It’s all systems go at the Number One Marian Shrine in Ireland.
Right off the back of its annual nine-day novena, with barely enough time to get off its knees, Knock is hard at it again, readying its well-oiled pilgrimage machine for its biggest headline act in almost 40 years.
It’s been readying itself with fervour since the announcement in May that this tiny village in the west of Ireland, which punches well above its weight in the Marian adoration stakes, had somehow been shoehorned into the tight Irish schedule of God’s representative on Earth.
The novena is a crowd control rehearsal, because, as one local told me, it attracts tens of thousands of pilgrims each year, though numbers were down a little this time around.
Some pilgrims were saving themselves for tomorrow’s main event, she said, when 45,000 are expected to welcome Pope Francis.
We pulled up at the basilica on Wednesday evening, the last night of the novena, just as the crowds emerged for a candlelight procession. Leading the charge was the star turn, a giant luminous statue of the Blessed Virgin on a flower-strewn handcart. Completing the tableau were nuns in white habits and clerics in flowing white robes. What with the candles and the white light radiating from Mary and strains of Ave Maria ringing out in the background, thoughts of a supernatural happening loomed large.
The apparition that kick-started Knock’s fortunes goes back to 1879 when the Blessed Virgin, St Joseph, and St John the Evangelist took time from their heavenly schedule to appear to a group of local people.
Though the rain was pouring down, the gable end of the parish Church of Knock-Aghamore where the apparition took place, remained bone dry. Two Church Commissions of Enquiry upheld the witnesses’ testimony, and the rest, as they say, is history.
That infamous gable now forms the backdrop to the altar of the recently refurbished Apparition Chapel which Pope Francis will briefly visit during his visit.
On Wednesday night, it formed the backdrop to a series of selfies for a man of the cloth. The Pope will not visit the towering basilica, but his pending arrival meant no-one else could either since last Thursday, on account of a security lockdown to facilitate the construction of the outdoor altar from where the Pope will lead the angelus.
A pilgrim from South Africa, who had travelled to Knock Shrine with her son, was sorely aggrieved.
Martina and Tony Griffin, on holidays from the UK, were also disappointed. Their biggest concern, however, was how to get to Dublin on Sunday to catch a flight home, with major road closures pending.
Martina was bemused at the scale of investment in Knock for the Pope’s visit, given that he’ll be here for an hour at most.
Maria Casey, head of marketing and communications at Knock Shrine, said pilgrims travelling to Knock for the papal visit can expect a 2km walk from designated parking areas. Most of the pilgrims, based on ticket sales, will be reasonably local, from Mayo, Roscommon, Galway, and Sligo.
Life on Main St, outside Knock Shrine, continued as normal last Thursday, with shops doing a healthy trade in all manner of religious trappings. Further up the street, at an information centre called Holy Love, the proprietor beckoned us in to see a giant rosary beads made of Waterford Crystal, which her husband had been inspired to create by a vision of the very same beads during a lull in work as a quality controller at Waterford Crystal.
The beads have taken the couple all over the world and onto a myriad of Catholic TV channels. The same premises boasts first class relics, which contain bones of saints, and second class relics, which don’t but are imbued with saintly values
nonetheless. They even have papers to prove it — like thoroughbreds.
Whether you’re a believer or an anthropologist, there’s plenty food for thought in Knock, a village proud to put its best foot forward for the second visit by a Pope in less than 40 years — no mean achievement by any standards.