Knock-ing on Heaven's Door

Morning dawned bright and clear, but the skies darkened as the day progressed. By evening, it was raining hard.

The weather suited my frame of mind upon arriving in the historic village in which we now found ourselves. For I had learned that Knock, like many rural areas in Ireland, was devastated by the potato famine of the 19th century. Soon after, its population was decimated by emigration.

For a long time, the only thing holding this area together was its Catholic faith. Into this depressing and difficult period, a flame of hope ignited on the night of Aug. 21, 1879. On that night, at the “gable end” (or southern wall) of the local church, a silent apparition appeared before a crowd of villagers.

Starting at 7 p.m. and lasting for about two hours, many villagers stood in the pouring rain, praying, stunned by what must have been a literally breathtaking sight. Bathed in a warm light, the vision was visible from a distance of half a mile. The Blessed Mother, with a gold crown on her head, raised her hands and face to heaven. St. Joseph, on her right, bowed his head in deference to the Queen of Heaven. St. John the Evangelist, on Mary's left, held a book in his left hand while his right hand was raised, as though he were preaching. The figures hovered around two feet above the ground.

To the left of St. John, directly under the church window, a lamb stood on a full-sized altar. A cross glowed behind the gentle creature; a choir of angelic figures encircled it.

Witnesses reported that the figures were three-dimensional and in motion. But when one of the villagers reached to kiss the Blessed Mother's foot, the figure dissolved. Also, the ground under the holy figures remained completely dry despite the downpour. Word of the remarkable event spread quickly throughout town and more villagers ran to the church to see for themselves.

Within weeks, the news had spread throughout Ireland and to Irish nationals around the world. Pilgrims began streaming in to pray in the humble village. The Church set up an investigation, interviewing 15 official witnesses, and the accounts were deemed “trustworthy and satisfactory.” It surely didn't hurt that many miraculous cures of physical ailments were being reported at the spot.

All around the world, Irish people took pride in the knowledge that God had chosen their homeland for this dramatic intervention. Indeed, they still do — as witnessed by the thousands who continue to make their way to Knock on pilgrimage each year.

If you could only visit Knock one day and night of the year, you could hardly do better than to make it the night of Aug. 21 and the day of Aug. 22. The former, of course, is the anniversary of the apparition; its coming each year marks the conclusion of a national novena begun on the feast of the Assumption (Aug. 15). There's an all-night candlelight procession in which thousands of pilgrims sing, pray and recite the rosary. And the very next day, Aug. 22, is the feast of the Queenship of Mary.

Spotlight on Saints

In 1940, to protect the church's “gable end” — and the streams of pilgrims — from the elements, the site was covered with an oratory. The current Apparition Chapel, blessed and opened in 1992, contains a set of white marble statues replicating the apparition. Built as a sort of “new wing” attached to the back end of the old church, the chapel is finished in shades of charcoal gray, focusing the pilgrim's attention on what the villagers saw. The focus is heightened by artificial and natural light bathing the bright, white-marble figures. The altar is set in front of the Apparition Lamb; the effect of the juxtaposition renders daily Mass a special and memorable occasion for pilgrims no matter when they visit.

Built to accommodate up to 10,000 pilgrims, the new church comprises more than an acre of land. It's structured “in the round” and divided into five chapels, all with an unobstructed view of the center altar. Each chapel is dedicated to a different saint of special devotion to the Irish. In addition, each wall (erected to support the enormous ceiling) has a replica of a window from an important abbey of each of Ireland's five main dioceses. The doors of the new church open wide to allow overflow attendees to participate from outside on the covered pavilion — a must during peak season.

During its centenary year, 1979, the shrine drew a historic pilgrim to Knock: Pope John Paul II. While here, he raised the new church to a basilica and presented Our Lady of Knock with a gold rose — the highest personal gift a pope can bestow and a mark of exceptional honor. During the presentation, the Holy Father said the rose would “remain as my personal tribute and testimony of gratitude to Mary, Mother of the heavenly and earthly Church.”

The shrine, which some have nicknamed “the Irish Lourdes,” is a warm and welcoming place for all, including the handicapped. Along with the old and new churches, wheelchair-accessible attractions include chapels for adoration, reconciliation and contemplation of the apparition. An outdoor Stations of the Cross is well-paved and maintained, and a museum showing life in 1879 Ireland is fascinating.

In retrospect, I was fortunate to see the site in the rain — just as the apparition witnesses saw it all those years ago.

For the Knock shrine has the ability to lighten the gloomiest heart, no matter how bad the weather.

Mary C. Gildersleeve writes from Central, South Carolina.