The little town of Knock in Count Mayo became, not for the first time in its history, the focal point of religious devotees yesterday as self proclaimed visionary Joe Coleman awaited a further visitation of the Virgin Mary at the famous shrine. Along with an estimated crowd of 10,000 pilgrims Mr. Coleman sat at the front of the basilica apparently in a trance receiving further messages from ‘Our Lady’. Before the event the Archbishop of Tuam, Dr. Michael Neary, issued a statement cautioning the faithful, “It is not healthy, does not give glory to God and . . . is not good witness to the faith to be looking for extraordinary phenomena,” In the light of the origin of the shrine at Knock many would feel that the Archbishop’s concerns are a little overdue, by about a hundred years or so. On the evening of August 21 st. 1879 several villagers witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary, her husband St. Joseph, and St. John the Evangelist at the south gable end of the local small parish church, the Church of St. John the Baptist. Behind them and a little to the left of St. John was a plain altar. On the altar was a cross and a lamb with adoring angels. A commission of enquiry was set up by church authorities who found that the testimony of the witnesses was “trustworthy and satisfactory” and almost immediately people began to flock to the little church. By 1979 when Pope John Paul 11 visited Knock it was already a place of national and international pilgrimage, and of course the papal visit further confirmed the authenticity of the shrine as far as Catholics were concerned.
The latest activity at Knock has some similarities with the original ‘visitation’ as in both cases the ‘visionaries’ were just ordinary people without any theological or religious training, the stark difference though is the speed with which the church has rushed to condemn the latest episode. Marian devotion is a huge part of Catholic piety with shrines devoted to Mary’s apparitions dotted all over the world, most notably at Lourdes in France, Fatima in Portugal and Medjugorje in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Because Catholic theology allows Mary a place almost co-equal with Christ (Jesus is regarded as the mediator and Mary as the mediatrix !) the question asked by the church after alleged appearances by the ‘Virgin’ is always with regard to the reliability of the witnesses and not as it should be, does this square up with what God has revealed to us about Mary in His word, the Bible. Even a cursory glance through the New Testament shows that Mary while having a special place of favour with God, was like every servant of God a recipient of His grace and mercy as she sought to fulfil the role that He had ordained as the mother of His Son, Jesus. Out of Mary’s own mouth we have this testimony of her own human frailty, “ My soul rejoices in God my Saviour”, though chosen by God she was a sinner and depended just as much as you and I on the death of her Son to save her. What a pity that the Catholic church does not really guard the faithful from visionary delusions by judging all such occurrences against the truth of Gods word and not just against the reliability of human witness and say so.
The shenanigans at Knock past and present just shows how desperate people are for some spiritual certainties in this troubled and unsure world. It is hardly a co-incidence that the last outbreak of mass vision linked episodes took place back in the eighties when people flocked to places like Ballinspittle where statues reportedly shook and danced. Again at that time Ireland was going through one of its bleakest times with poverty, unemployment and emigration spiralling. The ‘moving statues’ and the apparitions at Knock may make entertaining reading for the religiously sceptical, but what a tragedy that many sincere souls would look in the wrong places for a morsel of hope and comfort. Jesus is our only point of contact with our eternal Creator and He calls now as He did two thousand years ago to all who hunger and thirst for spiritual reality, “ Come to me all of you labour and are burdened and I will give you rest” He appeared once in human flesh that He might deal with our sin at the cross, nailing it there for once and for all for everyone who believes. The death and resurrection of Jesus verified by reliable witnesses at the time and vindicated by God the Father through the Scriptures are reliable certainties that a man or woman can place their trust in, now and for eternity. No church, no teacher, no priest or saint can so be trusted…just Jesus pure and simple. The empty cross and the empty tomb are enduring reminders that He alone is Lord of all .