This coming Sunday marks the first time we will observe the Sunday of the Word of God. PrayTell already covered this new observance. Regular readers may also have noticed that I tend to be critical of the state of the liturgy in my native Ireland (for example see here and here). However, for the record, I am just as critical of the state of the liturgy when I am in the U.S. (or even attending a papal Mass). However here I would like to comment on what Ireland can offer to the Universal Church for this new observance.
Last week, at the official Press Conference for the presentation of the first Sunday of the Word of God, Archbishop Rino Fisichella explained how:
The statue of Our Lady of Knock, Patroness of Ireland, will be placed on the papal altar for the occasion; it which will come specially from the Shrine accompanied by a large representation of the faithful, led by the Archbishop of Tuam, Bishop Michael Neary and the rector of the Shrine, Fr. Richard Gibbons. The choir of the Shrine will alternate with the Sistine Chapel Choir in the animation of the Holy Eucharist.
The choice of this presence is almost obligatory for this Sunday. As we know, the apparition of the Virgin to Knock in 1879 is particularly evocative: the Virgin is accompanied by St. Joseph and the evangelist John indicating the altar on which the victorious Lamb reigns, as in the vision of the Apocalypse. The Virgin Mary in this apparition does not speak; she remains silent, as if to indicate the fundamental attitude before the mystery; and yet, the whole apparition “speaks”, because in John it indicates the Gospel that we are obliged to make our own and the path that awaits us in view of the last times. At the centre is once again the mystery of the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus, the beating heart of evangelization. At the beginning of the Mass, moreover, there will be the solemn enthronement of the Lectionary, used in all the sessions of the Second Vatican Council.
The story of the apparition of Our Lady at Knock is a really beautiful. It is a great testament to the presence of the divine in silence and humility.
Knock is a small village in County Mayo in the West of Ireland. In the wake of the great Irish Famine, arguably the greatest man-made disaster in the history of humanity, with up to a quarter of the population of Ireland dying of hunger and disease and over a million people leaving the island during the famine. Even a generation after the famine, Ireland was not a place that inspired a lot of hope, with extreme poverty and immigration constantly on the horizon for most people. The village of Knock was a typical village, a few thatched cottages built around a newly constructed Catholic church (the Catholic church had recently been legalized after the centuries of penal laws and persecution after the Reformation).
Thursday August 21, 1879 was a fairly typical summer day in Knock: it was raining heavily! A local girl, Mary Beirne, was rushing about some errands in the rain when she saw something unusual on the gable wall of the parish church. On approaching she saw Our Lady visible there, along with St. Joseph, and the Evangelist St. John. Our Lady was dressed in white robes and (being in the Irish rain) a cloak. She had raised her eyes and hands were in prayer and she wore a large crown with a single golden rose in its center. The heavenly figures were surrounding a plain altar where the Lamb of God was visible, with the Lamb being brighter than any other part of the Apparition.
On hearing of the apparition many of the villagers gathered there and all saw and prayed before the vision for more than two hours in the pouring rain. Yet neither Our Lady, St. Joseph, St. John nor the Lamb of God uttered a single word. This silent eloquence is a trait that is all too often lacking in our contemporary Church.
Readers might also want to consult a beautiful 2017 story in the NY Times on John Curry, who was only five when he saw the apparition and went on to emigrate to New York where he lived a life of simple holiness. Even though he was an eye witness to a Marian apparition, he was not sparred the hardships of emigration and ended his days alone in a Catholic old folks home, never having married or had a family. Yet in the midst of life’s challenges he knew the peace that God can bring us.
Pope Francis has spoken critically of apparitions of Our Lady where she seems to speak too much, and almost seems to be a“at the head of a post office that every day sends a different letter, saying: ‘My children, do this and then the next day do that.’”
We will have to wait until Sunday to see if Pope Francis adds anything else to this connection between Ireland and the Sunday of the Word of God. Yet it is clearly an opportunity for all of us to put God and God’s Word more clearly at the center. So often our mission is to keep quiet and stay out of the way and let God do the work. All too often people are facing very difficult situations and when they come to church they do not need more human wisdom, they come to church to meet God in silence.