139 year ago this very day, an unspoken message from heaven came to our world at the rural wayside village of Knock, Ireland. The little hamlet was a forgotten corner of the earth in 1879. It consisted of a dozen houses or so, along with the little parish church, the rectory, a school-house, a post office and a few small shops. The village and the social condition of its people at the time, was in many respects like that of the little village of Nazareth in the days of our Lord Jesus. It was poor, peaceful and unknown. Both were under the oppression of a foreign occupier—for Nazareth two thousand years ago it was the Romans, and for Knock a century and a half ago it was the English. The Penal Laws were imposed upon the Irish in attempt to stamp out their Catholic faith; those laws were as degrading as they were oppressive.
Just as they began to be relaxed though not repealed, more misery struck the people of western Ireland. The Great Famine which was proximately caused by potato blight but worsened on account of the repression imposed by the occupying government, resulted in the deaths of one million while another million were to emigrate, reducing the island’s population dramatically. The Great Famine took place between 1845 and 1849, but its last waves continued up until the time of the astonishing event that took place in Knock. Further potato blight was always the great fear. And in that year of 1879, that fear was realized when the crop was found to be a complete failure. The only prospect in the time ahead was further hunger and misery. It was in the midst of this struggle and sorrow that the miraculous message appeared before the villagers of Knock in front of the gable wall of their parish church.
The whole day of August 21, 1879 was marked by a dismal downpour of rain from dawn until dusk. The dreariness was an apt metaphor for a nation plagued by poverty, hunger and oppression. At about 7:30 in the evening, a young woman of the village named Mary Byrne was accompanying Mary McLoughlin, the priest’s housekeeper, to her home. As they came in sight of the gable wall of the little parish church, Mary Byrne remarked to the priest’s housekeeper, “O, look at the statues. Why didn’t you tell me the priest had got new statues for the chapel?” But Mary McLoughlin said she’d heard nothing about them. On coming nearer, however, Mary Byrne said: “But they’re not statues, they’re moving. It’s the Blessed Virgin!” She ran home to tell her widowed mother as well as her brothers and sister and soon others had gathered.
There were fifteen primary witnesses who gave documented testimony of what they saw, but as many as 25 to 30 were reported to have seen the vision. They ranged in age from five to 74. Together in the pouring rain they beheld the beautiful spectacle. The Blessed Virgin Mary was in the center of the apparition. She was wearing a large brilliant gold crown and was clothed in white garments. Her hands were raised in prayer and her eyes gazed toward heaven. To her right was her spouse, St. Joseph, whose head was inclined toward her. To her left was St. John the Evangelist, who was attired as a bishop wearing a miter and was holding a book, perhaps the Gospel he wrote, in his left hand. His right hand was raised as if he was preaching. To the left of St. John was an altar on which stood a cross and a lamb surrounded by angels.
The eldest of the visionaries, the 74-year-old Bridget Trench, in an act of natural and humble piety, approached the vision to kiss the Virgin’s feet. She was, however, unable to do so. She could not touch what she saw with her eyes and only passed through the image to feel the gable wall of the church in her attempt. The vision lasted for a full two hours. Though it was raining, the ground beneath the vision was dry. A light emanating from the heavenly figures was witnessed by a farmer about half a mile away from the scene.
The enigma of the apparition at Knock was its silence. We can only speculate as to why this is. Surely the reason goes deeper than the fact that at least two of the visionaries did not speak the same language. The oldest among them, Bridget Trench, knew only Irish while the youngest, John Curry, knew only English. No message was imparted to the visionaries as there was by our Lady at Lourdes or Fatima. In those two famous apparitions the Mother of God requested more acts of penance, but such was not the case at Knock. The Irish people had suffered and done penance enough; no suffering or pain should ever be wasted. Those devout Catholic souls knew well that they must in prayer and place themselves in union with Christ’s own suffering. And this offering was answered by the celestial vision at Knock, whose unspoken message was one of love and solidarity with the perseveringly faithful Irish in their time of suffering and sorrow.
Reports of “strange occurrences in a small Irish village” were featured almost immediately in the press, notably by The Times of London. Many miracles were reported, which were methodically recorded in the diary of the parish priest. For example, ten days after the apparition a mother brought her little girl to the gable wall of the church. The young Delia Gordon, had always been deaf in her left ear; her mother placed a small amount of cement or grout from the gable wall into her ear and said a prayer for healing. A little later during Mass, Delia felt an excruciating pain in her ear follow by immediate relief. Her ear had been healed and hearing restored. The apparition wall soon being torn apart by pilgrims chipping out the cement, mortar, and stones to have as relics and to use for prayer.
Two inquiries were held to study the reported apparition and to determine its authenticity. Unlike at Lourdes, no medical commission was ever established at Knock to verify whether claimed cures are unexplainable according to the medical sciences. The first commission of inquiry was established by the Archbishop of Tuam in October of 1879. Fifteen of the witnesses were formerly deposed and the commission’s members deemed their accounts to be trustworthy. In 1936, a second commission of inquiry was established to study the matter further, which relied upon upon interviews with the last of the surviving witnesses who all confirmed their prior testimony. Even John Curry, who was only four when he saw the vision and had since emigrated to America, was called (under threat of ecclesiastical penalty if he failed to show) to the chancery of the Archdiocese of New York to testify.
In this same commission, the aged Mary Byrne poignantly stated: “I am clear about everything I have said and I make this statement knowing I am going before my God.” She died only six weeks later. This second commission, like the first, deemed the testimonies given to be trustworthy.
It is now a commonly accepted pious belief that heaven favored the parish of Knock in particular because of the holiness of its parish priest Archdeacon Bartholomew Cavanagh. He was known for his deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin, the Holy Souls in Purgatory, his penances (he wore a hair shirt), and for living very simply. He was told about the vision before the gable wall of his church but chose not to join his parishioners outside. This has been attributed either to a miscommunication or his disbelief. He later said that not witnessing the apparition “has been to me a cause of the deepest mortification. But I console myself with the reflection that it was the will of God that the Apparition should be shown to the people, not the priest.” Yet it is believed in Knock today that the Archdeacon was frequently favored with visits of our Lady in his own little cottage, and so knew well what was occurring but chose to leave the heavenly vision to be for the sole benefit of his flock. Indeed, many other miraculous manifestations surrounding him were reported but he always requested those who observed them to speak of them to no one.
Today there is a large shrine built in honor of the apparition at Knock in County Mayo, Ireland. Over one and a half million people make a pilgrimage there each year. I was fortunate to be one of them this past month, a visit which inspired me to write this essay so more may come to know the unspoken message of heaven given at this holy place.
In just a few days, the Pope himself will go to Knock as a pilgrim while on his apostolic visit to Ireland. It will be a daunting trip. The Church in Ireland is devastated. Christopher Altieri described the current situation well in a recent essay for The Catholic Herald:
The once proudly, fiercely Catholic people of Ireland are reeling and bitterly angry over the years of systematic abuse committed by priests and religious, and the coverup of that abuse by Church leaders. They’ve stopped going to Mass. They voted to amend their constitution to allow same-sex marriage in 2015—even while marriage itself declines…Just this year, the Irish people voted to remove a constitutional protection on children in the womb. It would be hard—but fair—to say that the Irish people are in rebellion against the Faith—though it is not hard to understand the roots of that rebellion.
There are no words the Holy Father can utter to make up for the failures of the Church or to quickly reverse the tide of secularization. But like the heavenly vision given in Knock, his presence among the hurting Irish Church can be one of union and solidarity in a time of trial. This unspoken message will, I think, be the most important one. And through the intercession of Our Lady of Knock the Queen of Ireland, may it at least begin the process of healing and the Irish people’s return to their greatest legacy—the Catholic faith.