By Anita Bourdin
ROME, MAY 9, 2012 (Zenit.org).- Father Nigel Woollen is a priest of the Fraternity of Mary, Immaculate Queen, an Association of the Faithful of French origin, made up of consecrated brothers and sisters. He is based in Galway Diocese in Ireland, and works part time as a chaplain at the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock.
During this month of Mary, ZENIT spoke with Father Woollen about what happened and still happens at Knock in the perspective of the renewal of the Church in Ireland and in the context of the lead-up to the International Eucharistic Congress to be held next month in Ireland.
ZENIT: Father Nigel, you’re a priest in Knock, the National Shrine of Ireland: What happened in Knock?
Father Woollen: On Aug. 21, 1879, various people in Knock village saw a vision, or manifestation, on the outer gable wall of their small parish church, in this forgotten corner of the west of Ireland. On one side there were three persons, identified as St. Joseph, Mary the Mother of God (crowned as Queen) and St. John the Apostle. But the center of the vision was a Lamb, standing on an altar, with a large cross behind it and angels circling; a strong light came from the Lamb.
There was no spoken message; some 15 witnesses gave their testimony to what they had seen, which lasted two hours in the rain. A commission concluded that their testimonies were trustworthy; a second commission in the 1930s (when the last surviving witnesses were still alive) concurred. It’s worth noting that the pastor at the time of the apparition, Father Bartholomew Kavanagh, a young priest known for his piety and service to the poor, had just finished celebrating 100 consecutive Masses for the Holy Souls in Purgatory (especially for all those who had died without the sacraments in times of famine). Prayer for our deceased and for the Holy Souls has always been a feature of Knock Shrine spirituality.
ZENIT: What does this mean for the Church in Ireland under such great trial today? And with the International Eucharistic Congress looming?
Father Woollen: At all times, we need hope; God knows this. In the 19th century, there was great material poverty. In our times, we could say with the prophet Amos (8:11) that there is a great poverty for the Word of God: people are hungering for a message of life and hope, without always realizing it. Many are wounded and discouraged by certain events in the Church. The Lamb in Knock represents our Lord Jesus who gives himself completely for our salvation, washing away our sins; it is a powerful and intimate glimpse of the merciful Heart of the only one who can save us from our waywardness. The Lamb’s presence also reminds us that we are a Eucharistic people, called to give thanks and glory to God, called to unite our very selves with the sacrifice of love of our Savior.
The continuing appeal of Knock reminds us that Heaven will never abandon us, that it is in darkest moments that God is closest to us. As the beautiful Novena Prayer to Our Lady of Knock states, “You gave hope to your people in a time of distress, and comforted them in sorrow.” If so many pilgrims come to Knock still today, it is because they experience something of the hope and comfort that only the Lord can give.
The 50th International Eucharistic Congress will indeed take place in Dublin in June, with the theme “The Eucharist: Communion with Christ and with one another.” Just as Knock reminds us of the importance of the Mass in the history of this country, so the congress will hopefully renew our missionary zeal, and highlight the fact that, despite the trials of recent years, there are still many fervent Catholics in Ireland. The presence of large numbers of participants from other countries will help; I recently heard an Irish bishop say that he was heartened by meeting people abroad who wanted to come to Dublin, precisely to thank the Irish for sending missionaries to their countries in the past!
We’re familiar with Jesus’ last words in Matthew’s Gospel – “I am with you always, to the end of time” (Mt 28:20) – but it doesn’t always occur to us that his words point particularly to his Eucharistic action at Mass, and his Eucharistic presence in the tabernacle of every church. May the congress encourage us truly to meet Jesus as our friend, in the Sacred Host, and to become a eucharistic people who live as joyful witnesses to his continued, risen presence for our world!
ZENIT: Why ring a bell in preparation for the congress?
Father Woollen: The Eucharistic Congress Bell has been traveling all round Ireland, as a call to everyone to prepare for the Congress, a bit like the way the Olympic torch prepares for the Olympic Games. The bell was even rung by Pope Benedict recently in Rome. It recalls St. Patrick, who would ring a bell to call the Irish to hear the Good News; it is said that he bestowed bells on the new churches he founded throughout the land. The bell’s image and joyful sound ring out God’s call for his people to rejoice in the Gospel.
ZENIT: Is a Shrine like Knock important for the New Evangelization? For example, for young people, and families ?
Father Woollen: Very much so! What strikes me about each day in Knock is the diversity, between regular pilgrims and the curious or casual visitor, between school kids coming on retreat and old folks having their weekly day out. There is something very accessible and simple about a shrine — everyone, wherever they’re at on their spiritual journey, can find healing and peace. In particular, in the sacrament of reconciliation, and that of the anointing of the sick, we priests can witness to God’s mercy being poured out in vast measures, particularly for those who are struggling or who have lost their way in life. The Youth Festival, for example, is a powerful way of helping our young people discover that the life of the Church is for them too, and that they can find some answers to their deepest questions.
ZENIT: You’re not Irish; you’re a member of the Fraternity of Mary, Immaculate Queen (www.maryimmaculatequeen.com): Is there any connection between Knock Shrine and your spirituality?
Father Woollen: Yes, people sometimes ask: What is an English priest from a French community doing in County Mayo? My Fraternity has been in Galway (just an hour from Knock) for some years now, and has recently started a new venture in Dublin. As we have a special attention to Mary’s presence in the Church — and in particular how Mary, being Mother and Queen, helps us to live out our Christian lives — we feel a particular affinity with the message of Knock! Mary today, as in the Gospel, continues to point to the Lamb of God; she says, as she did at Cana, “Do whatever he tells you” (John 2:4). I’m forever grateful for all she has done to help me in my priesthood, and have great hope for what the Lord will continue to do in Ireland and throughout the world, by means of her powerful intercession.