, by having real concern for one another."