My great childhood memory of Knock was the family visit in summer. Knock took on another meaning when it would become a lovely resting place for my mother, who had asked to be buried there, and – later – for my father. When I was home on leave from Ethiopia, I would visit the grave. Having moved back to back in Ireland, I volunteered to minister there for a month 3 summers ago. After spending lockdown in Dublin, I gratefully accepted a request to return this June, following in the footsteps of Christy Burke, Des Reid and others, who are fondly remembered.
Reconciliation, the Eucharist and chaplaincy
At the heart of the ministry in Knock is the sacrament of reconciliation. A priest often goes long periods without hearing a confession but in Knock there are always long lines of pilgrims waiting. I was one of 6 confessors who were on duty 6 days a week. Because of Covid-19 we wore masks and there was a perspex screen between priest and pilgrim. It is a wonderful ministry, intense – and intensely rewarding. I marvel at the humility and honesty of those in the confessional and am in awe of people’s dignity and resilience. The quiet desire to do the right thing and the quiet need to express sorrow are in all of us. Tears were shed in that confessional but there was laughter too. Above all there was a sense of being held by a sacred presence to experience mercy, forgiveness and healing.
Celebrations of the Eucharist were livestreamed from the shrine during lockdown. When I arrived in early July the old church had just opened; up to 50 people could now attend in person. Sadly, pilgrims who had travelled from afar were not always able to attend. Now there are both physical and virtual congregations. Services are followed across Ireland – and beyond. I remember once reading somewhere that the act of observation changes the nature of that being observed. I am conflicted. One the one hand, I celebrate the technology that allows people to follow services online and be part of a wider circle of belonging, a great blessing especially for those who are confined to their homes. On the other hand, I worry that online services will become the norm and I have many questions. What of the gathering that brings us together, drawing neighbour to neighbour? What if people, having got used to services online, never darken the door of their local church again?
One of the great joys of working in Knock is the chaplaincy to the enclosed Carmelite convent. It is an experience of grace to be the presider in that chapel with the 19 nuns who are dedicated to a life of prayer lived out through community. (Parishioners can’t currently attend.) Time slows down; the readings and music are more meditative; the inspiring young novices in formation are a great blessing.
The loss of the feast
The high point on the pilgrimage calendar is the August novena, the busiest day being the Feast of the Assumption when some 20,000 people make their way to the shrine. This year the novena was cancelled and the shrine closed for that day, leaving a shadow over Knock and a great sense of loss.
I conclude with a special prayer by Father Brian Grogan SJ.
Lord, in 1879 the Apparition in Knock gave comfort and hope to your people…
We ask you Lord, to walk with us again as we face the Coronavirus. Help our medical personnel to bring the virus to a swift end and bless them in their work…
May all of us, Lord, be strengthened by the spiritual support of the Christian community at this time through prayer, fasting and concern for one another…
Our Lady of Knock, Pray for us. St Joseph, Pray for us. St John, the Evangelist, Pray for us.
Fr. Paddy served in Ethiopia for many years. A member of the leadership team of the Irish Spiritan Province and leader of the St. Mary’s College community, he works in chaplaincy in Spiritan schools.+