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The unspoken message of heaven at Knock

The enigma of the apparition at Knock was its silence.

Painting at the Knock Shrine. (Photo courtesy of author)

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.

Statues at the Knock Shrine. (Photo courtesy of the author)

Just as they began to be relaxed though not repealed, more misery struck the people of western Ireland.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.

Altar the Knock Shrine. (Photo courtesy of the author)
About Father Seán Connolly 13 Articles
Father Seán Connolly is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York. He currently serves as parochial vicar at Immaculate Conception and Assumption of Our Lady Parish in Tuckahoe, New York.

17 Comments

  1. Thank you Father. There is a lot of Irish in my family background. Up to this point, the only thing l knew about the Knock apparition was that it happened. Yes indeed: Our Lady certainly did and does shine in the darkness, for her poor, suffering children. I don’t know if it would occur to you but, you have just acted as a shepherd to someone you have never met before, who lives in a far away land. Keep up the fantastic work.
    Stephen in Australia.

  2. I look at the picture of the altar at the Knock shrine and think “That? *That* is the best we can do? That modernist, sterile, cold looking altar?

    • So true. The peeling blank gable wall before the apparition would have been an improvement over the weird figures there now since at least people could have imagined what the apparition was like. The way it is today, it is a wonder anybody would even give it a second glance or a second thought.

      I note too that the parish priest who a traditional Catholic priest, saying the Latin Mass, fasting, mortifying his flesh with a hairshirt, and no doubt praying fervently and often. How I wish I had such a priest instead of what I see every day now in the news and at daily Mass.

      • Yes, Paul I do agree with you. I’m too wish to have better saintly priests, but you know what? You and I will have those priest when we realize we must pray for the ones we do have, so the receive the grace to convert and respond to grace the way Christ call them to do. We Christians are part of the life of those priest, we need to accompany them in their journey to heaven as response to what they do that is good and benefit us. Let’s pray and do penanc for repentance! God bless!

        • I’m afraid the Catholic Religion in Ireland has been in a slow tail spin to disaster for decades now . The clerical abuse is only a symptom of the real rot within the church here . I BLAME a cowardly clergy who collectively neither raised a finger nor a voice in defence of marriage or life in the recent catastrophic referenda which were passed in Ireland. They preach about the virtues of practicing Homosexuals from the alter admonishing faithful Catholic with modern jargon about tolerance. They exempt homosexuals from keeping commandments or living chaste holy lives.
          The Irish Bishops are a disgrace and deserve to be turfed out into humble living quarters in reconstructed stables to facilitate a change of heart and direction so that they could truly follow in the footsteps of Jesus who lived in poverty.

  3. Having been educated (in England) by the Irish, I have to say that clerical sexual abuse is not the only reason for the flight from the Faith. As Damian Thompson (of the Catholic Herald) noted, Irish religion was often joyless.
    Certainly I found it so with its Jansenist overtones. And I felt greatly liberated when I discovered sound Catholic teaching from Continental Europe and from England – medieval England, Cardinal Newman and some early C20 English writers, such as Hugh Benson and GKC, and the writings of Thomas More, the Tudor martyr.

  4. By far the best explanation for the events at Knock is that what the vitnesses (not ‘seers’ and not ‘visionaries’) saw was the projection of a illuminated tableau of statuary onto tha gable-end of their church by pranksters. The magic lantern was a popular form of entertainment at the time.

    What a poor miracle this would be, and with not even a message — such a discredit to Our Lady!

    The reason we should be critical of this sort of claimed miracle — Medjugorge is another — is that it disminishes the veracity of truly miraculous events such as those at Lourdes and Fatima, giving support to the critics of the Church. Sadly, yet another Pope will be adding to this support in a few days time.

    • And of course the people of the time who investigated the apparition never thought of that possibility; and the fact that it was pouring down rain would not have interfered with the projection at all.

      The apparition of Our Lady was life-size. Just how bright do you think candle-powered magic lanterns were, that they could project from a distance (or people would have seen the projector), in the rain, a life-sized figure so clearly that people standing there were fooled? Or do you think someone imported to this little town an arc-light or limelight for the purpose of deception, and nobody noticed that this intense light source was there?

      I agree with you about Medjugorge, because of the incessent and usually silly chitchat that is reported, among other reasons.

      • Arc-lamps were a common possession of the time, and I remember them myself from childhood in Scotland when we watched brightly lit and realistic religious presentations at a local Presbyterian hall. It is not at all unlikely that some persons in that area of the West of Ireland would also have these. They were widely used also for educational purposes.

        The miraculous events at Lourdes predated Knock by not many years, and it was well known how that small town in France had been receiving much attention and many visitors. The whole establishment at Knock reeks of commercialism. And doesn’t that claim to a Fatima-style ‘Miracle of the Sun’ there say it all? Or perhaps the Miracle of the Ear, mentioned by Father Connelly, when a child’s loss of hearing in one ear was miraculously cleared of some obstruction by placing a stone from the wall inside it. That whole wall didn’t last long afterwards, stripped by the pilgrims. Bridget Trench was unable to kiss the Virgin’s feet because she was kissing the wall on which the tableau was being projected.

        As we know, of course, Catholics don’t have to believe in any miracle of this kind. I certainly don’t believe in this one — and this after imforming myself quite extensively on the matter.

        • Yes, and if they were that widely used in 1879, the people who saw the apparition would have recognized them. What you remember from your childhood in Scotland really isn’t relevant to the issue unless you are somewhat over 139 years old.

          No, you don’t have to believe. But it is an approved apparition, and we are free to believe that the investigation was thorough enough to warrant that.

          • There is no precise ‘official’ approval for these reported apparitions, probably because, as you say, we’re under no obligation to accept any of them. The outstanding point about Knock is that it is pointless. It is also banal in the extreme, unworthy of the Blessed Virgin. Yet even this ‘unspokenness’ of the statuary is turned into an enhancing feature of its miraculous nature, as we see in this article’s intriguing heading ‘The Unspoken Message’.

  5. Do you really think that this Pope will reverse the tide of secularisation? Forget it.
    He will make it worse.He will try to get accepted homosexuality and contraception during the World Meeting of Families in Ireland.

    • The biggest miracle of Knock would be if Pope Bergoglio were converted. I’m not holding my breath, though, even in Knock. My daily prayer for him is that he be illuminated or eliminated. The Church cannot endure more of his faithlessness.

  6. Nobody is asking anybody to believe about this ‘vision’. Even during Jesus’s time the Pharisees and officials never believed his miracles. At times Jesus himself asked the cured people not to tell others about the healings. Because it is human nature to be critical of miracles. Faith is a God’s gift to a believer.

  7. The apostasy of Irish Catholics is a more complex phenomenon than the sexual abuse crisis. The Irish hierarchy did little to upgrade the traditional pastoral action in accordance with the new circumstances. It also seems that the seminary formation was deficient and that once the “new Mass” was introduced, many people thought that if the Mass could be changed, then anything else in the Church was up for grabs. Even bishops who took part in Vatican II thought so much. One example of a bishop who made a radical about-turn was John Deardon of Detroit. He was called “Iron John” and later became one of the greatest proponents of liberalizing tendencies. The failure of Irish Catholicism is a typical example of the inadequacies of cultural Catholicism and the fact that the hierarchy did little to go beyond it.
    When I was a kid in Cork in the 1950s and 1960s, the priests we had in the parish were good priests. The bishop, Cornelius Lucey, who had more priests than he needed, went to Peru and offered to establish a mission in the City of Trujillo, one of the most important of the country. The mission was in the poorest areas of the city and much of it was during the Shining Path revolution). It lasted almost 40 years, and the Catholics from Cork contributed generously for the building of Churches, schools, pastoral centers, clinics and convents run by nuns. Ireland in the 1960s was quite poor. The priests and nuns who went there did an excellent job. I have been a Professor of Theology in the Seminary in that diocese and I can say the people who knew these Irish priests have a great love for them and some of them keep in contact with them since. Some of them remained there for two six-year periods. This was from 1965 to 2002. If the Irish clergy, or at least that of the Cork diocese were so bad, they could hardly have achieved so much. They also went to a place in Chile and Equador. In any case, as in the U.S., the number of cases of sexual abuse of minors by minors was not more than 2-3% I am not minimizing the matter, but in my experience, the vast majority of the priests in those days were good and close to the people. I am not sure what happened later as I was no longer in Ireland. Cultural Catholicism seems to have been a mere veneer and was easily washed away by the new circumstances brought about by secularism and the chaos provoked by Vatican II and its sequel in the 60s and the 70s.

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