The most popular religious event of the year, which can attract more than 100,000 people, began at Knock shrine in Co Mayo at midday yesterday and continues until August 22nd.
The national novena began with a talk by solicitor and businessman Noel Smyth on God and Mammon – Doing the Right Thing, dealing with ethics in business. This was followed at 3pm with the first Mass of the novena, celebrated by Bishop of Meath Michael Smith.
A feature of religious practice today is that while weekly Mass attendance is dropping, pilgrimages to Knock, Lough Derg and Croagh Patrick remain popular. Knock is one of the most visited places in Ireland, attracting upwards of a million pilgrims a year, but the highlight is the national novena every August.
It began in 1977 when the late Msgr James Horan was parish priest at Knock. He felt something should be done in August to focus attention on devotion to Mary, mother of Jesus, since the feast day of Our Lady of Knock is August 21st and the traditional feast day of the Assumption (of Mary to Heaven) is August 15th.
The pilgrimage season at Knock, however, extends annually from the last Sunday in April to the first Sunday in October and usually involves annual visits by pilgrims from most Catholic dioceses in Ireland.
An added attraction this year is the spectacular new mosaic, The Apparition at Knock in 1879, behind the sanctuary in the basilica. It was unveiled last February. By Irish artist PJ Lynch, it depicts in great detail the apparition scene as described by the 15 official witnesses at Knock.
A huge work, measuring 14 metres x 14 metres, it is believed to be one of Europe’s biggest pieces of mosaic on a flat surface. Made up of 1.5 million pieces of mosaic, its installation was the final stage of a major two-year €9 million refurbishment programme at the shrine.
Last month Archbishop of Boston Cardinal Seán O'Malley led a rededication ceremony at the basilica. Participants included papal nuncio Archbishop Charles Brown, Catholic primate Archbishop Eamon Martin, Archbishop of Dublin Diarmuid Martin, Archbishop of Tuam Michael Neary, and Archbishop of Cashel Kieran O'Reilly.
A new documentary film about the apparition at Knock is to appear in cinemas from August 26th. Strange Occurrences in a small Irish village is directed by Aoife Kelleher, who says it is "about religion rather than a religious documentary."