An oasis of peace and prayer where people see that they’re not alone in their faith

Knock Shrine is determined to be at the heart of faith renewal, the energetic rector tells Greg Daly

Fr Richard Gibbons might be the driving force behind the dramatic changes taking place at Knock Shrine, but he’s quick to stress that even before he became parish priest in 2012 there was talk that things would have to change. 

“The shrine just kind of basically ploughed along as it was doing for a good few years,” he says, explaining that towards the end of his nine years there as curate he and then parish priest Msgr Joseph Quinn took to discussing the future of the shrine.

Following Msgr Quinn’s sudden death from a heart attack at the age of 65, Fr Richard was given the job as parish priest and rector. “We decided to look at the whole place, because we needed to restructure. The financial crisis had caused us problems – we were financially a basket case, with no money and running at a loss. So, we just restructured the whole place from top to bottom, set up committees, got expertise and all that.

“This brought us to look at the whole situation of Knock – what we’re doing, what we’re offering, and where we need to be in terms of the renewal of the Church in the country,” he says.

The first step in this was a wide information-gathering exercise. “We decided then to interview everybody that came here and consult and all the rest of it – every pilgrim, every bishop, priest, religious, parishioner, visitor, everybody! We conducted roughly a year and a half of consultation with everybody,” he says, asking what they thought Knock was and wasn’t doing well, what it could improve on, what more it could do for pilgrims, and in general what it should be doing.


Such a professional approach is the sort that sometimes raises eyebrows in the Church, with people muttering darkly of “managerialism”, but Fr Richard says the survey was deliberately conducted in terms of “we know where we are, but we know things need to happen”.

Further professional help was brought in to establish what needed to be done in terms of financial rectitude and other practical matters. “While it is a shrine,” he says, “and we need to focus on the religious aspect, there is a business to it as well.”

The surveys enabled Fr Gibbons and his team at the shrine to see what the people were saying. Their answers consistently made the same three points, he says.

Firstly, he says, “they said ‘give us more’”. People travel a long way to Knock, and want to do as much as they can there, he explains, so it’s worth giving them things so they’ll spend even longer there when they get here. Beyond the devotional aspect to the shrine, people regularly mentioned workshops and seminars, he says, as the sort of thing they would be interested in.

Secondly, he says, respondents regularly urged the shrine to promote itself. “We don’t see you anywhere,” he says they would say. “’Where are you? You’re not in the papers, you’re very quiet. And what are you doing in terms of promoting international pilgrimages?

“And thirdly,” he continues, “they said, ‘for God’s sake, do something with the basilica’.”

Armed with these three objectives, the shrine started the Witness to Hope programme with the bones of a plan. “We brought together a committee to formulate what we were going to do, and then of course we had to finance this, so we put the plan together and we costed it and then I brought in professional fundraisers – CCS – to help me in terms of this.”

The American fundraisers CCS – Community Counselling Service – have been subject to criticism in some Dublin parishes, but Fr Richard clearly has complete confidence in them.  

“They’re excellent at their job,” he says. “They’re a very professional outfit. They get a bit of bad press but they’re very, very good. They keep you on the ball. They know what they’re doing. And it’s not that they’re any way nefarious or anything like that.

“It’s a different way of looking at things, you see. It’s an American way of looking at things, and it’s no harm,” he continues, given the need to change how the Irish Church conducts itself in an age of fewer clerical and religious vocations and a more active laity who will need to be paid properly for quality work.

“In terms of the restructuring of the shrine, I’ve set out departments, and put in department heads with each of them in charge of their own departments,” he says, adding that “everybody’s paid here, but we to develop a sense then of volunteerism”.

The project is galvanising that sense, he says. “We had last year, for the first time, 15 local volunteers on the shrine, just to help out, which we didn’t have before, and this year we have 70,” he says, continuing, “and on top of that 105 of the young volunteers – the VAKS, they’re called.”

The volunteers are a complete novelty at the shrine, and can sometimes confuse Irish pilgrims. “They’re not used to that, they think that they’re collecting initially, but the Americans get it when they come,” he says. “They’re delighted with this – they think it’s a welcome committee – which brings up our profile.”

There’s a real sense of urgency and efficiency in how things are changing at Knock, Fr Richard makes clear, describing how “when we’re fundraising, it’s not that we’re asking people to do something down the road – ‘Wouldn’t this be nice to do, so please give me your money now.’ We’re saying ‘we’re doing it, and it is being done’.”

The shrine started its faith renewal programmes last year with the novena, he explains. “During the novena we just had the two Masses, one at three and one at half past eight, and people came for those, and we had the processions and all the rest of it, so we incorporated workshops and seminars. They were very, very well-attended – they were a complete success and showed us that this is the way we should go.”

This year, he says, there will be a programme of events in the autumn which will be rolled out to parishes around the country as well to show what’s happening at Knock. “We already have carried out a week here in terms of focus on family – workshops and seminars, liturgies and blessing of babies,” he continues, adding that “we have a series of workshops as well for the novena and seminars”.

Refurbishment of the basilica, which he describes as “completely transformed”, is 80% complete, and is already “warmer, more friendly, more inviting” and with a “greater sense of prayerfulness”, he says.

“After nine years as curate, I knew what we needed – just the starkness of the concrete needed to go, it needed upgrading on all fronts – the wiring hadn’t been touched, the heating had been there for ages and was costing a fortune and was ineffective in terms of the blower system, it needed to be ready for broadcasting, new seating, new sanctuary area, everything. 

“We lowered the sanctuary and took away the wall surrounding it. It’s covered in white marble for optical reasons to focus people on the centre of the basilica itself, because behind the altar and the sanctuary we’ll put a very large mosaic of the apparition itself.” 

The mosaic, he says, will be a unique piece, currently being created in the Italian town of Spilimbergo by a renowned family of mosaists who work on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and in the US National Shrine in Washington DC, which is where Fr Richard came across them, after which he contacted them and sent them a representation of the apparition, crucially incorporating the witnesses.

“It won’t go in until next February,” he says, adding that 2016 is the basilica’s fortieth anniversary.

As for the third aspect of the plan, the promotion of the shrine at home and abroad, the arrival on August 9 of the first diocesan pilgrimage from New York could hardly be a more flamboyant statement of intent. “We’re very happy that it’s Aer Lingus, our very own national carrier, that brings it in,” he says, adding that he hopes this pilgrimage will prove the first of many.


“There’s so much potential for other dioceses,” he says. “That’s the project. We know what we’re doing, we know how to do it, and of course it’s to get the wherewithal to be able to do it. We’re very clear in terms of what we need to do.”

“So it’s all systems go on each of the three and we feel that there’s a great buzz about the place,” he continues, “and there’s a great sense that we’re doing something but we can do more. It gives the impetus then that if we’re successful we can do far more with Knock and have this as a resource for the Church in the country.”

Not, of course, that the shrine hasn’t already been a great resource for Ireland and the Irish Church. “It’s been an oasis of peace and prayer and tranquillity, a place where people can just simply come and not be afraid and see that they’re not alone in the practice of their faith,” he says. 

“We have roughly 1.6 million people coming here every year, so that’s its role: its role is to be a place of peacefulness, prayer, tranquillity and reconnection with God. That’s what it has been, and that’s what it will continue to be, however maybe at a different level.

“There’s no reason why Knock can’t be as important as Lourdes or Fatima in terms of faith renewal, and we want to be at the heart of that as well,” he continues, stressing that “Knock is the national Marian shrine. It is there for the country. It’s not just there for Mayo or the West of Ireland – it’s there for the entire country,”

Underlining the role of the shrine in the national Church, Fr Richard points to how the national Eucharistic congress, an initiative of the hierarchy, is to take place in Knock at the end of September.

“We have the space in which to host it, and there is a direct connection here with the Eucharist in terms of the apparition because at the centre of that is the altar with the lamb and the cross, so it’s as much a Eucharistic shrine as it is a Marian shrine,” he says. “At the heart and core is the Eucharist – even Our Lady herself is over to the side, but at the centre of it is the Eucharist and that’s hugely important and another aspect that we want to emphasise.

“I think it’s one of the only shrines in the world that has a unique connection with the Eucharist like that,” he observes.

It’s also, he adds, a place beloved of the Irish diaspora. “Take for example – which was a surprise to me when I started travelling around – I went to a community in New York down on Long Island, and the Ancient Order of Hibernians section there is dedicated to Our Lady of Knock. It’s very prominent – they have the statue and everything, and it means an awful lot to them,” he says, adding that Our Lady of Knock is an almost ubiquitous hymn at Irish funerals abroad. 

In terms of the shrine’s future, Fr Richard talks proudly of the work done on youth ministry, which he says has been “completely reinvigorated” to become “a safe and friendly catechetical environment” where visiting parents can leave their children to be taught in an enjoyable way about their faith, while they engage in their devotions at the shrine. 

This, he thinks, is a stark contrast to how “you could go back over our own time coming here and you were dragged around stations and this and that and the other, and you didn’t a) know about them and b) you didn’t really want to do them”.


Such work is essential for the future of Knock and the wider Church, he thinks. “That’s where this in terms of the renewal is so vitally important and that we give not only a catechetical but also an intellectual basis for what Knock is,” he says, pointing out the need for this when dealing with people who don’t believe or are confused by Catholicism, and who no longer live in and rely on a Catholic culture.

Describing how the shrine will be arranging days of recollection for pastoral councils, he also says he hopes the shrine can offer something to those whose links with the Church are not what they might once have been.

“We’re trying to reach out, now only to those who come here all the time, but to those who would have a tenuous connection with Knock or their faith,” he says. “Usually they’d have in their mind something from their childhood to do with rock candy, that sort of thing. 

“I think one of the ways that we can do that is with the novena itself,” he says, adding that at the shrine they call it the national novena because people come from all over the country to it. If an effort is made to choose topics for the novena that speak to people’s lives and interests, and to promote them accordingly, people might be tempted to visit. 

“And if they come for one,” he says, “it doesn’t mean that they’re forced to go to Mass or doing anything else, but you just let the grace of God work. Once they’re here, you don’t know what happens. I’ve seen that time and time again.

“If you offer people something that they can come to, that might be of interest, then you can let the grace of God work,” he says, “and it does work, and you have to trust in that.”