By Theresa Anthony
I didn’t plan a visit to the Knock shrine when I decided to go to Ireland this September. In fact, I really didn’t know anything about Knock, other than it was a pilgrimage site somewhere in the country. I was nearing the end of a two-week tour of Ireland when I decided on impulse to locate this site on a map. I then learned that it was just an hour or so north of our final stop in Galway. Suddenly I was compelled to learn the story of Knock, followed by a powerful determination to somehow get there.
There is one thing I have learned in the two decades since returning to my Catholic faith: it is wise to be open to hearing those subtle whispers, the prompts of the Holy Spirit asking us to follow through on something. Nine times out of ten these cues have led me to deeper layers of knowledge, belief, and faith. This out-of-the-blue tap on the shoulder to visit the Knock shrine was a perfect example of the blessings that follow when you “just do it.”
My travel companions thought I was very adventurous to break from the pack that last day of our trip, but were supportive of my mission--even those who didn't share my faith beliefs. By this point on the tour, these folks knew my story. They knew that although I was a perpetually grieving mother seeking solace in Jesus, I still have a lot of life in me. They cheered me on.
So off I went to the Galway bus station where I would figure out how to use the bus ticket machine and get on the right bus at the right time. As luck would have it, I was seated behind a fellow who was on his way up north, a five-hour journey. For the next hour and fifteen minutes, until my stop at Knock, we chatted nonstop.
Tommy is an expat from Pennsylvania of 100% Irish ancestry now living with his 97-year-old father. He asked where I was headed and I told him, which brought a broad smile to his face. He was not only a devotee of the Knock story, visiting the shrine for special prayer time on occasion, but his birthday is the feast day of Our Lady of Knock, August 21st. Wow, I scored! Tommy gave me all the basic info about the different churches (the old church versus the modern basilica) and the best gift shop in town.
At some point along the way I told him I was going there to pray for my son’s soul, which pivoted the conversation to the topics of mental health and addiction. He was very transparent in sharing his own struggles with a mental health issue, and also that he had recently lost a close friend to a heroin overdose. You see, when you are willing to open up and talk about these things you find that they impact just about everyone on the planet in some way or another.
Just as I was getting off the bus Tommy handed me two coins and asked me to please light candles for his elderly father and for the friend he had recently lost to addiction. This touched me so deeply I almost started to cry. I handed him my card in case he wanted to get in touch later, and we said goodbye.
As I wandered toward the shrine on a gloomy, rainy, and very windy day—the remnants of hurricane Lorenzo had just pushed through the region—I began to say aloud, “Here I am Lord. Here I am to pay homage to your Mother and to pray for my boy.” I felt immense joy in being there in that humble little town in the middle of nowhere; that I had followed the prompt to come.
I made my way to the “old church,” which is Tommy’s preference. I get it. I do not like modern churches at all. While sitting there in the pew I could not believe that the altar had a large inset sculpture of the 13th Station!
This was so meant to be. I was half way through the rosary when a priest came through announcing Mass in the shrine, which is an adjacent structure and the actual site of the apparitions that occurred in 1879. What perfect timing!
Mass was just beautiful. It was a full house and attended by a very enthusiastic pilgrims and locals. Strong responses, loud singing…really wonderful. I loved that they prayed several extra prayers after the end of the Mass, and then sang “Hail Queen of Heaven.” It was just lovely.
After Mass I made good on my promise and headed over to the basilica to light the candles
for Tommy’s loved ones, and then for my own. Although this church was indeed a large modern venue, it had the most amazing, enormous mosaic above the altar depicting the apparition. I explored the complex and snapped lots of photos before heading to the information center. I wanted to know the whole story of Our Lady of Knock, and that was the place to find it.
After selecting a little booklet and a calendar for my friend, I headed to the counter to pay. A nice young man with beautiful eyes added up my purchases and as we transacted asked me if I had anyone that I would like for them to pray for at the shrine. Immediately I responded, “yes!” So, he pulled out his folder and flipped open the page, asking me the person’s name. I began by clearly stating my son’s first name, but while he was writing it in the book I suddenly dissolved into a puddle of tears before I could squeak out his middle name. Off this young fella went to retrieve a wad of tissues for me. I managed to finish reciting my son’s complete name, after which he wrote R.I.P. Of course, I snapped a pic of his name written in the book. So there you have it, nearly six years after losing him, just below the surface I am still as raw as ever.
On my way out I located the gift shop that Tommy had told me about, John Byrnes Gifts. I selected some items, including a rosary with blue beads for my son's little girl (his nickname was Blue), and told the shopkeeper that a nice fellow named Tommy sent me, and to be sure to tell him that Theresa stopped by at his request when she sees him next time.
On my bus ride back to Galway I opened the little booklet to read all about the story of Knock. Unbelievably, the gorgeous marble statues in the shrine were created by an Italian sculptor named Lorenzo! What are the chances? They were delivered to the site on August 15th, my grandfather’s birthday (and the Feast of the Assumption). I tell you, everything is designed by God’s amazing providence. This little seven-hour adventure ended up being a high point of my entire trip. The takeaway? Always say “yes” to the prompts of the Holy Spirit because He knows what we really need.
And, by the way, Tommy did reach out to me on Facebook, so I was able to send him the photo of the candles I lit for his loved ones and to thank him for being such good company on the ride up to Knock.