Since 1976, a vast, circular church has stood where once, a century before, there was a tiny, thatched-roof cottage in a small farming village in the west of Ireland.
It was from that homestead, at around 8pm on Aug. 21, 1879, that Mary Byrne and Mary McLoughlin began the short uphill walk to the parish church, where, earlier, McLoughlin noticed what she assumed were new statues at the church gable.
But the two women — who were soon joined by 13 others, ranging in age from 5 to 74 — looked not at statues, but at what they later testified to be an apparition of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and John the Evangelist — all to the left of the Lamb of God, set upon an altar and before a cross.
An ecclesiastical commission began in October 1879 and confirmed the veracity of the witnesses’ accounts, which include the following from McLoughlin:
“I beheld, on this occasion, not only the three figures, but an altar further on to the left of the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to the left of the bishop and above the altar, a lamb about the size of that which is five weeks old. Behind the lamb appeared the cross; it was away a bit from the lamb, while the latter stood in front from it, and not resting on the wood of the cross. Around the lamb, a number of gold-like stars appeared in the form of a halo.”
So began devotion to Ireland’s national Marian shrine, the highlight of which is the Knock novena that attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims every August, coinciding with the anniversary of the apparitions.
Many pilgrims seek cures, and many have told of healings during their visits to Knock.
The old parish church remains, while the newer, bigger church — which was named a basilica in 1979 by Pope John Paul II, during his short visit to Knock in late September of that year — has just reopened after a $10-million renovation.
The original basilica building was partly intended to shelter the many pilgrims to Knock (sometimes numbering up to 1.6 million a year) from the west of Ireland’s swirling winds and bracing mists.
Inside the old basilica, coat-clad pilgrims squeezed into benches that looked designed for primary-school children, as sermons and hymns echoed and faded inaudibly around the expanses of the five-chapel interior.
That has all been remedied, however, as Father Patrick Burke, a priest at Knock, explained to the Register during this writer’s visit in April.
“It had been talked about for a long time,” Father Burke said of the refurbishment, the physical part of which began after the final Mass of the 2014 pilgrimage season, held on Oct. 12 of last year.
A new heating system has been installed, and the acoustics are much improved, not only by a better, broadcast-equipped sound system, but by wooden walls and a new ceiling that together retain the choir’s high notes and the priests’ sonorous sermons much better than the cold, old concrete.
The work is almost complete, save for a tennis-court-sized mosaic of the 1879 apparition, which will go on the wall behind the central altar and above the Blessed Sacrament Chapel, which itself has been revamped.
“The previous chapel looked a bit forbidding, hidden,” said Father Burke. “People were often unsure whether they should enter or not.”
The softer-yet-brighter optics mean that churchgoers can better appreciate some of the pre-existing features of the interior, such as the replica medieval church windows in the walls dividing the five chapels.
Now prominent are the statues of Our Lady of Knock and of St. Columbanus, an early Irish missionary to central Europe, both of which previously stood, dimly lit, near the rear seating of the church.
For those behind the basilica’s makeover, the aim of the work transcends the tangible and aims to make the now-3,700-seat venue into “a more prayerful place,” in the words of parish priest Father Richard Gibbons.
Father Gibbons was speaking on April 12, Divine Mercy Sunday, after the first major pilgrimage Mass held at the basilica since the reopening.
The “new look” basilica will soon have new visitors, with Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York set to lead the first ever overseas diocesan pilgrimage to Knock this August, joining the annual novena to commemorate the anniversary of the apparition.
Cardinal Dolan’s group will fly into the nearby Ireland West Airport, which opened in 1986 as Knock Airport; like the original basilica, the airport was a project driven by the former Knock parish priest, Msgr. James Horan, whose energy and drive made John Paul II’s visit to Knock in 1979 such a success.
The work on the basilica is but part of a wider “Witness to Hope” initiative led by Father Gibbons, which aims to promote faith renewal and, in conjunction with a detailed and history-laden new website (KnockShrine.ie), will help publicize the shrine.
People in Knock are hopeful that the reopened basilica could help push Ireland’s case for another papal visit.
“He has been invited to Ireland; he has been invited to every county also,” said Father Burke, when asked about a possible visit to Knock by Pope Francis. “We’d love that to happen, but we wait and see.”
In the meantime, it is fitting to contemplate the words of the last pope to visit — 100 years after the Marian apparition.
In his Sept. 30, 1979, homily, John Paul II told the Irish faithful, “Every time a pilgrim comes up to what was once an obscure bog-side village in County Mayo, every time a man, woman or child comes up to the Old Church with the Apparition Gable or to the new Shrine of Mary, Queen of Ireland, it is to renew his or her faith in the salvation that comes through Jesus, who made us all children of God and heirs of the kingdom of heaven.”
Simon Roughneen is based in
Jakarta and covers Southeast Asia
for several publications.