By Barb Arland-Fye
Memories of our Catholic Messenger pilgrimage to Ireland resurfaced when I read a story of President Joe Biden’s emotional visit last week to Knock Shrine in County Mayo, Ireland. Father Frank
O’Grady, who now serves at the Marian shrine, gave the last rites to Biden’s terminally ill son, Beau Biden, in 2015 at Walter Reed Military Medical Center in Maryland.
Father O’Grady and the president had an opportunity to talk, Our Sunday Visitor said in its story. However, something else in the story resonated with me. It was a comment Father Richard Gibbons, the Marian shrine’s rector, made to the president. “I explained to him that Knock is where the interface of people’s personal lives and faith meet.”
The shrine is part of a modern complex that includes a spectacular basilica, far from its humble roots in what was a small village struggling with famine in the west of Ireland. This is the place where 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).
It is a story of hope sprouting from faith and overcoming despair through the intercession of our Blessed Mother. Several Catholic Messenger pilgrims had spoken movingly of their experiences at Knock Shrine, where their faith interfaced with their personal lives. I shared their thoughts in a story last fall after we returned from Ireland.
Kathleen Brinning of St. James Parish-Washington said, “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.”
“It was also a wonderful reminder of how close Mary is to her Son in the sacrifice at the altar,” said Valerie Teets of St. Mary of the Visitation Parish in Iowa City. “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.”
“In Celtic spirituality, ‘place’ is very important,” Bishop Thomas Zinkula, our pilgrimage spiritual leader, said in a letter to the pilgrims. “Certain locales are considered ‘thin’ places, where the barriers between heaven and earth, the spiritual and the material, are especially porous.”
Knock Shrine was one of those places “where the barriers between heaven and earth, the spiritual and the material” seemed especially porous to me. The villagers from Knock in 1879 could have been some of my relatives. Their stories of faith in the midst of suffering stir my heart today.
(Contact Barb Arland-Fye at email@example.com)