I would imagine there are very few places in the world that effortlessly possess a more revered and venerable ambiance than that of the village of Medjugorje, in Bosnia-Herzegovina. As our coach pulls into this sacred village, I am pleasantly surprised to see the incomparable authenticity, which can sometimes be ruined by commercialism, still intact. This place has invoked in me a familiar and comforting sense of peace, one I experienced 20 years ago when I came here as a naive but curious 15 year old.
I feel privileged and fortunate to be here for the 30th anniversary of the apparitions, as my family and I have long-standing connections with the place. Looking over at my mother, who is with me on this trip, pure joy evident in her face, I think back to what spurred her to come to Medjugorje more than 25 years ago.
When six young children claimed to have seen an apparition of Our Lady on a small hill called Podbrodo on June 24, 1981, it naturally sparked interest around the world. My mother had five young children at the time and was instantly curious about the alleged visions. My youngest sister, Nicky, was born with Down syndrome and it had a huge impact on my mother as she struggled to accept her daughter's disability. Although she loved her dearly, she wanted her to be "normal", just like her other four siblings.
Through much organising and with great anticipation, she arrived at Dublin airport in 1984, ready to act as group leader to the first group of Irish pilgrims to the intriguing village of Medjugorje. Nicky was only two years old and sat contentedly in her pushchair as my mom made sure the anxious but excited group were checked in.
It was a very poor and humble place and although the villagers were enjoying the new-found attention, the infrastructure was not up to the influx of thousands of tourists. For this reason, the pilgrims stayed in the villagers' homes.
With open arms, they invited maybe 25 people at a time into their houses where they enthusiastically cooked and cleaned for their guests. This is the effect the village of Medjugorje has on people; you forget about materialistic things and focus on living together in a pure and non-judgmental fashion and in a community-like way.
Back then, the six visionaries received their daily apparitions in a small room to the right of the altar in the majestic looking St James' Church. Thousands would gather outside, reciting decades of the rosary as they anticipated the daily apparition which took place at 6.40pm. The sick, along with some priests, were allowed to be present during the visions and when Fr Slavko, who was the spiritual director of the visionaries, noticed my mother with my sister in the crowd, he invited them inside to be witnesses.
My mother remembers the six young children -- Ivanka, Mirjana, Vicka, Marija, Ivan and Jakov -- falling to their knees. Silence engulfed the room and the only sound from outside was the chirping of the birds whose song seemed to welcome the apparition. My mother felt a warm, comforting presence, one that had a profound effect of her.
Suddenly, things began to make sense for my mother. It was as though she could feel someone saying to her that there is a place on this earth for everyone and that Nicky was a gift from God, like all her other children and should be loved and cherished.
When she met a young priest who had tears streaming down his face, they spoke together about the undeniable presence in the room when the six visionaries raised their heads high and became transfixed on one solitary spot in the air. The priest had been having problems and doubts about his vocation but felt overcome by the events in the room and now saw his occupation as a gift.
One can only rely on the testimonies of the visionaries who describe the Blessed Virgin's incomparable beauty. According to the visionaries, the Madonna appears in a grey gown and blue dress with a white veil. Her hair is black and her eyes are blue and she floats on grey cloud. On special occasions and feast days, she dresses in gold, sometimes holding the infant Jesus in her arms and other times she appears with him in his adult form, standing beside her, the crown of thorns torturing his bleeding head. The visionaries say that when she appears, a little piece of Heaven comes with her.
Back then it wasn't unusual for a message to be sent to the pilgrims' house saying Our Lady would be appearing on Podbrodo or Apparition Hill as it became fondly known. Enthusiastic pilgrims would climb the rocky hill with their torches at around 10pm. It was serene and beautiful as they all prayed and chanted until Our Lady appeared to whoever of the visionaries present and then once again, silence fell. There always followed a message, which was translated into English, Italian and German.
My mother brought every one of her children out to Medjugorje at some stage or another. She brought groups out with Marian Pilgrimages, sometimes three times a year. Even during the Bosnian war in the Nineties, she was undeterred and thankfully the village remained untouched.
I was fortunate to be brought along on several occasions as a young teenager, including one year when the youth festival was in full swing. With the help of Irish singer/songwriter Fr Liam Lawton and Fr Slavko, who is now deceased, young people from all over the world pitched 20-man tents and engaged in a spiritual week of song, music and prayer.
In January 2008, my sister Nicky, who had inspired my mother to go to Medjugorje many years earlier, passed away very suddenly at the tender age of 26. It was a life-shattering moment for us all. Nicky grew up to be a loving, independent person who was a huge part of our family life. She had great communication skills and had an unmatchable bond with my parents, who devoted their lives to her and loved her unconditionally. Trying to pick up the pieces after her death wasn't easy but as a family we relied on our faith to help us cope with the grief.
Because Nicky's death was so sudden, my mother had already planned to bring another group to Medjugorje in May of that year and even though she felt it might be too much too soon, she went with the feeling that Nicky would have wanted her to go. Subsequently, she found great comfort and a closeness to my sister who had been fortunate to have Mirijana, one of the visionaries, pray over her during her first visit.
Just last February, Vicka, another visionary, appeared on The Late Late Show. My mother, photographer Una Williams and I accompanied Hazel Kaneswaren who spoke of her own experience on the night. Vicka was in the Green Room and I could only look on with pure awe and exultant happiness as I watched my mother share a moment with the smiling visionary.
Speaking of her pain and loss, Vicka listened attentively and nodded sympathetically to my mother. Seeing tears well up in her eyes, I also appreciated the sense of comfort and relief that washed over her as she heard, through an interpreter, what Vicka had to say.
It was inevitable that both my mother and I returned here for the 30th anniversary of the apparitions, along with 50 other pilgrims in our group who come from all walks of life. Anyone who visits Medjugorje always returns.
They come for different reasons; some in thanksgiving, some to pray for help and some, who wish to awaken and reinstate the spirituality we are born with but sometimes lose along the way. The place has a strange but compelling magnetic effect on people.
Now that I am back here, I can see that the essence of Medjugorje has remained the same even though the six young children from 1981 are now grown and married adults, all with children of their own.
I asked Ivan what the 30th anniversary meant most to him. He smiled warmly and said: "The most important message is the message of peace and prayer. If we don't listen to those two messages then we cannot accept all of the messages Our Lady is sending. Without forgiveness there is no healing. If there is no spiritual healing, then there is no physical healing."