I write this blog over the Atlantic Ocean after a week in Ireland on an Ave Maria University trustees’ trip that included spouses and other donors.
It was my first trip to Ireland and the Emerald Isle lived up to its reputation. The color green will never be the same!
The highlight of the trip for me was the pilgrimage to Our Lady of Knock. This shrine has spent over a century in the shadow of Lourdes, Fatima and other Marian apparition sites, but its reputation as a place of healing was immediately validated by a man’s impassioned story to some of the members of our group not long after we arrived on the grounds. He relayed that when his wife was pregnant she was told the girl she was carrying in her womb had a hole in her heart. And so she came to Knock and three times touched her stomach against the rock from the wall where Our Lady, St. Joseph, St. John the Evangelist, and an altar with a lamb and cross, mysteriously first appeared in August 1879. The man told us his daughter was born without defect and is now 9 years old. He shared his story with the guileless joy of a man who feels that after being shown such a great favor, the least he can do is share his family’s gratitude to Our Lady of Knock with others.
You may or may not place much stock in apparitions of Our Lady as ascribed by the 15 witnesses of County Mayo who saw this apparition through a driving rain (even though the soil beneath the area of apparition was dry throughout the two hours). And perhaps the fact that this apparition was unique because no words of any of the celestial cast were heard, might fuel skepticism.
As with Jesus’ miracles, people who hear of them either turn away uninterested or draw closer to the Lord. Our group went the latter route. And we are in good company. Ave Maria University’s two favorite saints – St. John Paul II and Blessed Teresa of Calcutta – both visited Knock and came away deeply moved.
In addition to the pilgrimage to Knock, our group had a chance to see a great deal of Ireland’s fabled countryside. I include a few photos here because words cannot adequately describe the beauty.
I also include a photo of a fellow and his sheep dog. He could have lived in any age (and he looked to me like someone from the movie Shrek!).
At the conclusion of our journey, our group toasted Ave Maria’s founder, Tom Monaghan, whose Irish roots stretch to Tipperary.
My father’s father came to St. Paul, Minnesota from County Roscommon and the town of Ballagharderreen. Our group got a good laugh as we drove through that town and spotted a building adorned at the top with “M.Towey” in large letters, joined to a building with “Moynihan” as its marquee, a possible derivation of Tom’s surname.
Later, at Blarney Castle, we learned that the Monaghan clan was thought to have originated in County Roscommon. So who knows? The partnership of centuries past may live on at Ave!
As beautiful as Ireland was, one could not escape the sorrow that surrounds, if not hounds, its history.
Next year is the centennial celebration of Ireland’s independence, but those events likely will only underscore the fact that the six northern counties of Ireland remain under British rule. We saw the old cathedral where Cromwell quartered horses during his savage rampage across the country side in the mid-1600’s. We heard of stories of how the potato famine of the late 1840’s killed over 1 million people and sent double that number into exile to survive.
Modern times, too, have watered Ireland’s fertile soil with tears. The revelations this century of heinous abuse by a small group of nuns and priests have wounded the Church and driven Mass attendance to all-time lows. It was hard to believe that a place known for its Catholic faith now finds itself with a host of empty Churches and closed schools.
But in spite of this, the sunny optimism of the Irish prevails as it has for millennia. There are signs of a new resurgence of the Catholic Church on the Emerald Isle led by lay people like Kathy Clarke and supported by a new collection of Bishops, starting with Archbishop Charles Brown, Apostolic Nuncio, with whom we dined on Monday night. He is a messenger of hope and reconciliation. Pope Francis announced in Philadelphia that the next Synod of the Family will take place in Ireland, in 2018. Expect Archbishop Brown to be busy at work until then in preparation. One gets the sense that Ireland will soon resume its role in fostering a plethora of vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
The Clarke family with Mary and me in Cavan, Ireland. Annie (second from left) is a 2015 AMU graduate.
I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida and nearly all of my parish priests were of Irish descent. So were most of the nuns who taught me. Their faithfulness not only helped build up the Catholic faith in America, but the memories of their many sacrifices as missionaries surely are accelerating a new vibrancy of their Church back home.
It was hard to say goodbye to Ireland. Perhaps my sons and daughter will get there one day after I’m gone, and sing:
But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
It’s I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
And you will sing Oh Daddy-O, I love you so.
Ok, I couldn’t resist, and no, I didn’t kiss the Blarney Stone. My wife Mary wanted me to find the stone you kiss for blarney reduction!