Twenty years ago in March I first set foot in Ireland with my first major destination as the parish church of Knock in County Mayo for a wedding at which I was to officiate on the Feast of Saint Patrick. That rather ordinary parish church in an otherwise undistinguished corner of the west of Ireland had been virtually lifted out of obscurity on the evening of Thursday, 21 August 1879, the eve of the Octave of the Assumption, by an extraordinary heavenly apparition against the background of the church gable.
The apparition itself was a kind of tableau.
Three life-sized figures were seen to the west of [the gable], surrounded by light and standing out from it. The one in the middle was immediately identifiable as Our Lady, her eyes lifted to heaven and her hands raised to the shoulders with palms inwards. She was dressed in a full loose cloak and had a beautiful crown on her head. To her right was St. Joseph, his head bowed respectfully towards her. On her left was a figure like a bishop, wearing a small mitre, with one hand raised as if preaching.
Mary Byrne identified him as St. John the Evangelist, adding further details in a private inter- view many years afterwards: he looked young, was very handsome and wore garments falling in full folds from his neck. He bore some resemblance to a statue of that saint in the seaside resort of Lecanvey ...
To the left of St. John was an altar on which stood a cross and a lamb; around it some saw angels' wings. When night fell, the gable was covered with a cloud of pleasing light, soft like moonlight rather than harsh or glaring. The figures, again described much later by Mary Byrne, seemed themselves to be made of light, each giving out different degrees of brilliance. The vision lasted for about two hours, from broad daylight to darkness, and was seen by, at the very least, twenty-two people. At the time it was raining and the witnesses were drenched.
No rain, however, fell on the figures or the wall behind them though the wind, from the south, should have driven the rain in that direction. The meadow underneath (examined minutely by one elderly witness) remained bone-dry.1
Since I was still at Castlebar, County Mayo, two days after the wedding on the 19th of March, the Solemnity of Saint Joseph, I decided to return to the Knock parish church for the celebration of the feast. I was somewhat taken aback by the fact that the significance of the feast for this privileged place seemed to be entirely ignored. I asked one of the priests in the sacristy if I was right that Saint Joseph had appeared at Knock. "Yes" was his reply, but the Mass at which I concelebrated was the same as it would have been on any other weekday of the year, or at least so it seemed.
It is not really surprising that the "lion's share" of attention should go to Our Lady at Knock for Marian devotion is native to the Irish soul and this apparition may be seen as comprising part of a series of Marian apparitions which began on the Rue du Bac in Paris in 1830, continuing in 1846 at La Salette, in 1858 at Lourdes, in 1871 at Pontmain, in 1876 at Pellevoisin, in 1917 at Fatima, in 1932 and 1933 in Beauraing and in 1933 in Banneux. Further, apparitions of Saint Joseph are not widely known or well documented. Since he is so often characterized as "the silent saint", it is really not surprising that his presence at Knock has not attracted a great deal of attention. Without wishing in any way to detract from the veneration which is due to Our Lady, however, I would like to investigate the place of Saint Joseph in this depiction, then to consider it in the context of his other known apparitions, and finally to ask about its meaning for us.
II. The Data of the Apparition about Saint Joseph
The First Commission on the Knock Apparition was convened by Dr. John MacHale within two months of its taking place; it continued into the year 1880.2 A second Commission was constituted in 1936 and continued its work until 1939. At its request "a special tribunal was set up by the Archbishop of New York on 6 July 1937, to take sworn evidence from John Curry"3 who was five and a half years old at the time of the apparition.4 I will cite some of the testimonies about Saint Joseph. What is to be noticed immediately is that the seers had no difficulty at all about his identity as they did to some extent about the figure eventually identified as Saint John the Evangelist.5
According Mary Byrne O'Connell6, who came to be the chief official witness,
In the figure of St. Joseph, the head was slightly bent, and inclined towards the Blessed Virgin, as if paying her respect; it represented the saint as somewhat aged, with gray whiskers and grayish hair.7
When examined under oath by the Second Commission on Knock at the age of eighty-six, she said simply of Saint Joseph: "But he looked old and his colour was not so white as the Blessed Virgin. Anyone could know St. Joseph."8 Dominick Beirne, Sr. added that "the whiskers of St. Joseph were an iron grey".9
Patrick Hill, a boy of eleven at the time of apparition, gave this testimony eighteen years later:
I saw St. Joseph to the Blessed Virgin's right hand; his head was bent from the shoulders, forward; he appeared to be paying his respects; I noticed his whiskers; they appeared slightly gray; there was line or dark mearing [Western term for division, as between farms or townlands] between the figure of the Blessed Virgin and that of St. Joseph, so that one could know St. Joseph, and the place where his figure appeared distinctly from that of the Blessed Virgin and the spot where she stood. I saw the feet of St. Joseph, too; his hands were joined like a person at prayer.10
Finally, the seventy-five year-old Bridget Trench gave this testimony in the Irish language which had to be translated into English:
I was so taken with the Blessed Virgin that I did not pay much attention to any other; yet I saw also the two other figures -- St. Joseph standing to the right of the Blessed Virgin, or to the left, as I looked at him, his head bent towards her and his hands joined; and the other figure, which I took to be St. John the Evangelist, was standing at her left. I heard those around me say that the image was St. John.11
It might simply be noted in passing that, while Mary Byrne O'Connell indicated that Saint Joseph appeared to be "somewhat aged" and in her old age described him as "old", the other descriptions such as "the whiskers of St. Joseph were an iron grey" and "they [the whiskers] appeared slightly gray" could also be taken as describing a man in his late thirties or forties.
III. The Nature of the Apparition
Since the time of Saint Augustine, who made this now classical distinction, theologians of the spiritual life have classified visions as those which are (1) corporeal in which the bodily eyes perceive an object normally invisible; (2) imaginative in which the representation of an image is supernaturally produced on the imagination and (3) intellectual in which the mind perceives a spiritual truth without the aid of sensible impressions.12
The great majority of the Marian apparitions recognized as worthy of credence by the Church in the past two centuries appear to have been of the second type, namely imaginative visions.13 Hence onlookers at Fatima or Lourdes could not see the vision except in terms of the effects reflected in the visionaries. But the phenomenon of Knock does not fit into this category. What was seen in the dusk at Knock seems to have been a gift "given by Divine Providence to a random group of very ordinary souls"14 which anyone who approached was able to see against the gable wall.15 This is corroborated by a number of testimonies of those who saw the extraordinary light generated by the phenomenon at Knock church from the distance of a half mile or more away.16 The vision at Knock, then, was a corporeal vision.17
IV. The Church's Attitude Towards Knock
In the ordinary course of events the authority to investigate alleged apparitions remains with the bishop of the diocese in which they have taken place. After a thorough investigation the local ordinary (1) may declare that the apparition is consonant with the faith and worthy of credence, thereby permitting a local cultus or (2) he may declare that the apparition is not worthy of credence and is even false, forbidding any local cultus or (3) he may "acquiesce in the possibility of the truth of an apparition without expressing approval or disapproval of it, or making any formal decision about it."18
It was this third course which was followed by the Archbishops of Tuam and the Irish hierarchy with regard to Knock for a variety of complex reasons.19 That attitude has been long since transmuted into equivalent or "informal acceptance"20 or what another author calls "approval by omission".21 If there remained any lingering doubts about the status of Knock, they were canceled by Pope John Paul II who
came for the centenary year, addressed a huge crowd, the sick, and the voluntary helpers. He raised the new Church of Mary, Queen of Ireland, to the rank of a Basilica, and conferred the Golden Rose on the shrine.22
V. The Meaning of the Knock Apparition
Since no words were spoken at Knock, the meaning of the apparition remains to be determined by the discernment of the Church. Unlike the apparitions of Our Lady at La Salette, Lourdes and Fatima, that at Knock seem to fall into the category of those of the Rue du Bac, Pontmain, Beauraing and Banneux whose primary thrust is to console and strengthen the people of God. The position is put thus by Catherine Rynne:
Although the message of Knock is a question which still confuses some, it has been generally agreed that the Blessed Virgin, St. Joseph and the beloved disciple came to comfort representatives of a race which had suffered much. This is what the official eye-witnesses themselves thought. In Mayo at the time, famine and disease were still widespread, there was poverty, there were evictions. Pontmain was in the throes of a war. To both these places, within only eight years, Mary came in beauty and silence to bring solace to her people.23
It should also be noted that Knock, as few other visions, gives us a glimpse of the liturgy of heaven as described in the Book of Revelation (cf. Rev. 5:6 ff.). Irish Catholics had been faithful for centuries, often at the cost of their lives, to the Mass, the liturgy of earth. At Knock they were rewarded for their fidelity. A corroborating and complementary position is presented by Father Francis Sullivan, S.J. who sees the vision of Knock as a "call to contemplation", an invitation which even the poor and illiterate can accept and enter into.24
VI. Other Recorded Apparitions of Saint Joseph
Before we can deal with the final question of the specific meaning of Saint Joseph's presence in the Knock tableau, we would do well to consider the question of other apparitions or manifestations of our saint. The only extensive treatment of this subject of which I am aware occurs in Joseph Perrin's book, Un Juste Nommé Joseph25 while Father Tarcisio Stramare, O.S.J. provides a brief list of what he calls the best known apparitions.26 Perrin's first reference is to the tradition of an apparition of the Holy Family to a travelling monk in the vicinity of Montserrat two centuries before the foundation of the abbey, but no documentation is proffered.27
The first recorded apparition of Saint Joseph would seem to be that which took place on the night of 19 March 1448 in the besieged city of Novara.28 Perrin relates in some detail Saint Joseph's apparition to a shepherd named Gaspard Ricard d'Estienne at Mont Bessillon near Cotignac on 7 June 1660.29 In the midday heat d'Estienne was parched and had taken refuge with his sheep in the shadow of some trees when a man of impressive stature rose before him and said: "I am Joseph. Lift this rock and you will drink." He objected that it was a great boulder, but the mysterious Joseph insisted and to his utter amazement he moved the huge stone easily and found a spring bubbling forth underneath it. After he had slaked his thirst, the shepherd went to thank the mysterious stranger who had already disappeared. From that time the cultus of Saint Joseph, which had not previously existed in that locale, began to flourish. A chapel was soon built there and entrusted to the care of the Oratorians.30 Louis XIV, who was returning from Spain the very day of the apparition, with his new Queen, Maria Teresa, was much struck by the coincidence since he felt providentially linked to the Shrine of Our Lady of Grace on a nearby hill also at Cotignac. Consequently on 19 March 1661 he consecrated his kingdom to Saint Joseph just as his father had consecrated the kingdom to Our Lady twenty-three years before.31
Father Stramare informs us of an apparition of the Saint at Montagnaga di Pinè, Trento in 1729 without supplying further details.32 Perrin also relates an alleged nineteenth century apparition of Saint Joseph to an unnamed peasant woman near Locminé, France in the area where the motherhouse of the Daughters of Jesus of Kermaria would be built, but is unable to supply any documented information.33
In that same century there is also the fascinating story of the building of the spiral staircase for the choir loft of the chapel of the Sisters of Loretto in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1873. The elderly carpenter arrived on the last day of a novena to Saint Joseph, volunteered to do the work which others said could not be done and left before he could be compensated in any way. The construction of the staircase still baffles architects as it makes two 360° turns with no central pole, braces, clamps or nails and is of a type of wood not indigenous to the United States. Some have suggested that the mysterious carpenter was none other than Saint Joseph himself.34
While many are aware of the apparitions of Our Lady at Fatima, on the 13th of the month from May to October in 1917, few recognize that, according to the testimony which Sister Lúcia gives in her fourth memoir, Saint Joseph also appeared there on 13 October 1917 during the "miracle of the sun". Here are her words:
When Our Lady disappeared in the immense distance of the sky, next to the sun we saw Saint Joseph holding the Child Jesus and Our Lady dressed in white with a blue mantle. Saint Joseph and the Child seemed to be blessing the world making the sign of the cross.35
As at Knock, this scene was part of a tableau; no words were spoken.
Finally, Saint Joseph appeared several times at the side of Our Lady and the Christ Child at about the age of twelve above the Coptic Orthodox Church in Zeitoun, a suburb of Cairo in 1968.36 The apparitions were literally seen by millions and have been accepted as genuine by the Coptic Orthodox Church.37 The Catholic Coptic Patriarch, Cardinal Stephanos I, stated that "It is no doubt a real appearance confirmed by many Coptic Catholic members who are fully trustworthy."38 Interestingly, these apparitions, like those at Knock, were corporeal visions, "seemed to be made of light," could be seen by any who came and could be photographed.39 Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, I could only find a one-sentence reference to Saint Joseph in each of the two sources available to me.
VII. The Meaning of Apparitions of Saint Joseph
Is there any pattern to be found in these appearances of Saint Joseph, separated by hundreds of years in time and in unexpected places? At the risk of seeming too obvious, I would say that they emphasize the greatness (transcendence) of Saint Joseph in terms of his closeness to Jesus and Mary and his littleness (immanence) in his closeness to us. I also believe that in these latter times by means of apparitions and the deepening awareness of the Church God is drawing our attention to the greatness of Saint Joseph in terms of his role in salvation history and the power of his intercession.
VIII. The Meaning of Saint Joseph's Presence at Knock
Having investigated the apparition at Knock in terms of its data and meaning, and apparitions of Saint Joseph in their ensemble, we now ask the final question: Why is Joseph in this tableau? What does his presence say to us? In responding, while I recognize that I would be a fool to think that I could give an exhaustive answer, I defer in the first place to an eminent Irish Mariologist who has pondered this issue at length, Father Michael O'Carroll, C.S.Sp.
I see Knock as a providential means of focussing attention on the great saint [Joseph], of compelling us to reflect on him, to seek help in prayer towards an understanding of his role in the life of the Church and in our own personal lives. I think that we have in the unique setting, which he has in the apparition, two things especially: a corrective and positive enlightenment.
A corrective: St. Joseph is shown at the very centre of the Christian mystery. The heavenly tableau represents the Paschal Mystery, the Lamb on the altar, and the Mediatress beside him wearing the symbol of her power, as sovereign Queen of the universe, and of mediation before God. To see the saint in the presence of Christ offering sacrifice and Mary established as an unfailing advocate is to know that his position in the communion of Saints, which rests on the Man-God, is, after that of Jesus and Mary, central, vital, necessary. ...
Enlightenment: The saint's attitude to Our Lady very much impressed five witnesses who gave details about him to their depositions to the canonical inquiry on the apparition. ... I quote Mary Beirne (later Mrs. O'Connell), as I consider her one of the very best witnesses in the entire history of the apparitions: "St. Joseph's head was slightly bent and inclined towards the Blessed Virgin, as if paying her respect."
What does this mean? I suggest that it confirms the teaching ... that all St. Joseph's grace and glory come from his marriage bond with Mary. It is also a potent lesson to us Christians to base our lives and conduct on the closest relationship possible with Mary, Queen of the Universe.40
Father O'Carroll also and -- I believe, rightly -- links Joseph's presence at Knock with the Eucharist. Even though he evidently "did not live to assist at the Passover meal which would be the first Mass," here he nonetheless
enters into the great event which fulfilled the history of his people. ... No one after Mary has a closer relationship with Jesus Christ in his paschal victimhood and triumph (for the Paschal Mystery combines the Saviour's death and Resurrection) than Joseph, the soul of Jewish fidelity to law, tradition, ritual observance.41
There is another conclusion that the apparition of Saint Joseph at Knock would call to our attention: heaven's confirmation of the solemn acts of the Vicar of Christ. As the Venerable Pius IX declared the dogma of Mary's Immaculate Conception on 8 December 1854 and Our Lady herself confirmed this truth in her apparitions to Bernadette Soubirous at Lourdes four years later, so the same Pontiff solemnly declared Joseph "Patron of the Universal Church" on 8 December 1870, and the role of Joseph was highlighted at Knock nine years later.
The Irish Capuchin Father Hubert offered a beautifully evocative meditation on "St. Joseph Sublime Contemplative of Mary as the divine ideal of the Church"42 which specifically reflects on the role of Joseph in the Knock apparition as Protector of the Universal Church. He said:
The apparition at Knock offers to the world a glimpse of Joseph continuing his important, yet unobtrusive, role in the work of our redemption. There he is seen fulfilling his divinely appointed office in the silence and reserve of one intent on the completion of a great work. This work is his constant intercession that the Church may ever tend and finally attain to that blest fulfillment and perfection which befit her. ... Since St. Joseph sees that the Church has yet to be what Our Lady already is, how can his prayer be other than that the Church itself may ever grow in the likeness of his spouse and thus tend to the happy realization of its final destiny.43
Finally, I cannot help but believe that the two figures flanking Mary, Mediatrix of All Grace, at Knock are precisely the two men closest to the Heart of Christ and the Heart of Mary44: first comes Joseph, the one chosen to take the Father's place on earth in his relationship to Christ and Mary -- and then John, the beloved disciple of Jesus and "son" of Mary by the will of her Firstborn Son (cf. Jn. 19:25-27; Lk. 2:7). In the hidden ways of Providence, which are nonetheless recognizable to those who are led by the Spirit of God (cf. I Cor. 2:12-14), the apparition of Saint Joseph in the company of his Virginal Spouse, the beloved disciple and the Lamb is a revelation of the greatness in the Kingdom of him whom Matthew simply but with absolute precision described as "just" (Mt. 1:19).
1Catherine Rynne, Knock 1879-1979 (Dublin: Veritas Publications, 1979) 10-11. Since Rynne's book is well researched, depends on original documents and is recognized by authorities as reliable, I shall cite it as my primary source for the apparition.
12Cf. Jordan Aumann, O.P., Spiritual Theology (Huntington, Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor, 1980) 425-427; Antonio Royo, O.P. and Jordan Aumann, O.P., The Theology of Christian Perfection (Dubuqe, Iowa: The Priory Press, 1962) 655-656; Adolphe Tanquerey, S.S., The Spiritual Life: A Treatise on Ascetical and Mystical Theology trans. Herman Branderis, S.S. (Tournai: Desclée & Co., 1930) 701-702; Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., The Three Ages of the Interior Life, Vol. II trans. Sr. M. Timothea Doyle, O.P. (St. Louis: B. Herder Book Co., 1948) 577, 586-588; Benedict J. Groeschel, C.F.R., A Still, Small Voice (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993) 156-159.
Rynne 121. For a similar interpretation cf. Joan Ashton, Mother of Nations: Visions of Mary (Dublin: Veritas Publications, 1988) 71.
29Perrin 182-185. A shrine to Our Lady of Grace had already been erected following an apparition of Mary on a nearby hill in 1519. Cf. Perrin 174-176; Maurice Vloberg, "Bibliographie des Pèlerinages de Notre-Dame en France," Hubert du Manoir, S.J. Maria: Études sur la Sainte Vierge, 4 (Paris: Beauchesne et Ses Fils, 1956) 317-318; Bernard Chevallier et Bernard Gouley, Je vous salue, Marie: Guide pratique et historique de la dévotion mariale (Paris: Fayard, 1981) 297-298.
36Cf. Jerome Palmer, O.S.B., Our Lady Returns to Egypt (San Bernardino, CA: Culligan Publications, Inc., 1969) 15; Francis Johnston, When Millions saw Mary (Chulmleigh, Devon: Augustine Publishing Company, 1980) 5.
37Palmer 42; Johnston 12-13. René Laurentin in his book The Apparitions of the Blessed Virgin Mary Today trans. Luke Griffin (Dublin: Veritas Publications, 1990) p. 72 comments: "While continuing to favour the more rigorous methods adopted in Catholic procedures, I do, of course, respect the oriental method, which is much more direct, less suspicious and more open to the astonishing spontaneity of God's gifts to humanity."