Exploring a pilgrim landscape

Exploring a pilgrim landscape
Pilgrimage Supplement 2019 – Pathways With Purpose
Pilgrim paths follow many routes in Ireland and abroad, Greg Daly learns


Ireland’s religious landscape may have changed dramatically over recent decades, but according to Knock’s Fr Richard Gibbons, pilgrimage sites are still vibrant places.

“I think that when people come to a religious site, it might harken back to the days of when they were practicing and were connected with themselves, and they can do it on their own terms,” he says.

“There’s nothing really expected on them when they come to a pilgrim site, like you don’t have to be a fully 100% card-carrying Catholic in order to come and participate in what’s going on, and you can do as much or as little as you want. I think it appeals to them in that way, they can come and just walk around and take in the atmosphere, it might encourage them to maybe go to Mass or to go to Confession. They take it upon themselves and I think they’re popular for that reason.”

The popularity of the Camino de Santiago in Spain testifies strongly to this kind of experience, he says.

“People do that not necessarily for a religious reason – you might get walkers who would never have a religious thought that would go through their heads,” he says. “But in the course of the Camino they will encounter other people that do have religious thoughts going through their heads, and it can’t help but reconnect them in a spiritual sense to the Faith – even though they may not want that!”


A sense of community can play a real role in this, he says, as it’s a place where religious belief is normal.

“At Knock here there are people who like to come because of that sense of community, that they might not get in their parish, or that they might not get in the Church in general with everything that is going on,” he says. “They’ll think we have Knock, we have Lough Derg, and we can climb Croagh Patrick, where they’re not embarrassed about being here or doing that, where everybody here is the same, and they can connect with that at whatever level that they want.”

The shrine’s 1879 apparition is a remarkable and “very sophisticated” one, he says, one of the most complex of all officially-recognised apparitions.

“You’ve the Marian aspect, you’ve the Eucharistic aspect with the altar, the Cross and the lamb, you’ve John in a preaching role with the book of Scriptures in his hand, and Joseph there as a protecting aspect of the Church for the people. It’s a very intricate and complex apparition – as I always say to people, if they wanted to create a hoax, you’d keep it simple and keep to Our Lady, you wouldn’t start adding in everything under the Sun. But from that point of view, from what the people at the time saw, it certainly has a few distinct elements that are active in the Church today.”

Noting that Christ’s family – his mother, his earthly father, and the disciple he directed to care for his mother – all appeared in in the vision, Fr Richard says that family is at the heart of the shrine, and remains so now.

“We’ve seen that especially since the visit of Pope Francis. Families came back and they brought people who hadn’t been here since they were kids, and probably made a promise that they’d never come back again,” he says. “Now the dynamic has shifted and they want maybe to introduce their own children and say maybe this is a place where we came when we were children.”

Those who come back tend to be astounded by how much the shrine site has changed since their own childhoods, he said.

“A lot of them who haven’t been back since they were children are absolutely taken aback by the developments of the shrine itself. It has grown in leaps and bounds, just in terms of the facilities and what we provide for children, because we’re very conscious of that. I remember coming here and as we’d say you were given a stick of rock to keep you quiet.”

Describing the shrine as a place that’s passed on from generation to generation, Fr Richard says that what draws people back is that they realise Knock is a place of peace, healing and connectedness.

“People actually come here for healing. Confession here is extremely popular. It’s one of the few places on the island I’d say where it is – here and Lough Derg and even Croagh Patrick on the day is very popular. They call it a ‘liminal’ experience: you come to a threshold that’s so out of the ordinary that even if you didn’t intend to come to Confession, something happens when you come here, you see people going, and it compels you to go. The healing element of Knock is very, very important,” he says.


The idea of shrines as ‘liminal’ experiences chimes strongly with how Sharon Hearty, communications officer at Lough Derg, describes how St Patrick’s Purgatory offers pilgrims “support and encouragement for faithful and hopeful living in changing and challenging times, because the pilgrimage at Lough Derg really takes you to a much deeper place”.

The physicality of the journey to the island is key to this, she says, right down to the process of getting on a boat and crossing the water.

“There’s an immediate physical separation from, I suppose, the everyday life, from routine. That crossing over to a place where you have time to have that encounter – and that encounter is different for everyone at Lough Derg.”

The island continues to draw people on personal pilgrimages, she says.

“There are people who come year in year out as part of their routine – they hear this calling. There was a pilgrim last year who said to me he actually likens it to the woodpecker’s call, because he senses within himself that there’s this little tapping that goes on for him that actually draws him to go to Lough Derg, and that’s his own inner voice,” she says. “For other people they’re invited by a friend or a family member, or they see something maybe in the digital space that draws them. It’s difficult to know what exactly draws people.”

Stressing how the pilgrimages are profoundly individual experiences, such that they’re hard to generalise about, she says, the three-day pilgrimage takes pilgrims through to an Easter experience with a sense of resurrection on the third day.

“It’s such an internal process. Whenever you’re on pilgrimage you’re immediately present to the physical challenge, but the internal encounter and experience is something I think that people don’t really appreciate or understand or even get the fruits of until they get into the heart of the winter and their own onward pilgrimage in their own life,” she says.

This, in many ways, appears to be one of the great gifts of the Lough Derg pilgrimage experience.

“I suppose they’ve created an internal space to allow them to make room in their busy lives for an encounter with their God on Lough Derg, and maybe in some small way that space they’ve created in their time that they’ve been with us, in some way works on a deeper level that none of us can ever really touch on,” she says.

“The only way we know is whenever people come back and tell us maybe they went through a terrible hardship or they lost someone very close to them or there was a terrible tragedy in their family or whatever, and they really took themselves back or lit a Lough Derg candle and turned themselves back to their experience on Lough Derg and to the peacefulness and hope they took from their time on Lough Derg to help see them through. And we would hear that time and time again from people,” she says.


In his Divine Comedy Dante famously distinguishes between the isolation of Hell and the community of Purgatory, where pilgrims help each other up the mountain towards Paradise, and anyone who has ‘done’ Lough Derg can testify to the powerful sense of community there.

“Even though people are coming every day, that first day you arrive is your day one, no matter what pilgrim you are, you come and that’s your day one,” Sharon says. “There’s a group of people who join you, and really it’s like a mobile Christian community, a little mobile Christian family that all arrive together and are all about to go and do that night vigil, and it is the night vigil that really creates that sense of community.

“You have young and old, people who have done it a number of times, people who are doing it for the first time, and everybody supports everyone, because people come up against their own personal brick wall within the pilgrimage and maybe they struggle at certain times when maybe somebody else isn’t struggling at that time, and maybe they come alongside them during the pilgrimage and gently lift their elbow and maybe put a hand on their shoulder and ask are they okay,” she says.

“Often we would hear that from pilgrims that maybe they were struggling and somebody else was stronger, and they walked alongside them during the night, and then later they were stronger at another time, maybe in the early hours of the morning, and they were the ones to go and just give them a smile and ask are you okay.”

This exhausted and hungry night-time experience is when our deepest humanity surfaces, Sharon says.

“We’re here for humanness and that connection with other people, and it really is the heart of the pilgrimage.”


Group pilgrimages, whether joined individually or entered into as parishes, are key to the Italian pilgrimages offered by the Dublin-based Marian Pilgrimages company, and Amanda Devine, the company’s Italian agent, says that visits to the tombs of St Pio and St Francis are enormously popular for Irish pilgrims.

“Our tours are very mixed, but the most popular would be the likes of the San Giovanni mini-break,” she says. “It’s just the incredible devotion to St Pio here in Ireland, and for that reason we get so many people asking to come to San Giovanni Rotondo. Of course, Padre Pio only died in 1968, so he’s very much a saint of our time. People still know people who went to San Giovanni to meet Padre Pio – there are still people around that would be able to relate stories they may have heard over the years.”

Last time was an especially important year for pilgrimages to the shrine on the 50th anniversary of the Capuchin saint’s death and the 100th anniversary of his receiving the stigmata, and numbers continue to hold up, she says.

Whether people join groups individually or come as parishes, having a spiritual director on the pilgrimage is vital, she continues.

“Basically they attend to any spiritual needs. They celebrate Mass each day, they hear Confessions, they lead the Stations of the Cross, and are always there at full disposal to people who want to have a private word at any stage during the pilgrimage. It’s essential – we would never run a pilgrimage without a spiritual director.”

There’s a lot to be said for travelling as a parish with a spiritual director parishioners might know, she says, but equally groups of individuals can form special bonds and get on particularly well.

Overall, she says, pilgrims find the trips give them time to reflect and leave them feeling rejuvenated, with a typical highlight being prayers at the tombs of the saints.

“When they get the opportunity to pray at the tomb of the saint, that’s a very big thing for somebody let’s say that has had a devotion to maybe Padre Pio or St Francis over the years, actually to arrive at the crypt and have time to pray at the crypt,” she says. “It makes a big difference for them.”