Pope Francis on Sunday visited the Knock Shrine in western Ireland, where villagers claim to have witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary in 1879, and begged for forgiveness for the abuse of children carried out by Catholic clergy.
Francis first went into the Apparition Chapel to pray and then emerged to address large crowds gathered to hear his words, despite the heavy rain.
The pope said he prayed for “all the victims of abuse, of whatever kind, committed by members of the Church in Ireland.”
“None of us can fail to be moved by the stories of young people who suffered abuse, were robbed of their innocence and left scarred by painful memories,” Francis said. “I beg the Lord’s forgiveness for these sins and for the scandal and betrayal felt by so many in God’s family.”
Many Catholics in Ireland are familiar with the story of the vision at Knock, but the site is not as famous as the Marian shrines in Fatima and Lourdes.
According to church belief and testimonies from the time, a woman named Mary Byrne was passing by the village chapel on the dark and rainy night of Aug. 21, 1879, when she saw a vision of the Virgin Mary, beside St. Joseph and St. John the Baptist, on the outside gable wall.
She alerted family and friends, who came to see.
Shortly afterward, Bryne testified before the church’s Commission of Enquiry, led by the archbishop of Tuam, “The Virgin stood erect, with eyes raised to heaven, her hands elevated to her shoulders.”
There were also angels, an altar, a cross and a lamb, witnesses testified, and Mary appeared in a white cloak, with a golden crown. According to the witnesses, St. Joseph stood to her right with “iron-grey whiskers.”
In all, probably 20 locals gathered at the gable, the curator of the Knock Shrine museum, Grace Mulqueen, told me on a visit before the pope’s pilgrimage.
Fifteen testified, in writing, including Patrick Hill, who said, “Around the lamb, I saw angels hovering during the whole time.”
The museum curator said that word spread quickly and that pilgrims soon began to arrive, seeking help. The first cure was alleged to have occurred 10 days after the visitation.
A young girl named Delia Gordon was cured of deafness, the church believes, after her mother placed a bit of mortar from the church gable wall by her ear.
Gordon immigrated to America. When she died in 1930, her brother wrote that in her hand, as she lay in her coffin and was lowered into the ground, she held “her greatest prize ... the same piece of cement that mother took from the spot where the Blessed Virgin stood.”
A year later, a photograph of the shrine showed a row of canes and crutches left behind by those who said they were healed.
The parish priest in Knock began a “Diary of Cures,” said Mulqueen. She said it eventually numbered 600 entries.
The diary, letters of cures and miracles, and five original handwritten testimonies of the purported vision were found in a trunk in Washington that once belonged to Sister Francis Clare, known as the “Nun of Kenmare,” who spent two years at Knock in the early 1880s.
The miracle at Knock differs from other famous visions; in Ireland, the Virgin Mary and the saints were said to be silent.
At the Fatima Shrine in Portugal, Mary is said to have spoken to those who saw her in 1917, announcing, “Do not be afraid. I will do you no harm!”
At the Lourdes Sanctuary in France in 1858, Mary is said to have appeared before a 14-year-old girl at a grotto outside her village, instructing her, “Go and tell the priests to build a chapel here.”
The Knock parish priest, the Rev. Richard Gibbons, said early skeptics wondered whether the purported visitation might have been a mass hallucination or a hoax.
“The magic lantern theory,” Gibbons said.
He said he understood why some had doubts. He also pointed out, as does the Knock museum, that the reports of the apparition came at time of great stress in Ireland, with soaring rents, failing crops, mass evictions and fears that another great famine was coming.
But the priest said many of the testimonies came from well-known and respected members of the community. The witnesses ranged from age 5 to 74.
“I believe them,” Gibbons said.
More than a million pilgrims arrive at the Knock Shrine each year, most of them Irish, but a growing number from Africa and Asia.