There was no Its steria. The strength and simplicity of their faith denuded the whole event of any element of sensationalism. They believed wholeheartedly in the Incarnation and in the sacrifice of the Mass.
Having accepted these great mysteries -they were delighted by the vision but saw it as nothing apocalyptic, but rather as wonderful expression of their daily faith.
They were not out to fabricate mysteries — there was no need, Their lives were ones of material not spiritual poverty. They saw their vision. They stood for two hours in the rain. And then everyone went to bed.
If they were going to make up an interesting story they would have made up a better one than that.
One of the most striking features of the Knock apparition is the number and disparity of the witnesses. We know at least 22 people claimed to have seen the vision. They included men, women and children, some educated and some unlettered and able to speak only in Gaelic.
This was no homogeneous band of conspirators out to make fools of the local church authorities. The witnesses had nothing to gain from a hoax.
The 15 depositions of the official witnesses are remarkably consistent. The only point of disagreement was the size of the lamb — some described it as looking five weeks old and others said it was a good three weeks older. If Knock is really just a successful, pious fraud, then we should be able to identify the mastermind who managed to co-ordinate the testemonies of the people by the church and also of the indirect witnesses. the people who saw a bright light in the distance apparently coming from the Church.
It is impossible to accuse the people of Knock of over-reacting. The first witness Mary McLoughlin, noticed the figures as she hurried to visit some friends in the early evening. Incurably incurious, she did not bother to stop and simply thought that Archhdeaeon Cavanagh, the. parish priest, had brought some fine looking statues from Dublin.
Mary McLoughlin dismissed the whole matter from her
in i n d journey, accompanied by Mary Byrne. By that time it was getting dark and the rain had set in for the night. As she came near the chapel the two women were amazed to see the mysterious statues giving off a dazzlingly white light.
Mary Byne, who was in her mid-twenties ran off to call friends and relations.
Mary McLoughlin's description of the tableau was echoed by all the other main witnesses. She said she saw three figures — "one like the Blessed Virgin Mary, one like St Joseph and one like a bishop".
In addition, she gave a detailed description of the lamb standing on an altar, the unique enigma of the Knock vision: "I beheld not until her return only the three figures, but an altar further on the left of the figure of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and to the left of the bishop and above the altar a lamb about the size of that which is five weeks old.
"Behind the lamb appeared the cross; it was a bit away from the lamb, while the latter stood in front from it and not resting on the wood of the cross. Around the lamb a number of gold-like stars appeared in the form of a halo."
Mary McLoughlin was far from a religious fanatic. She was down to earth and not adverse to a drink. The theological imagery of the sacrificial lamb was beyond her inventing. Her only observation was crushingly practical — she noted that the gable end of the church was totally unaffected by the rain and bone dry.
The principal witness was Mary Byrne, intelligent, articulate and from a reasonably well-off family. Critics of Knock often talk of a prevailing atmosphere of ignorance and pious credulity among the witnesses but this certainly was not the case with the Byrne household.
When Mary ran home to call the family, her brother, Dominic, and mother followed her, but more out of embarressment than faith. They thought she was making a fool of herself and, as Dominic put it. they wanted to "take her home before she makes a show of herself among the neighbours". But when the family joined the huddle of on-lookers at the gable end of the church, they were remained
Friday, August 31, 1979 5
transfixed by what they saw. All thoughts of embarrassment• forgotten, they stood in the rain for an hour and watched the silent
Dominic Byrne, who had received his sister's announcement with pained scepticism, commented: "I was filled with wonder at the sight 1 saw — I was so affected that I shed tears."
Those who believe that the Knock vision was an ingenious prank or the product of mass hysteria also have to accept that the villagers were surprisingly well-informed about early Christian practice.
Mary Byrne testified: "The Virgin stood erect, with eyes raised to heaven. her hands elevated to the shoulders or a little higher, the palms inclined slightly to the shoulders or bosom."
Every statue of Our Lady that Mary Byrne had seen before would have shown the hands clasped in prayer. Unconsciously Mary Byrne and the other witnesses described the earliest Christian attitude of prayer.
Many of the witnesses qualified their statement that St John was vested as a bishop with comments about the oddness of the mitre. Some said it was "low-set" or "short" and a five-year-old described it as "a little roundy hat" — in other words, not so much a mitre, more a Jewish prayer cap.
Whatever doubt surrounds the events of that rainy evening a century ago, no one can deny that Knock has become a place of prayer, pilgrimage and healing.
In 1879 Knock gave new hope to a nation ground down by poverty and hunger. In 1979 there is a different sort of hunger — a hunger for peace. If the words of Pope John Paul 11 at Knock penetrate into the hearts and minds of the people of Ireland and dispel the violence and bitterness hoarded for centuries on both sides of the sectarian divide, then Knock will have accomplished the most startling miracle of the twentieth century.