My 9.3kg suitcase contained clothes for seven days, a book I would not read, and my rosary beads. After nine hours of travelling, I arrived at a little village, in Bosnia Herzegovina,that has a seemingly unpronounceable name: Medjugorje, the religious-conversion capital of the world.
Millions of people have travelled there since June, 1981, when six local children experienced phenomena they claimed were apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to these six ‘seers’, the apparitions contain a message of peace, a call to conversion, prayer and fasting, and ten secrets to be fulfilled in the future.
Since their beginning, the apparitions have been a source of both conversion and controversy. The commission charged with investigating the apparitions on behalf of the Vatican has completed its task but the findings have yet to be published.
Regardless, over 20,000 Irish people flock to Medjugorje every year for pilgrimage and prayer and some having experienced miracles there.
In 1977, at the age of 27, Dublin-born David Parks was diagnosed with crohn’s disease.The former League of Ireland soccer star, who played for Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians and against the likes of Pelé, George Best and Bobby Charlton, was dying. Over 14 years he had 10 major surgeries. After the last surgery on January 7, 1989 doctors told David there was nothing more they could do for him. They gave him 14 weeks to live.
He was given two free tickets to go to Medjugorje by a friend and he reluctantly visited in April 1989. It was meant to be his last holiday with his wife Anne. David told me: “I didn’t want to come. I hadn’t been part of the church for eight years. I had no interest in religion.
“On the night we arrived I went for a walk around and there was just a church. There were no other buildings along the road back then. I stood in front of the church and said ‘Is this it? I’ve got a week here. What am I going to do?’.” David felt unwell later that night and told Anne he wanted to go home next morning. Before leaving he agreed to go with her to a healing service.
He said: “For 2 ½ hours I made fun of it. I made a mockery of the whole thing. But for Anne I agreed to have a blessing.” David was anointed with oil and a priest laid hands on him.
He recalled: “The priest started to pray and the next thing I remember is being flat on the ground. I was resting in the spirit and I was in that state for 20 minutes.
“When I got up I had a burning feeling throughout my body. It went from the top of my head to the tips of my toes. From that day to this the aches and pains, the vomiting and diarrhea, everything disappeared.”
When he returned to Dublin baffled doctors told him there was no sign of crohn’s disease in his body.
Many people who visit Medjugorje claim to have had divine encounters or mystical visions, but most people – including myself - have not had any kind of apparition or supernatural experience.
But what I did experience in Medjugorje was a profound sense of peace. I was reduced to tears by the outpouring of faith, love and heartfelt devotion I witnessed.
On Apparition Hill, where the children first saw Our Lady, people of all ages sat, knelt or stood reverently on rocky terrain praying the rosary. Spontaneously and silently some approached a statue of Mary, touching her for a few moments.
An elderly woman from Devon put her dying husband in a home for a week without telling anybody so she could go to Medjugorje.
Doreen is 85 and struggles to walk unaided. She went to pray that her son would baptise her four grandchildren. She sent him a letter the morning she left the UK telling him where she had gone and why.
What I loved most about my experience of Medjugorje was that Catholicism – with all its sacraments – is celebrated. Thousands kneel and pray before the Blessed Sacrament during the outdoor holy hour in the basilica, yet you could hear a pin drop, such is the level of reverence.
It’s not easy being a young Catholic nowadays. But as I have gotten older and grown in my faith I have become less concerned about what people think.
Until I was 17, Catholicism meant nothing to me. This changed after I attended a Youth 2000 retreat in Mount Mellery, Co Waterford. It was during this retreat I realised God isn’t just someone who lives above the clouds casting judgement and condemning us to hell; there is nothing he cannot forgive.
It breaks my heart to read stories of clerical sexual abuse and nothing could ever justify the heinous crimes committed by priests – or bishops who covered up for them. It makes defending the faith really difficult. God is good and actions so evil do not come from above – even if they are carried out by members of the Church.
I can reconcile my faith with the Church as an institution because I have met so many wonderful. young, holy priests. The church as an institution has also changed over time. It’s had to in light of the scandals. It’s no longer pompous and priests are a lot more humble now they are no longer placed on a pedestal in society.
Not all who go to Medjugorje are spiritually transformed and of course not everyone coming with physical ailments is healed. Some are healed spiritually.
I met a Spanish woman called Isabel who was diagnosed with polio when she was two years old. At 57, the married mother-of-two now needs a mobility scooter to get around.
I asked Isabel if she had ever asked God to heal her. She said no.
“I’ve had so many blessings in my life. I don’t want God to take away my disability because then I might lose the blessings,” she answered.
For more information about Medjugorje visit Marian Pilgrimages at www.marian.ie