During the month of November, we are called to increase our devotion to praying for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. To bolster our efforts, we would do well to consider the little known but very important link that exists between this devotion and the Mother of God’s apparition at Knock, Ireland.
On the rainy evening of August 21, 1879, the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared before the gable wall of the parish church in the little hamlet of Knock. She appeared with St. Joseph to her right and St. John the Evangelist to her left. Beside them was an altar on which stood a cross and a lamb being adored by angels. The apparition lasted for a full two hours. Though it was raining, the ground beneath the vision was dry. A light was emanating from the heavenly figures that was witnessed by a farmer about half a mile away from the scene. Upwards of 30 villagers beheld the sight, and prayed the Rosary together. Oddly, the most famous figure associated with the Knock apparition was not among the witnesses to the heavenly vision. This was the parish priest, Archdeacon Bartholomew Cavanagh.
It is now a commonly accepted pious belief that Heaven favored the parish of Knock with this vision because of the holiness of its priest. Father Cavanagh was known for his deep devotion to the Blessed Virgin and the Holy Souls in Purgatory, for 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 sometimes been attributed either to a miscommunication or his doubtfulness. 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.” Even still, the pious belief in Knock today is that Father Cavanagh was frequently favored with visits from 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.
Father Cavanagh was immensely devoted to the Holy Souls. He always saw this devotion as inseparable from his fervent devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary—as she is the mother of her children, but above all, her suffering children. Mary is the Refuge of Sinners here on earth and she is also the helper of the souls in Purgatory. Some months before the apparition at Knock, Father Cavanagh began a special movement of prayer in his parish for the souls in Purgatory. The poverty of the parishioners of Knock deprived him of the temporal help the payment of stipends for Mass intentions provides most priests. As a result, he decided to use the lack of intentions for Mass at his parish most productively; Father Cavanagh resolved to offer 100 consecutive Masses for the repose of the souls in Purgatory that the Blessed Mother most wanted released into the glory of Heaven. These Mass intentions were especially warranted; the Great Famine struck Ireland between 1845 and 1849 and left a massive loss of life in its wake.
The last waves of the Famine continued up until the time of the astonishing event that took place in Knock in 1879. It was proximately caused by potato blight, and was worsened by the repression imposed by the occupying Protestant English government, resulting in the deaths of one million while another million were forced to emigrate, reducing the island nation’s population by a quarter. It was in the midst of this struggle and sorrow that Father Cavanagh offered his 100 consecutive Masses for those of the faithful departed Our Lady most wanted delivered from Purgatory. Very shortly after this devotion was completed, the heavenly vision before the gable wall of the church at Knock occurred.
Unlike at Fatima, Our Lady gave no spoken message to the seers of Knock. She did not call for more acts of penance. The people of Ireland had seemingly done enough. In their poverty, hunger, and oppression, the Irish people were living penance. The message of Fatima makes clear that no suffering should ever be wasted. The suffering of the Irish in the 19th century certainly was not. These devout Catholic souls knew well that they must in prayer place themselves in union with Christ’s own suffering on the Cross. This offering of their sufferings and prayers at Mass for the souls in Purgatory was answered in the vision outside of their parish church. Sometimes a message is too great for words. On that evening in Knock, Heaven’s greatest saints were out in the rain with the people. This was an unspoken message of love and solidarity with the persevering, faithful Irish in their time of suffering and sorrow. It was a light in the midst of darkness.
In this month of November, how shall we consider the doctrinal truth of Purgatory and our obligation to pray for the holy souls who are there? I offer you an analogy. Years ago any immigrant seeking entry into our country through New York harbor was first detained at Ellis Island for registration. Many came from Ireland, even including one of the visionaries at Knock whose name was Jon Curry. He is now buried at Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral in lower Manhattan. Before these immigrants on Ellis Island rose the Statue of Liberty and the towers of the New York City skyline, symbols of America as the land of freedom and opportunity. But if any of these immigrants had an illness, they would be detained at Ellis Island in quarantine till the last trace was cleared up. Analogously, Purgatory is a kind of like an “Ellis Island off the coast of Heaven.” As the immigrants who were detained in quarantine on Ellis Island had to wait until their sicknesses were gone before entering into America, so the souls in Purgatory must wait until all defilement and traces of sin are purified before entering into Heaven. Nothing tainted can enter the holy and dazzling presence of God.
To take the analogy a step further, don’t immigrants even in our own day enter into our country all the more quickly and easily if they have a sponsor? Someone who is already an American citizen to speak on their behalf, informing our government that they will be productive members of our society? In a similar way, we members of the Church Militant still on earth have the role of being sponsors for the souls in Purgatory. We can speak on their behalf by praying, offering up our penances, and having Masses offered for them so they might all the more quickly enter into Kingdom of Heaven.
Especially during the month of November, let us follow the example of Father Cavanagh and his parishioners in praying for the Holy Souls in Purgatory. May our prayers and sacrifices made on their behalf bring God’s perpetual light to shine upon them.