By Barb Arland-Fye
The Catholic Messenger
COUNTY MAYO, Ireland — Driving the narrow, winding roads of Ireland’s countryside to Knock Shrine, bus driver/tour guide Peter Rumley recalled a vivid memory from his childhood in Ireland. He was about 5 years old when his dad rode on bicycle to see Pope St. John Paul II during his visit to the shrine in 1979.
Peter shared that story with the 33 pilgrims on The Catholic Messenger Pilgrimage to Ireland during their Sept. 3 visit to the Marian shrine, which Pope Francis elevated to international status in 2021. The pope spoke of the shrine as “a sign of welcome to every pilgrim who may arrive from any part of the world, asking nothing in return but only recognizing him as a brother or a sister who desires to share the same experience of fraternal prayer” (breakingnews.ie, 3-19-2021). He felt that welcome during his visit to the shrine in 2018 during the IX World Meeting of Families.
In this place on Aug. 21, 1879, 15 people, including a young child, said they witnessed an apparition of the Blessed Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist, Jesus as the sacrificial lamb, and a cross. No one spoke to the witnesses, who watched this vision in awe, in the rain, outside the gable wall of the parish church.
“At the time of the Apparition, Ireland, and particularly the west of Ireland, had been through the devastation of the famine,” Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam said in his homily during the unveiling of a mosaic of the apparition in 2016. “People were demoralised; death and destruction was all around and perhaps a general sense of hopelessness. And yet the people recognised the importance of the Eucharist, Mass, faith and something which was very much in keeping with Irish spirituality, a deep devotion to Our Lady” (The Irish News, 3-3-2016).
The Knock Basilica, where the archbishop gave his homily, and the Apparition Chapel, where marble statues depict the apparition, impressed participants on the Messenger’s pilgrimage and their spiritual leader, Bishop Thomas Zinkula. The story of the apparition and the centuries-long oppression of Ireland’s Catholics affected the pilgrims deeply.
Bishop Zinkula presided at Mass in the Apparition Chapel with Father Nick Adam of St. Mary Parish-Fairfield, as concelebrant. Seeing the statuary replica of the apparition in the chapel gave pilgrim Valerie Teets much to contemplate. She participated in the pilgrimage with her parents, Dan and Janet Teets and her brother, Matthew, of St. Mary Parish-Iowa City.
A representation of the Mass
“What first struck me when I saw the replica of the apparition was how many pieces there were to it,” Valerie said. “St. Joseph, with his head bowed in prayer; the Virgin Mary, with her eyes looking up and hands extended toward heaven; St. John the Evangelist, looking outward, book in hand, as though ready to teach; and the Lamb on the altar of sacrifice, with the cross behind it and the angels around it.”
“At first glance it seemed a bit crowded or even disjointed for a Marian apparition, but, as I took a second look, I could see there was a peaceful balance to it. I still didn’t quite understand the depth of it, until I overheard my mother saying something about it being so much more than a Marian apparition and really being a representation of the Mass. I was embarrassed that it hadn’t clicked sooner, because it was all right there! The saints, the angels, the Word of God, and, most importantly, the sacrificial Lamb. What a simple, yet deeply profound reminder of God’s gift, of his goodness and truth. No wonder the apparition was silent. What more do you need when witnessing that visual representation of the source and summit of our faith,” Valerie said.
“It was also a wonderful reminder of how close Mary is to her Son in the sacrifice at the altar. After visiting Knock and learning about the apparition, it felt as though the veil between us and what is truly present at each Mass had been lifted. I was able to enter more deeply into the mystery and majesty of our Lord’s sacrifice, having that beautiful visualization in mind. I feel incredibly blessed to have visited that holy site. What I learned and experienced there, I will continue to carry with me to every Mass in which I am privileged to participate.”
Mary waits for us
“There is nothing like being there in person to learn about this holy place and the apparition that appeared there many years ago,” said Kathleen Brinning, of St. James Parish-Washington. “Hearing the accounts of the many witnesses, having Mass in the shrine and touching the stones where the apparition appeared opened up doors of faith in me that I had not even known were tightly closed.”
“You simply have to close your eyes and picture it as the witnesses described to feel your heart light from within. Ireland was said to be a place on earth where one feels the veil between heaven and earth is thinner and this spot proved that to be true,” Kathleen said. “The peace and love shared between pilgrims from all over the world as we shared in Mass together truly led me to feel the tug of nearness. To know that we were standing in a spot God chose for an apparition to be seen by those villagers triggered something in all of us. It reiterated to me that God truly treasures the humble servants that are leading simple lives focused on faith, family and caring for their neighbors.”
Sharon Hunt of St. Paul the Apostle Parish-Davenport, who participated in the pilgrimage with her husband, Pat, treasures the experience they had that evening at Knock Shrine. “We all got settled into the hotel, which was only down the hill from the shrine, so before bed we decided to walk to the basilica because it was open until 10 p.m. While walking, we found others on our trip who had the same idea. As one group of new friends, we all hiked up the hill and found the church had closed early but we all got to see the beauty of the lights of the basilica against the night sky. What a blessed evening to be with friends, remembering the people in 1879 who came together and saw Mary, Joseph, St. John and the lamb. We saw the beauty of Ireland that night and so many other nights.”
“It was wonderful getting to hear all the details about that day in 1879,” Pat Hunt said. “Finding out that St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist and the Lamb of God were also present during the apparition was so moving. Being in the Apparition Chapel for Mass was amazing. I was in awe of the whole site.”
In his homily in the Apparition Chapel, Bishop Zinkula reflected on the Gospel from the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, focusing on the gift that Jesus gives from the cross. He gives his mother to John and John to his mother. “This has been interpreted down through the ages as John representing us, the Church, as the body of Christ. That means Mary has assumed the same role of looking after us that she had when she looked after Jesus. When we bring our sufferings, conflicts, sorrows to the foot of the cross, Mary is there waiting for us. She will comfort us and help us, share our struggles with her Son.”