Homily of Bishop Kevin Doran at the Knock Novena
A Joy that Lies Ahead of Us
Homily of Bishop Kevin Doran at the Knock Novena
It was pouring rain in Knock at around 8 o’clock in the evening on August 21st 1879. There wasn’t anything unusual about that. But people in the West of Ireland are no strangers to rain, so Mary Byrne and Mary McLaughlin were walking around the village that evening and saw the apparition on the gable wall of the parish Church. In many other countries, nobody would even have considered going out on a night like that! In any event, the two Mary’s were there and they hurried off to tell their neighbours.
Fifteen people were called as witnesses to the apparition and one of the things that is immediately striking about them is their diversity. They were men, women and children ranging in age from four year old John Curry (who spoke no Irish) to Bridget Trench in her 70’s (who spoke no English). Their attention to detail was quite remarkable.
In our Gospel passage today, Jesus tells his disciples that he has “not come to bring peace but division”. On the face of it, that is a rather bleak statement. I think what Jesus means is that, faced with the truth, people are inevitably divided between those who are committed to the truth and those who refuse to accept it, sometimes because it is not convenient. But people who have an authentic faith in Jesus, the Lamb who was Sacrificed, are united as one body by the mystery of God’s love. That is how it always has been. We read in the Acts of the Apostles about how the believers were united in heart and mind, and how they shared everything in common. This is what the word “communion” actually means. The consistency of the evidence given by the witnesses is also quite remarkable.
It is interesting to see that the priest’s housekeeper, Mary McLaughlin, is one of the key witnesses. In those days, she would probably have been a woman of some influence in the parish. But most of those who witnessed the apparition, as often happens, were ordinary people who lived in a very ordinary little village. The apparition was unusual in that there was no spoken message. It was a short moment of contemplation, which touched people’s hearts and drew them to prayer.
I think it is worth saying that people do not necessarily have religious experiences of this kind because they deserve them. If we are blessed with apparitions or moments of contemplation, these are gifts that God gives us, because he knows we need them. Usually God’s gift is not intended just for the individual. It is to be shared so that others may also come to believe. Mary Byrne and Mary McLaughlin did not stay all that time at the gable wall. Like the first witnesses of the Resurrection, they went quickly to share the news of what they had seen.
What Happened After the Apparition?
The apparitions at Lourdes and Fatima went on for some months. The story of Medjugorje refers to visions which have been going on regularly over many years. But the apparition at Knock was a once-off event.
What happened in the lives of the witnesses afterwards? A younger John Curry, the grand-nephew of the youngest witness wrote about the visionaries of Knock that “they went their separate ways, leading unspectacular lives”. They were not looking for fame or publicity and there is no evidence that their own families made any great fuss about them. His grand-uncle, John Curry, as an elderly man, lived in a nursing home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor in New York. He served Mass there every day; yet it was only by accident that the Sister in charge, who was also Irish, came to know that he was one of the visionaries of Knock.
Where Are they Now?
Did their silent encounter with Mary, St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist and of course the Lamb of God, make any difference to the lives of those Fifteen people? I think the answer is that holiness is not always very public. Remember that Jesus taught his disciples: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you”. Of course we are called to be witnesses, or as we say now at the end of Mass, to glorify God by our lives, but it should never be about drawing attention to ourselves.
There is one little hint in the witness testimonies of the kind of ordinary holiness that is a reality, alongside prayer, in all of our parish communities. According to some of the witness testimonies, there was a certain Mrs Campbell in Knock at the time of the apparition who was dying. In his testimony about the apparition, Dominick Byrne says: “I was filled with wonder at the sight I saw; I was so affected that I shed tears. I continued looking in for fully an hour, and then I went away to visit Mrs. Campbell, who was in a dying state.” Bridget Trench, likewise, told of how she was “in the house of Mrs. Campbell, which was quite near the chapel, when Mary Byrne came in” and told of what she had seen. Visiting the sick is one of what we used to call the corporal works of mercy.
Where are they now? Where is young Patrick Hill; where are Margaret Byrne and Catherine Murray? St Paul, in the second reading, tells us that Jesus, “for the sake of the joy that was still in the future, endured the cross, disregarding the shamefulness of it, and from now on has taken his place at the right of God’s throne”. I think this is also the key to understanding the lives of those who witnessed the apparitions of Knock.
These were people who knew about Jesus, Mary and Joseph. They knew about John the Evangelist, enough even for Mary Byrne to compare him with a statue that she had seen in Lecanvey. They knew the meaning of poverty and disadvantage. They seem to have gone on with their daily lives, carrying out their responsibilities in their families and in their community and making their daily sacrifices, until the Day of the Lord came. For them, the apparition at Knock was not just about an event that happened to them in the past, it is about the hope that lies in the future, a hope that gave meaning to their daily lives.
What About Ourselves?
I was never in Knock until after I was ordained a priest. Even then I didn’t come here that often over the years. In more recent years, it has become much more a part of my life. I come for the pilgrimages, of course, but I come more often for the Sacrament of Reconciliation, which is intimately connected with our vocation to eternal life. I must say I really appreciate that great gift of God’s mercy and healing that is there for all of us, every day of the week.
For some of you this may be your first visit to Knock, but many of you have been coming here for years. What does it mean to you? In what way have you been touched by the Lamb of God or by the saints? At Santiago de Compostella, they say the real Camino begins when you go home. You walk with Mary in procession here in Knock. How does your visit to Knock help you to walk with her Son in your daily life? The apparition is all about Jesus, the Lamb who laid down his life and who now lives forever and who holds out to all who believe in him, the promise of eternal life. It is about Mary, who according to our faith, was Assumed into Heaven and lives now in the presence of her Son. It is about Joseph the original silent witness and about John, who wrote down all that he saw and heard so that we might believe.
The fruit of Knock is not so much about how many times you have been here and still less about how many rosaries you have said, or how many times you have been anointed. It is about how, each time, through your encounter with the Lord and with your brothers and sisters, you are renewed in that hope which – for you – is still in the future. It is about how that hope strengthens you to return home and, like the fifteen witnesses of the apparition, to offer once again with generosity the daily sacrifices of your own life, however big or small they may be, “as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our Saviour Jesus Christ”.
Sunday August 18th 2019