Monday 11 December 2017

High-fiving cardinal touches down in Knock with jet full of US pilgrims

Sister Marie-Therese and Sister Francesca, both Franciscan nuns from the US, enjoy a cup of tea with Fr James Ferreira, the Cardinal's secretary, after touching down Photo: Keith Heneghan / Phocus
Sister Marie-Therese and Sister Francesca, both Franciscan nuns from the US, enjoy a cup of tea with Fr James Ferreira, the Cardinal's secretary, after touching down Photo: Keith Heneghan / Phocus
Cardinal Timothy Dolan is greeted by local nun Sister Bosco Daly at Ireland West Airport Knock Photo: Keith Heneghan / Phocus

Graham Clifford

St Brendan the Navigator discovered America, they say - so it was fitting that the airplane which brought 178 American pilgrims to Knock yesterday carried the Irish saint's name.

It was a day of firsts: the first time a chartered pilgrimage flight from North America had landed at Ireland West airport; the first time an Aer Lingus stewardess could tell her American passengers, 'Welcome to Mayo'; the first time a Mass would be held in the renovated Knock Shrine Basilica; and the first time that a senior Vatican cardinal had compared our dear leader Enda Kenny to Donald Trump.

The charismatic cardinal told the assembled crowds at Ireland West airport: "Now, just so those who came from New York know for sure who this man is, he is their leader. It would be like Obama or... Donald Trump greeting us!"

The place erupted into laughter, elderly American pilgrims and suited and booted members of the clergy finding it impossible not to explode. The cardinal himself was almost doubled over.

The Taoiseach managed a grin.

On board the flight, Cardinal Dolan couldn't hide his excitement. Everyone who boarded the flight at JFK airport got either a bear hug or a kiss, depending on the gender, from the cardinal, who is also Archbishop of New York.

He led prayers and walked through the aisle high-fiving pilgrims and pretending to locate the drinks trolley like Fr Jack.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the pond, Mayo's finest were dozing when all hell broke loose.

"At 7.07 this morning, the chief executive of Ireland West Airport Joe Gilmore rang me. He said, 'Get your scapular, they're going to land 20 minutes earlier than expected,'" joked the Taoiseach.

On board, we calculated that we'd touch down early.

"Ask the pilot to do a few loops of Mayo," suggested one passenger. There was a mad scramble for the airport - Michael Ring TD was first to the scene, by all accounts.

The Taoiseach continued in GAA jest: "May that tail wind continue right through to the third week in September when we continue our pilgrimage elsewhere," - the bemused visiting American pilgrims laughed and clapped despite not having one iota what the nice local man was talking about.

Though exhausted after flying through the night, all were in high spirits. Franciscan sisters Marie-Therese and Francesca wore permanent smiles.

"Oh my, is all this for us?" they said, as they gazed over at the trays of sausages, black pudding, scrambled egg and rashers. The tea and coffee flowed as two local musicians had the airport hopping.

"This is amazing, what a welcome. We're so excited about visiting Our Lady's Shrine but really this is touching.

"We can't wait to see the country. We don't mind the bad weather, the warmth of the people here has already made up for the lack of sunshine," said Sister Marie-Therese.

Some on the trip were second-generation Irish - others were winging their way here for their first time.

"Darling, I've never been to Ireland before but when I found out Cardinal Dolan was going I booked up right away," said one pilgrim.

Slowly starting to enjoy the spotlight, many of the pilgrims were surprised to hear that the Mass they would be attending yesterday morning would be broadcast live on Irish television.

In Knock village, a huge sign welcomed the pilgrims, along with American and Vatican flags, balloons, streamers and bunting

You wonder what Monsignor Horan would have made of it all. When he first suggested building an airport here in 1985 one prominent businessman sought clarification - "You mean like where planes can land?"

Yesterday's flight and scenes of warmth and welcome show that, properly marketed, Knock Shrine could become a must-see location on the European shrine circuit.

Irish Independent

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