Chai Brady hears about Knock Shrine’s plans and their 140th anniversary
Cogs are in motion as excitement builds for the 140th anniversary of the Apparition at Ireland’s national Marian shrine in Co. Mayo, with the parish priest of Knock saying it has “come an awful long way” in recent years.
Extensive refurbishment work, a publicity push, volunteer surge and the organisation of workshops and seminars has made Knock Shrine an even more “inviting place” according to Fr Richard Gibbons.
The annual Novena at the Shrine, which takes place every August – described as the “highlight of the year” – is set to be even bigger next month.
Fr Gibbons says: “Because it’s the 140th anniversary we wanted to make it extra special, so on August 21 itself, which is the 140th anniversary, our own Archbishop Michael Neary is taking that day. He’s doing both Masses and then we have special events, such as the unveiling of the historic model of Knock village which we have just commissioned exactly as it was in 1879, it’s a beautiful thing, it’s really something else.” The model itself is expected to be extremely detailed and give an accurate depiction of the village over a century ago.
Their new processional statue will also be revealed for the first time, and people can also partake in a ‘witness walk’, which is a re-enactment of what happened on the evening of the Apparition. People dress up as the witnesses and recreate what happened all those years ago.
Emphasising the importance of these activities Fr Gibbons says that “people can see the fact that these were ordinary people like them, who just happened to experience an extraordinary event and they went back to their everyday lives after that”.
“None of them became saints or became hugely known after that, or famous after that, it was just a group of ordinary villagers that saw this extraordinary thing and people can identify with that.
“These are real people that can be connected with real homes, real houses and real streets in the locality and their people are here, their relations, their descendants, all of these people are still here in the parish so a lot of the models for the witnesses are taken from the families as well,” he says.
Although 1-1.5 million people visit the shrine each year from all over the world, there’s a concerted effort to increase that number. This was helped by the papal visit for the World Meeting of Families last August.
Whenever Pope Francis visits a country, the eyes of the world pay attention and Fr Gibbons says this assisted Knock Shrine in their mission regarding “the renewal of the Church” in Ireland. Some 45,000 tickets to see the Pontiff at the shrine were snapped up in just four hours.
Regarding the Pontiff’s visit Fr Gibbons said: “Of course anything like that is high profile internationally, it might put us on the radar of people who would visit Ireland, and they might like to come on pilgrimage here maybe.
“It definitely raised our profile and all of that is good because of the work that goes on here and we certainly enjoyed the day. It was a wonderful encounter, there was a fantastic atmosphere here. The village coming together in terms of its planning and organisation along with the State agencies as well, so everybody worked extremely well together on that.”
While at the shrine the Pope spent some time in prayer at the Apparition chapel, during which he entrusted to Mary’s care the victims and survivors of abuse.
Francis arrived at Ireland West Airport on an Aer Lingus flight aptly named EI1979, a reference to St John Paul II’s visit in 1979. He landed just after 9.40am on Sunday August 26 and spent an hour and a half at the Shrine, where he led pilgrims in the Angelus Prayer.
Knock Shrine hasn’t just relied on the Pope’s visit to keep pilgrims flowing in, ongoing renovation and revitalisation hasn’t slowed for several years. Since the Basilica itself was refurbished it’s turned out to be a “world class church” says Fr Gibbons.
“It’s got an atmosphere about it now that people find very conducive to prayer, also with the wonderful mosaic that depicts the Apparition 140 years ago, the refurbishment of the old church, the apparition chapel and upgrading all our technology here has helped enormously.”
In addition to these upgrades that have seen Knock Shrine become more desirable a location for pilgrims, their volunteers are a key component in the operation of the shrine, and with three levels of volunteers they all play their part.
VAKS (Volunteer at Knock Shrine) is a programme for teenagers which gives them an opportunity to meet friends, serve others and express faith during weekends.
Fr Gibbons explains their role saying: “Let’s say there might be people who are confined to wheelchairs and that kind of thing on the ground, they help out in a practical way, they help out at ceremonies and it’s good for people to see young people around the place just simply being friendly and welcoming to the shrine. They’re a very important part to our volunteer system.”
Parish volunteers will do a similar job but also help and welcome people during the week.
Finally, the “ever faithful” Cairde Mhuire, Our Lady’s Volunteers, who have been redeveloped, “so there’s a new impetus in getting new volunteers involved,” according to Fr Gibbons.
“They’re the backbone of the shrine in terms of volunteers, every single year since they were founded in 1935 – so they have a long history as well and are a very important part of the shrine.”
People are beginning to see Knock Shrine in a new light and not just going because it’s tradition, he says, “but they want to come now to see what’s going on, to engage with the ceremonies and with the programmes here”.
“Young families are seeing it now is as a place to come for part of a day or just an hour or so or whatever, we’re seeing quite a lot of visits that way. They come and attend maybe a Mass or go to Confession.”
Just last week there was a ‘Family Focus Week’ which aimed to provide a space for prayer in order to strengthen the ties of family and nurture faith. Held on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday there was an evening talk which addressed family concerns and difficulties.
Fr Gibbons says that some pilgrims may not have received any of the Sacraments for many years but when they go to Knock some go to Confession or Mass.
Finally, he adds: “We have a wonderful faith renewal council, in fact it’s one of the core planning groups of the shrine itself. We look to see what we can provide each year in off-season in terms of whole rafts of spiritual programmes, theological programmes and more in terms of where parishes might need resources in terms of information on readers and Eucharistic Ministers and workshops in that regard.
“So we’re trying to be as helpful and as practical as possible as well as offering a wide range of different types of services to the Church.”