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The number 33

Numbers and dates can have an significant role in our lives, especially in a celebratory sense, often serving as reminders of important events in the journey of the Church and people’s faith.


The patroness of Uruguay is known as The Virgin of the Thirty-Three. This unusual title derives from the time when 33 patriots landed on the beaches of Agraciada in 1825 to liberate the country. They headed on to Florida, went into a chapel and dedicated the future of the new nation to the Blessed Mother in front of a small wooden statue placed there by Jesuits in 1779. 


But if our focus on numbers and dates becomes obsessive it can often develop into the kind of superstition that makes us want to believe the number 7 is lucky and 13 is actually unlucky.


Here, BRENDAN McCANN, relates how a pilgrimage to Medjugorje re-aligned an obsessive focus he had given to the number 33 for much of his life.


• For years I have been haunted by 33. That is how old my brother was when he died, or so I thought. I could relate everything to 33; when Christ died, going over the speed limit, anything with that number would work its way into my life and I would give it prominence. It is only in the last two or three years that I found out my brother was actually 32 when he died. Clearly the shock of his death had blared some of my reasoning. So I was looking for the wrong thing for the last 20 odd years.


Last August I got the call to go to Medjugorje and on the second or third day, sitting in St James’ church, the number raised its head again. The priest claimed the church was built in 1933. This made me reflect on how I looked at the number in the past. I said to myself, instead of looking for the bad I should have been looking for the good, as so much good had clearly come out of this church.


A few days passed and it was the feast of St John the Baptist. I had been asked to light a candle for a deceased sister of a friend at work who died of cancer about ten years ago. After Mass I had the whole day to myself and had planned to walk up Cross Mountain on my own and barefoot. So before I went I decided to light a candle and say a few prayers for Catherine, as promised. I was at the side of the church in an area well laid out for the purpose; there was a large cross with an area underneath for lighting candles and seating for about 100 people. With the exception of a few elderly ladies in the corner I was on my own.


I started to pray for Catherine and slowly this changed to me saying to Catherine, “I don’t think you need my prayers because I think you are in heaven and I feel you can do more for me than I can do for you. You knew you had to leave this world and I have no doubt you made your peace with God before you left.” As I said this a dove landed at the foot of the cross, rested for a while and then flew up and landed at the right hand of Jesus, rested for another while and flew away. Was this a sign or a bird doing its rounds? I took it as a sign and said that I would now focus on my brother as I climbed the mountain.


As I was making my way towards the mountain my mind was clear but I asked myself, ‘“Does this work, making a sacrifice for the sins of others?” I was soon to get my answer. On the way towards the mountain I met Martin, someone I had befriended in the last few days. The conversation was short and in one direction. He said, “If you want forgiveness for sins you have to walk up the mountain in your bare feet. See you later.” He didn’t say my sins; he said sins.


That was my first sucker punch and I didn’t expect any more of these. I was wrong – just like my focus on the number 33 – totally wrong. So I got to the mountain, removed my sandals and packed them in my shoulder bag, took a good drink of water and with my walking stick, away I went.


I really had to focus. The sun was hot, the ground sharp and the mountain steep. A few times I asked myself if I was wise in the head. I wasn’t going to tell anyone I climbed the mountain in my bare feet so if I slipped on my sandals no one would know the difference. I wouldn’t be seen as someone who failed. As far as people were concerned I climbed the mountain. I would only tell them I climbed the mountain in my bare feet if they asked.


As I was going up I never looked right or left as I had to focus on my footing. The stony surface was pointed and uncomfortable. There were Stations of the Cross on the way up but I had other things on my mind – getting to the top. After about 45 minutes I stopped at a station to straighten my back. It could have been any station but it happened to be the 5th. It’s where Simon of Cyrene helps Jesus to carry his cross. This was an emotional body blow to me – one person lifting someone else’s burden. This was what I was doing; trying to atone for any sin my brother might not have been forgiven for.


Higher and higher I went and it wasn’t getting any easier. Soon I started to see a bit more of the sky. I was getting closer to the top. There was a big white cross with steps leading to it. Up I went, adulated. I was near the end of my journey and the ground was easy going. I was now at the top and I may as well have been at the top of the world. The view was fantastic. I thought: “A couple of quick prayers and I will be on my way down with sandals on this time.”


I had accomplished all I had set out to do but before I left I walked quickly around the base of the cross. Looking upwards to see if there were any dates telling when the cross was erected etc. One glimpse almost knocked me off my feet. 33-1933 was etched into the top of the cross. This was now a number that I could only associate with good; a monkey that for no good reason had been clinging onto my back was well and truly gone.


I skipped down the mountain and when I reached the base I could have willingly gone up again!

Fr Jozo Zovko OFM

The Virgin of the Thirty-Three

A dove at the right hand of Jesus

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