The young, sober and faithful gather among the capes and the collars
With stage events and workshops, the summer festival is like any other . . . in some ways
ALL OF the lights are flashing and the band is in good voice. The crowd is swaying, singing along to the chorus – “Your love is surprising/ I can feel it rising/Hallelujah” – which is not a million miles away from the spiritual malarkey with which Bono enthralled the Glastonbury crowd on Friday night.
This, though, is a smaller festival: one of the many fringe events that have mushroomed around Ireland in the last few years and the scene is typical – a marquee, a hellacious sound system, strobe lights, young people lost in music. But there is one important difference: this is 9.23am and everyone is stone-cold sober.
Knock: nothing changes. On a windblown Saturday morning, the gift shops were hoping for a bumper weekend and on the tarmac plain around Our Lady’s Shrine, the faithful are beginning to gather for the National Eucharistic Congress.
The bishops are present as are curates, nuns, novices, brothers: the entire holy spectrum is present and the wind is making capes and robes fly and billow in all directions. But on a patch of green not far from the shrine, the Knock Summer Festival, pitched as an alternative weekend for young people, is in full swing.
The crowd will have made up a fairly small percentage of the 25,000 people expected in Knock over the weekend: it is unlikely Oxegen organisers are going to see this festival as a rival anytime soon.
But still, after the Ryan report and the battering that the Catholic Church has taken, it is half a surprise to find the famous shrine is still attracting young members at all.
“I think young people are open to spirituality and these retreats: there is a festival vibe similar to the other festivals,” says Paul Keogh, the front man with Elation Ministries. The first thing to say about this band is that they can play.
Several were session musicians – one travelled with Tequila Sunrise for a while – prior to joining what Keogh describes as a contemporary Christian band. The idea of the music is that “it feeds into a deeper relationship with God”. Keogh nods in agreement at the idea that Catholicism as a movement needs to recover from a nightmarish decade.
“But a lot of kids have no experience of church and are open to it. What I have found is that kids are bringing parents back to the church,” he says.
At 11am, Fr Lino Rulli comes bounding onto the stage. Once a budding MTV host, he is part-comedian, part-evangelist and has won three Emmys for a routine that has earned him fame on New York’s airwaves as “the Catholic Guy”.
He is a natural entertainer and in some part of the room you can almost hear Fr Ted Crilly admiring the showmanship. Not only does Catholicism have to overcome the suspicion caused by the fallout from the revelations, they also have to overcome what the old Dermot Morgan series demonstrated over and over: attempts at being hip with young people never work.
So the organisers at the Knock festival do something smart: they don’t even try. No pop cultural or groovy references. They are straight up or self deprecating. Much of the day is taken up with workshops. “I’m Fr Donagh O’Shea and I’m a potter. Sounds like the beginning of an AA meeting, I know,” says Fr Donagh.
Sr Bernadette Purcell is there for anyone who wants to “Dance In Divine Rhythm”. In fairness, who doesn’t?
There is drumming – a quick demonstration whips the crowd into a rhythmic frenzy and, dozens of people hop up and down making the wooden floorboards shake.
There is a talk on relationships and sex, on religion and social networking. There is a chill-out room. In the cafeteria, Lee from Co Down is eating soup with friends. “No, there was no epiphany,” he laughs. “I was raised lay Catholic but just want to find out more. Some of my friends are more or less atheist: I respect their position and they respect mine. I just find that my faith helps me . . . like, I lost a friend a few years ago and was very bitter about it.
“And then, more recently, I lost a cousin and my faith definitely helped me cope with that.”
“People might think this is kind of sinister,” his friend Annie adds. “You know, the church getting all these people together and infiltrating their minds.” But most of the classes are run by lay people.
This is the fourth year of the festival, which is run by the
Knock Youth Ministry: this year’s event attracted more than 500 young people – the biggest number yet. Some of the young people are serious about their faith. Others are surprised to find themselves here.
Near the workshops, two girls have nipped out for a smoke. Officially, there is no smoking or alcohol – but some of the older crowd admit to nipping up to the pub. The girls chat while scanning for officials: experts in the art of schoolyard smoking. They are here because it is part of a deal which gets them on a trip to Madrid for World Youth Day. “My mother is surprised,” laughs Shannon. “She says I’m going to come back from Madrid a nun.
“Not gonna happen! But I will spend more time in the church.” Neither of the girls felt they were religious. As Tania explains, they were altar girls years before. “I don’t know how because we didn’t believe much in God or Jesus. The people I hang around with now wouldn’t believe we were altar servers. But coming here . . . it is better than staying home doing nothing.”
They have just been at the workshop on relationships given by a lay Christian, Pat Reynolds. Reynolds is Glaswegian, funny, engaging and deeply sceptical about the reliability of both the condom and the contraceptive pill, issuing several statistics on safety and health risks along with the story of his life as a single lad prior to meeting his wife in Knock five years ago. His talk is deeply personal: “We have three beautiful children with us and one in heaven.” And while nothing is hammered home, his talk subtly nudges listeners towards thinking about attitudes towards contraception and sex.
“The relationship yoke, my friends would have enjoyed that,” Tania says. “I am 16 now and I was thinking of going on the pill and wouldn’t touch it after that. No point in getting the pill if it is going to kill you.”
The girls are off to Lough Derg next. They are half-terrified at the thought but looking forward to the adventure as well: no food, no shoes. All of this – the shrine, the iconography, the churchmen mingling, older ladies murmuring decades as they walk in groups around the church: it is new to them. They are part of what, after all, is probably the most radical festival a young Irish person could go to just now. “It is strange,” Shannon agrees. “But it is interesting too. It kind of shows you we are all the same people.”