By Christopher Wells
Since the time of the apparition, the Shrine at Knock has been a focal point for devotion for Catholics from Ireland and around the world. Last year, Pope Francis visited the shrine during his Apostolic Journey to Ireland – following in the footsteps of St John Paul II, who made the pilgrimage during his visit to Ireland in 1979, the centenary of the apparition.
During the celebration of the anniversary, the Shrine at Knock will welcome a new processional pilgrim statue, blessed last week in Rome by Pope Francis. The shrine is also unveiling a model of the village as it stood in 1879. On Wednesday evening, there is a pilgrim walk following in the steps of the original witnesses to the apparition. Both the Archbishop of Tuam, Michael Neary; and Archbishop Jude Thaddeus Okolo, the papal nuncio to Ireland, will be taking part in the various events. The celebration will conclude with holy Mass celebrated at the Apparition Chapel at 8 pm, the time the apparitions began.
Father Richard Gibbons is the parish priest in Knock, and rector of the Shrine. He spoke with Vatican News about the meaning of the phenomenon.
“No message was spoken, and that’s one of the key aspects of the apparition,” he said. “The message was in what they saw in the tableau that appeared before them.”
The vision consisted in the figures of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St Joseph, and St John the Evangelist; as well as a lamb upon the altar – a symbol of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God – and a cross, surrounded by what witnesses described as fluttering wings or angels. The image appeared amidst a bright light, which was seen even by people at some distance from the church.
Father Gibbons explained that the Blessed Virgin has always had “a special part in the spirituality of the Irish people,” and noted a “great dedication” to St Joseph as protector of the Church. In the apparition, St John the Evangelist appeared, somewhat unusually, with a mitre; he is also holding a book, and has his hand raised, as if preaching the Word of God.
But at the heart of the vision, Fr Gibbons said, “is not Our Lady at all – it’s the altar, the Lamb, and the cross, signifying the Eucharist.” He recalled that “even during the darkest days of the penal laws” in Ireland, “the Mass was extremely important for people for maintaining their faith.” He quoted an old saying, “For the Irish, it was the Mass that mattered.”
Forty years ago, St John Paul II visited the Shrine of Knock for the centenary of the Apparition. Last year, Pope Francis followed in the footsteps of his predecessor, making a pilgrimage to the Marian sanctuary during his own visit to Ireland. Both Popes emphasized the importance of Knock, both for helping maintain the faith, but also as an impetus for evangelization. Father Gibbons said Pope Francis gave a “signal of hope” that Knock – like other shrines around the world – “would be oases of peace and also places where people could re-engage again with the faith.”
Today, said Fr Gibbons, Knock “is thriving.” “Our complete focus is on the renewal of faith in the country,” he explained. “So whatever we do here at Knock is always, how can we reach to people? How can we speak the faith to them again? How can we re-engage with them and get them to see the beauty of Catholicism and the practice of the Faith. And to do it in such a way that we recognize where people are at in their own personal faith.” He especially pointed to the Sacrament of Confession, which he described as the “engine room” of the shrine. “That’s where the miracles occur, and that’s where you can really see that peace and re-engagement with God that takes place.”
Father Gibbons acknowledged the difficulties and scandals that have plagued the Church in Ireland in recent years, but said, “We’re extremely hopeful.” He offered his best wishes to all on the anniversary of the anniversary, and expressed the hope that people will continue to visit the Shrine of Knock, where, he said, “You’ll be greeted with a warm, hearty, joyful Irish welcome.”