When one thinks of Marian apparitions, it is natural for the mind to jump to…
Knock apparition shows Irish not abandoned
Dublin is just 200 miles from Knock’s sanctuary. But from the modern and cosmopolitan atmosphere of the capital to this remote village in northwest Ireland, it seems almost like traveling in time.
The landscape around the village has that bright green color typical of this country. During the 19th century, life was slow and simple, characterized by the deep and traditional religiosity of the Irish.
Even today the small village of Knock has less than a thousand inhabitants. Yet it was the only place — apart from Dublin — where Pope Francis’ journey to Ireland made a stop Sunday morning, Aug. 26, for a tribute to the Irish national shrine.
Its history began on the evening of Aug. 21, 1879. Fifteen nearby inhabitants saw a miraculous scene appear on the outer wall of the village church: the Virgin Mary, Saints Joseph and John the Evangelist, a lamb and a cross on an altar surrounded by adoring angels. The scene was later depicted in stone in the same place.
At first this episode perplexed may, given differences with other Marian apparitions, including the number of figures which appeared, the lack of messages and the brevity. But in 1936, the cult of Our Lady of Knock was definitively authorized.
The other noteworthy date in the shrine’s history was the visit of Pope St. John Paul II in 1979, on the centenary of the apparition. John Paul II was the first and, until Pope Francis’s recent visit, only pope to visit Ireland.
After 39 years, the Irish religious landscape has changed significantly. The sexual abuse scandals that the hierarchy did not manage properly put a strain on the trust of the Irish people in the Church. Catholicism is no longer perceived, especially by young people, as a fundamental element of national identity.
But, despite the churches being more and more empty, this Irish sanctuary attracts a million and a half visitors each year, in a country of about 4 million inhabitants.
Follwing is a conversation that Our Sunday Visitor had with the shrine’s rector and pastor, Father Richard Gibbons, in Knock ahead of the pope’s visit:
Our Sunday Visitor: What significance does the Shrine of Knock, Ireland’s most important sanctuary, have in the country’s history?
Father Richard Gibbons: The apparition itself took place here in 1879, 139 years ago, at a time of very difficult social upheaval in the country. Land wars, little famines, and many even couldn’t pay their rents and were losing their homes.
In this context, the apparition gave hope to the people. It showed they were not forgotten by God, and that the faith was strong and could carry them through it.
We Irish always have a great love for Mary. We have a name for Mary in Irish that is different from calling someone Mary, who would be Maura. But Mary [Mother of Jesus] has a different name altogether for us: Mhuire. No one gets that other than her. We have a great devotion to her and the Eucharist, and this apparition is also equally a Eucharistic apparition.
It also is very intricate and sophisticated, and proved to be legitimate through all appropriate tests. Whatever means had been used to try to discredit it have failed. If someone also ever wanted to hoax an apparition, you would never make it so intricate adding St. Joseph, saints, lambs, angels, because with all this detail and these elements, it would all fall apart. It also is special because it includes St. Joseph.
OSV: Could you describe the daily life of the shrine and your mission as parish priest in such a special place?
Father Gibbons: The confessional is our fire engine. People know here that if they have been away, that the important thing is they come, regardless of if they haven’t confessed for decades. They can take all the time they need. Time is irrelevant. No embarrassment. We have some 4,000 confessions here a week.
OSV: The Catholic faith has always represented, along the history, a fundamental element of the Irish national identity. Is it still today?
Father Gibbons: It was so tied to our national identity that one could basically assume that if you were Irish, you were Catholic; but now, that is no longer the case. There is still some cultural Catholicism, a returning for the sacraments, the major events. Irish Catholicism is stronger abroad than here.
OSV: The first, and so far only, pope to visit Ireland has been Pope St. John Paul II in 1979 for the centenary of Knock’s apparitions. What memories do the people have of that?
Father Gibbons: People still have great memories of it and still talk about it. This time we only have 45,000 expected, due to security and safety reasons and limits. That time, in 1979, there were 450,000. But there were none of the worries we have now.
OSV: There have been many changes in the last 39 years: The Church in Ireland has gone through serious scandals, severely compromising its credibility … young generations have moved away from the Faith … How do you observe all this from Knock?
Father Gibbons: We meet them here, those who’ve suffered, were abused. Oftentimes they may be here and not even tell you. They just want peace. We know what is going on. This suffering has had a massive, massive impact. We hear it from the people, priests, bishops, from all over. Not dealing with the issues at the time and not giving the necessary credibility to what people were saying out of fear of scandalizing other people has had tragic consequences.
And what happened in America now has brought it on here all over again, despite the robust child safeguarding efforts implemented since.
OSV: What do you hope will be the impact of Pope Francis’ visit to Knock and Ireland?
Father Gibbons: We hope it will be an injection of the reinvigoration of evangelization in Ireland.
Deborah Castellano Lubov writes from Rome.