John Cooney: Pilgrims hold out for a miracle as faith falters
IT was an edifying spectacle of religious piety that is rare these days even in 'post-Catholic' Ireland.
Up to 7,000 people willingly squeezed together like spiritual sardines in the packed pews and jammed aisles of the spectacular Basilica to Our Lady of Knock in Co Mayo on Saturday afternoon, the last day of a wet October.
To lusty choruses of the hymn 'Ave Maria', the pilgrims fervently recited decades of the rosary, while across the way an impressively large crowd of pilgrims stood outside the Apparition Chapel, beside the spot of the reported apparition in August 1879 of the Mother of God.
Nor was this a congregation of the old, as is now often the case at sparsely attended parish Masses even in rural Ireland. Young men and women, many with babies in prams, were among the devout. Young women in short skirts and revealing tops were dressed as if they were singing for audition on 'The X Factor'.
The vast car park was inadequate to cater for the influx of an estimated 12,000 to 15,000 pilgrims, many of whom lined the main street and adjoining access roads with their cars, camper vans and caravans.
Guest houses were full. The pubs and coffee shops did a roaring trade, as did the religious souvenir shops with supplies of statues, rosary beads and trinkets.
Local shopkeepers could hardly believe their luck. Usually in autumn and winter Knock is a deserted village in windswept east Mayo. It is in August during the annual national novena that the pilgrims come in droves.
Remarkably, Saturday's influx was as big as, or bigger than, many an August novena day. Indeed, last August the local clergy trumpeted that the Knock Novena was the biggest summer school in Ireland. On Saturday, it was as if Knock had initiated its own winter spiritual school.
But this outward appearance was deceptive. There were no clergy involved in Saturday's proceedings. The clerical guardians distanced themselves from their flock. This was a clerical boycott of Joe Coleman, the Dublin clairvoyant and declared "visionary of our Blessed Lady" who claims that the Virgin Mary confided to him that she planned three new appearances, on October 11, October 31 and December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception.
In a pre-emptive strike to thwart Mr Coleman's growing fame as the Pied Piper of a band of Marian devotees, and to diminish the ardour of his followers for sightings of the Virgin, the Archbishop of Tuam, Michael Neary, issued a warning that it was unhealthy and not good witness to the faith to be looking for extraordinary phenomena.
On Saturday the Marian wing of the faithful opted for Mr Coleman rather than obeying the archbishop, who later issued a second warning that they were bringing the Knock Shrine into disrepute.
For a second time in three weeks, many present have sworn that they saw the sun dancing at the Coleman-designated time for the apparition, which they saw as a manifestation of Our Lady's presence, though not her image. Only Mr Coleman has claimed she has appeared to him. He has assumed the role as her messenger, a message which he says is one of anger at what Ireland has become.
Commentators and academics have offered various explanations for "sightings" of Mary, not just in Knock, but also in a Ballina housing estate. The worthy folk of Rathkeale in Co Limerick have revered a tree stump as resembling the image of Mary. We recall the moving statues of Ballinspittle in the depressed 1980s.
Explanations range from a return to primordial faith at times of economic recession, to the collapse of respect for the clergy on account of the child abuse atrocities by paedophile priests, to the decline of institutional religion and to the rise of self-expression and the cult of the individual in the chat show era.
The Irish clergy, who long imposed an authoritarian, sexually oppressive, as well as a theologically minimalist but devotionally charged control over a docile laity, now find themselves in conflict with an assertive group that is expressing their lack of confidence in the ecclesiastical sphere and asserting their 'Big Brother' claim to centre-stage.
IT was the clergy who conditioned generations into simple belief in Marian devotion. It was a dangerous game. Now the priesthood faces a challenge from others who want to regain control of that devotion from traditional clericalism.
For me, seeing Mary in the dancing sun is a return to paganism. I saw on Saturday nothing other than the usual vivid changes in the skyline that mark the east Mayo landscape of blues and reds mingling dazzlingly as the sun begins to set through wisps of cloud coming in from the Atlantic.
It is possible that in the trial of strength between Archbishop Neary and Mr Coleman's followers, Knock Shrine's reputation will be damaged by this crowd-lust for the miraculous and certitude that does not exist in the real world.