An early start for the faithful who make it to Knock shrine on time
Despite the rain, thousands turn out to greet the pope at the Marian Shrine
Pope Francis lights a candle as he visits the Knock shrine on Sunday. Photograph: Ciro Fusco/Pool photo via AP
Some of the crowd who gathered in Knock. Photograph: EPA/WMOF2018/Maxwell Photography
After as good a summer as most of us can remember, the day dawned with misty rain and a stiff breeze which left many early arrivals to see Pope Francis in Knock stoically shivering in their flimsy ponchos.
It was an early start for all concerned with the pope due to arrive at 9.45am. Few had much sleep; many got none at all so as to get the best viewing spots.
This event, the only one outside Dublin, was reported to have been booked out and many were disappointed, but there were empty seats in front of the main stage which were not filled by the time the pope arrived. Presumably, many of the 45,000 people expected were put off by the weather forecast which was bad, but worse than what actually transpired.
Those on Calvary Hill, their views obscured, might as well have watched it at home for all they could see of the main stage, but they were rewarded for their perseverance when the popemobile snaked around the whole arena giving everybody a glimpse of a smiling pontiff.
For Yvonne McGuire from Athlone, being in the presence of the pope was enough. “I found a great grace in coming to know Jesus Christ in my life and that has brought great healing.”
Her sister-in-law Caroline Falls produced a photograph of herself and her husband Gary. They met Pope Francis in Rome just three days after they got married in 2016. Both were wearing their wedding outfits.
“As the head of the church, there is a special grace, a special blessing when he comes and he (Pope Francis) represents Jesus,” she says. “We would have come a week before if we had to wait here a week. We have often travelled to World Youth Days to see him, but we also love Francis personally.”
The crowd was exhorted to say nothing while the pope spent time in prayer in the chapel where Mary is said to have appeared in 1879 to 15 local people. A silence descended on Knock as it did the previous afternoon at the Pro-Cathedral in Dublin, where the pope prayed at the perpetually-lit candle of innocence for children who were victims of clerical sex abuse.
The crowd was respectful rather than ecstatic. They clapped and cheered loudly when he spoke of the hurt of child abuse. They have had their faith tested to destruction, but they still turned up.
There were many in wheelchairs who would have found Knock either difficult or impossible to navigate. They were aided by the “handmaidens” – women dressed in immaculate blue or white uniforms who have been helping out at Knock for generations.
One of them, Mary Connolly, helped to distribute communion on Calvary Hill. “I would have been preferred to have been a bit closer to the stage,” she said. “It’s been a damp day. I think it has dampened people a little bit.”
Twins David and Micheal Cregan left Derry at 2am to be present at Knock. Sunday was also their 67th birthday. “People say I look like I’m 47,” said David. “I call it Vitamin G – the G is for God.”
He contracted polio in 1953 at the age of 18 months and has spent his life using a wheelchair. “I have experienced a lot of hardships, but I’ve also been blessed with a lovely wife and six beautiful children. I’m very happy to be here on my birthday,” he said.
He felt Francis’s short address to the crowd “covered every detail about the brokenness of the church at this particular time. We have to move on for the healing of everybody. Anybody who says the faith is dead, you just have to look around you today.”
Sister Mary Olivia Kelly had the shortest distance to travel. She is in the Carmelite Community, an enclosed order, in Knock. She holds up two hands to denote the number of times she has been out of the convent since she entered it 8½ years ago. “We can go out for doctors and dentists, but thank God, I am never sick and my teeth are perfect.”
She made an exception for the pope’s visit. “It is so inspiring for Pope Francis to come. I have read his writings. He radiates such joy, such tenderness. He is going to the homeless, to the prisons. That is what the Gospel of Jesus is about. We embrace everyone. Everyone is a child of God.”