By Nicole C. Tria Tirona
1879. Knock. West of Ireland. On a stormy night, three people passing in front of a humble church at separate times, saw - and took little notice of - a strange tableau that was to change the village of Knock forever. Indeed the "tableau" was so real, so life-like that one of the three visionaries dismissed it as a new collection of statues for the Church, which meant another round of collections for the already-poor parishioners. Only later did these people realize that the "tableau" they saw was actually a heavenly vision: a vision of Our Lady, of St. Joseph, of St. John the Evangelist, and of an altar with the Lamb of God!
Knock is a remote village in the west of Ireland located on a windy hill overlooking the flat plains of southeast Mayo. Its name comes from the Gaelic word cnoc meaning hill. The times were bad with money- hungry landlords, merciless agents, evictions, emigrations, recurring famines and fevers. General misery and desolation was the way of life in rural Ireland in 1879 and Knock was no exception.
Knock was a poor village, boasting a little over a dozen humble homes clustered around an equally humble, square- towered church. This church later became the focal point of the apparition, of the "tableau" seen on a stormy night by no less than eighteen people of varying ages. But what exactly did they see?
They saw the south gable of Knock church suffused and covered with a brilliant golden light... Within this luminous area, stood three silent, praying figures, (and) to the rear of the three figures an altar with a large cross in front of which a young lamb stood "face to the west." One boy saw angels "hovering during the whole time, for an hour and a half or longer…”
The three figures were clothed in dazzling white raiment that shone like silver. Our Lady’s robe, strikingly white, was covered by a large white cloak that fastened at the throat and fell in ample folds to her ankles. On her head was a brilliant crown surmounted with glittering crosses and over the forehead where the crown fitted the brow was a beautiful rose. She held her hands extended apart and upward, in a position that none of the witnesses could have previously seen in any statue or picture, “in the same position as a priest holds his hands when praying at holy Mass.” Her gaze was fixed on the heavens; she did not look at any time toward the group gathered near the gable… She appeared to be praying… Three of those present noticed her bare feet… the rain was falling heavily but no rain fell on that portion of the gable where the figures were.
St. Joseph stood on Our Lady’s right, his head bent toward her as though bowed in respect and devotion. He had more color on his face than the other figures; his hair and beard were gray; “he looked old”. He was at the extreme left of the gable, and St. John, who was slightly to the right of the gable, was standing at an angle to Our Lady and at the Gospel side of the altar behind him. He was dressed as a bishop but wore a short miter rather than the usual high Bishop’s miter. He held a large open book in his left hand while he kept the fingers of his right hand raised as though preaching or teaching… The Evangelist appeared to be preaching but he heard no voice. None of the three spoke…
Not surprisingly, the witnesses had much to say about the hour-long apparition. Immediately, Mary McLoughlin, the parish housekeeper, reported the incident to the parish priest, Archdeacon Cavanagh. Father Cavanagh however did not take the report seriously. Like many in the parish who consider Mary McLaughlin a "gem" among parish housekeepers, Father Cavanagh was also very much aware of "one little fault". Mary while recuperating from a previous illness, had taken to using stimulants for tonic. The tonic became a habit and sometimes Mary would take just a little more than was medically necessary. In less polite terms, sometimes Mary Mcloughlin got a bit tipsy. But the testimonies of the seventeen other witnesses-fourteen of whom gave evidence to the Diocesan Council when examined two months later-could not be discounted. All the witnesses swore to the day they died what they had seen and the passage of years did nothing to change their earlier memories.
People with ailments started coming to the apparition site of Our Lady of Knock, thanks to the news of the apparition that spread like wildfire mostly by word of mouth. The local and national papers kept their promise of not publicizing yet the happenings at Knock; the first press release did not appear until four months later. By then, miracle cures attributed to Our Lady of Knock had been reported in sizable number. Just ten days after the apparition, a deaf child was cured, a man born blind was able to see, and a dying man was cured after receiving the Last Sacraments and drinking some water in which a scrap of cement from the gable wall had been dissolved. Soon, seven or eight cures from grave or debilitating diseases were being reported weekly. Many attributed the cures to the miraculous mixture of water and gable cement that the gable wall came in danger of collapsing due to the constant scraping and loosening of cement matter. The cures also came after constant prayer at the site, with many people doing the "Stations", that is, going round and round the church praying the Rosary and other prayers.
Ironically, Father Cavanagh was not blessed with the grace to see the apparition of Our Lady of Knock, this despite his deep devotion to Our Lady's Immaculate Conception. Despite the doubt and disapproval of his fellow priests regarding the apparition Father Cavanagh believed firmly in the apparition of Our Lady of Knock right from the beginning. Till the day he died - on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, 1897 - Father Cavanagh regretted not having gone to the church when encouraged by McLoughlin. However, he consoled himself with the thought that it was the will of God that the vision of Our Lady of Knock had been entrusted to the people and not to him, the pastor. He also realized that, had he himself seen the apparition and be the first to speak about it, many criticisms from the clergy in the diocese and in Ireland in general "would have been said that cannot now be advanced".
In 1940, the promotion of Knock as an apparition and miraculous site had gone full steam, thanks to the efforts of Archbishop Walsh of Tuam. He was able to obtain many indulgences from Rome for pilgrims and secured the affiliation of Knock to the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. The humble church of Knock, Ireland has since seen thousands of pilgrims coming for afternoon mass, the Outdoor Stations of the Cross, the praying of the Rosary and the Litany to the Blessed Virgin Mary, the exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Benediction. There is also now a Knock Shrine Medical Bureau which investigates cures for favors of healing still take place there.
The apparition of Our Lady of Knock is unique from all other Marian apparitions because of three things: the witnesses were all of varying ages (unlike in Lourdes, Fatima, La Salette and Beauraing which featured only children visionaries); the witnesses did not experience ecstasy; and the fact that no word was spoken by Our Lady of Knock, no message was given. It is precisely for this last reason that the apparition of Our Lady of Knock has been called the apparition of Our Lady of Silence.
The very silence of the apparition of Our Lady of Knock is an invitation to ponder the symbolism of the altar with the Lamb and the Cross, the position and demeanor of the three figures. The altar was at the center and at a higher level than the figures the Lamb above the altar but resting on it. Our Lady between and somewhat above St. Joseph and St. John. Our Lady of Knock appeared as a Queen (several of the witnesses described the crown she wore); St. Joseph bowed to her and St. John's right hand was raised in her direction. The rose on Mary's brow recalls her title Mystical Rose, the greatest contemplative who "pondered in her heart," the first of all who love God and are beloved by Him. Her gaze was uplifted as were her hands... Four witnesses said that she appeared to be praying. When a Queen prays it is to intercede for her people, to be their advocate, to obtain favors for them. Hence theologians have seen Mary as she appeared as Knock as the Mediatrix of All Graces. She was silent, wishing the witnesses to look beyond her to the altar and the Lamb ready for sacrifice; she looked up, inviting those present to accompany her in spirit to the Throne of God.
The first lesson of the apparition of Our Lady of Knock is the Mass. Everything seems to point to that-the altar with the sacrificial Lamb, the gesture of Our Lady, the presence of St. John in vestments and the respectful attitude of St. Joseph. But we may also see in the vision a reminder of another great truth connected with the Mass-the necessity of Mary's meditation and intercession and the unique character that the latter acquires because of Mary's glorious Assumption and Coronation. No word was spoken, no oral message delivered. The apparition of Our Lady of Knock does not bear in popular devotion a name or phrase giving a clue to its doctrinal meaning.
Rather, it invites scrutiny, meditation and a kind of holy wonder. If it is a help to Faith, as are all miraculous happenings, it also provides an exercise and a salutary discipline in that great virtue.
It brings us nearer to God.
The Second Coming of Christ will take place in your lifetime.
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