Monday 16 September 2019

Fervour, faith and a fibreglass Francis as Knock gets ready

As Knock gets ready for the Pope, Donal Lynch visits the town where knick-knacks and faith exist side by side

A statue of Pope Francis in a shop window in Knock, Co Mayo. Photo: Tony Gavin
A statue of Pope Francis in a shop window in Knock, Co Mayo. Photo: Tony Gavin
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

It was the lavish refurbishments, rather than any particular apparition in the sky, that gave the people of Knock the impression they were in for The Second Papal Coming.

"We had a feeling. They spent €6m on the church after it closed last October and €14m on the Basilica before that," says local shopkeeper Bernard Byrne. "It seemed too early for another big renovation, so we knew something was about to happen. We are thrilled. It will be such a big thing for the town."

Byrne's shop sits in a row of businesses selling all manner of Catholic iconography and souvenirs - tea towels, Tupperware, devotional cards, rosary beads to beat the band and an almost life-size replica of 2018's guest of honour. Former popes might have been made monumental in bronze, but Francis is fabulous in fibreglass - for just under €400.

The faithful put their money where their mouth is. Francis's likeness outsells the rather severe Pope Benedict, according to Byrne, but still marginally trails JP 2, still the Church rock star against whom others are measured.

Byrne is immersed in the lore of the town. His family owns about half the businesses on the main street. His grandfather, Dominic, was one of the original 15 villagers who in 1879 saw the vision of the Virgin Mary, St Joseph and St John the Evangelist illuminated by an otherworldly glow on the high wall of the parish church. By the time they finally faded, the apparitions had assured a future of fame and prosperity for this tiny, Mayo village gripped, at that time, by the second Irish famine in 40 years.

For the next 100 years there was a steady trickle of pilgrims coming to touch the chapel wall where the apparition first appeared.

But even as late the 1960s and 1970s, Knock, which had begun as a village of six houses, one pub and a church, remained a fairly nondescript one-horse-town. It was really the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1979 that put it on the map in modern times. Locals still glaze over at the memory of the hundreds of thousands of fervent faithful that thronged the town, climbing fences and gates to catch a glimpse of him back then.

"A lot has happened" to the Church in the meantime, concedes Richard Gibbons, the brisk and efficient rector of the shrine.

"Health and safety for one thing - which is why we won't be able to allow anything like the same crowds. There have also been some bad times, you mentioned some of the scandals, but this is a moment for change, a launching pad I think.

"The whole history of the Church has been in troughs and hills. We have to learn what has gone before. This Pope is seen as more liberal but he is also the Pope of the Catholic Church, so he has that tradition behind him while also managing to communicate in an inspirational way.

"He shows us the way by being as accommodating as possible, while still maintaining the line on certain things."

The millions to renovate the shrine came from "the ordinary faithful" and arrived mostly in tiny increments, he says, adding: "It's an awful lot of money."

Did Rome not chip in?

"Oh God, no, God bless your innocence."

All the religion in Knock is part of the wallpaper of the lives of the locals. "It's only when you go away to college and come back that you realise the strangeness and the uniqueness of the place," one local woman told me. "I had never even noticed it before."

There is perhaps a slight tension in town between the ultra-faithful - the 'blow- ins' who built some lavish estates in the area (seven at the last count) and retire to the town to spend a lot of time at the shrine - and the locals, who, according to Byrne are "ordinary, decent everyday Catholics", who would nonetheless be "very modern in terms of things like the votes in the referendums".

Gibbons would have heard comments along the lines of "the Church should have no say in Irish society".

Abortion was preached against from the pulpit during the build-up to the recent referendum - which was a moral rather than a political issue, according to Gibbons - and in fact the town was an enclave of No voters in a county that overall delivered a resounding Yes. A majority of voters here wanted to keep the Eighth Amendment. Another tension exists in the uneasy relationship between the memorabilia emporia in the town and the shrine itself.

Gibbons says he "couldn't possibly comment" on anything sold outside the church grounds but everything sold inside is of "the highest quality."

Another local told me that the shrine was "kind of a competitor to some of the businesses in the town - they have their own hotel for instance - but the locals are also dependent on it. It's a big employer."

If JP 2 performed like a rock star to the masses, Francis's visit will be more like an indie show by comparison. Albeit one with a budget of millions.

He will arrive at the airport by helicopter on the morning of Sunday, August 26. The archbishop will greet him, and the Pope will travel into Knock in a cavalcade with Garda and army presence. The shrine will also have its own security team for him.

"He doesn't really speak English but he understands it," says Gibbons. "We have our national novena leading into it over the course of nine days. But then the visit after will be something extra special. I think everyone is very excited."

Sunday Independent

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