What the Apparitions Point To
by Beverly De Soto Stevens
Editor, Regina Magazine
On a rainy August night in 1879, a parish charwoman in the humble farming village of Knock, Ireland finished her duties and locked the church door behind her. Then she had a chat with a family that lived in the thatched-roof house next door.
At about eight o’clock, accompanied by Bridget, the older teenaged daughter of the family, she left for home. As the two women walked past the Church of Saint John the Baptist’s gabled stone wall, something caught their attention.
For there, on the back wall, a window had opened to another world.
The cleaning lady gasped and dropped to her knees. Bridget ran to fetch her family and neighbors. Within minutes, fifteen villagers gathered to peer through this apparent window in time and space which had, inexplicably, opened before their eyes. Their ages ranged from five years to seventy-five and included men, women, teenagers and children.
For two hours the Knock people were transfixed as an apparition of Our Lady, Saint Joseph, and Saint John the Evangelist glowed from the south gable end of the small parish church. Behind the saints stood an unadorned altar. On the altar was a cross and a lamb standing, with a sword piercing it. The lamb was facing West, surrounded by adoring angels.
The entire tableau glowed with a white light, and none of the figures moved or spoke. The villagers prayed the Rosary together in the pouring rain. Bridget said she “went in immediately to kiss, as I thought, the feet of the Blessed Virgin; but I felt nothing in the embrace but the wall, and I wondered why I could not feel with my hands the figures which I had so plainly and so distinctly seen”.
Later, the witnesses reported that the ground under the apparition remained completely dry. Afterwards, however the area became wet and the gable darkened as the figures faded from sight.
135 years later, I visited Knock.
Now, in complete fairness to the reader, I must disclose my prejudices.
First, although I am a practicing Catholic, I am not an apparitions-type person. Second, if I were an atheist and/or a cynic I would find in Knock in 2014 plenty of grist for my mill.
For the truth is that my first impression of Knock was horrible. Totally, utterly awful.
The Catholic Church at its worst
For cynics, apparitions have always represented the Catholic Church at its opportunistic worst — preying on the vulnerabilities of the weak and the gullible. For them, Knock was a mass delusion suffered by a marginalized peasantry in a dark time in Ireland’s history when rural evictions hovered like a specter over the lives of the common working people.
And to the casual, cynical observer, Knock is the living embodiment of Corporate Catholicism at its worst. The tiny village of the 1800s is no more. It has metastasized into a sort of Catholic Disneyworld, surrounded by an ocean of concrete parking lots designed to accommodate busloads of pilgrims intent on checking the Basilica and environs off some pious travel ‘bucket list.’
Please don’t get me started on the Basilica
Cold, unfeeling, modernist — Knock basilica looks like a Soviet-era architect’s parody of a ‘catholic’ church. Personally, I can’t decide which aspect is more distressing. Is it the Big Tent dinner theater-in-the-round design — a mammoth version of the worst of American post-Vatican II suburban churches?
Or maybe it’s the gruesome modern art on the walls?
Oh, wait — how about the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament?
I actually have only felt this depressed in a sacred space once before in my life. That was looking at the dank floor of the Mamertine prison in Rome, where saints Peter and Paul were kept in chains.
But wait, there’s MORE.
Wandering through the empty basilica, we came upon some curious closet-like doors in the walls. What could these be, we wondered?
This one comes with two parts, folks. The first stunner is that these tiny warren-like spaces were in actuality designed to be confessionals.
The kicker, however, is that these erstwhile ‘confessionals’ are now used as trash receptacles. (Again, the irony for a Church that no longer believes in ‘sin’ is beyond words.)
Moving right along
We escaped the confines of the Basilica, crossed the vast parking lot and there, before us was — what?
So, let’s consider this. If you were trying to ‘create a sacred space’ with the wall where the villagers saw the apparition, and protect worshipers from the omnipresent County Mayo rain, what would you do?
Something tells me it wouldn’t be this. (Is it just me, does that thing look like the segments of an enormous reptile growing out of the back of that sweet 19th century church?)
Here’s the real Knock
Now here’s the part that made me cry. If you turn your back on this Catholic Disneyworld and find your way through the door of the original parish church where the people of Knock in the 19th century heard Mass, you will suddenly, astonishingly, encounter the Faith.
This is where the visionary charwoman did her humble job.
This is where the most important events of the lives of those fifteen witnesses happened.
The Real Presence is here, on the altar. You can feel it. This is where people leave their small offerings.
Here is where the locals stop in ‘to make a visit.’ Just as they always have.
Just as if the monster that has grown out of the back of this church didn’t exist.
The sweetness of the place is palpable
you can ignore the cheap lighting, the worn carpet and the bad paint job.
And you begin to understand why Mary would appear here.
What Knock showed us
Someone has said that the real meaning of the apparition at Knock was a kind of divine solidarity.
The Blessed Mother and her companions, according to this view, appeared to comfort these simple people at a time of growing fear. Their West of Ireland was a Famine-haunted land, never far from the edge of disaster.
The holy figures at Knock didn’t need to speak. They stood in stillness — silently witnessing to the Faith and accompanying these people during this perilous time.
But the Lamb on the altar– slain but still standing, facing West — also held a special message for the Irish people beyond the villagers of Knock.
For the Lamb is Christ, and He is slain but still standing. And the Lamb was facing West where, of course, millions of Irish people had sailed off into, most never to return again to Ireland’s green shores.
The way home again
What has happened to the Faith of the Irish people?
In a nutshell, it’s been another perfect storm — and another Famine.
The perfect storm of the late 20th century combined the worst sins of man’s fallen nature: lust, greed and pride. The perverse lust of fallen clergy preying on a trusting laity, the greed unleashed by an economy fueled on a global bubble and the swollen pride of a Catholic hierarchy intent on winning the approval of a cynical elite that would like nothing better than the utter destruction of the Faith in Ireland.
Today’s Irish Famine is a spiritual one. This is nowhere so apparent than its strange embodiment in the Disneyworld at Knock, in the overgrown, ugly buildings marooned in a sea of asphalt.
But there is something Else here, too. Something that dwarfs the arrogant modernity of concrete hideousness outside.
Knock also quietly, sweetly shows Ireland — and the Catholic world — the way back home.
It’s right there, in the old church of St. John the Baptist. In the Real Presence in the Tabernacle, in the small parish church that the charwoman of Knock cleaned.
And let that be a lesson to all of us.
Pilgrimage to Knock Shrine Led by
His Eminence, Raymond Cardinal Burke
Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura in the Vatican
Saturday 10th September 2011
Video shot during the Pontifical High Mass in the old Knock Chapel.
2017 update: There has been some improvements to the inside of the modern Basilica.