Light in the Darkness
The people of Ireland were going through some dark times when the apparition occurred. They were still trying to recover from the most devastating natural disaster in their history - the potato famine that had killed more than one million Irish people about 30 years before. Many of the Irish were losing their homes and farms as landlords exploited their poverty and raised rents beyond what they could afford.
Into this discouraging darkness, an apparition of Mary in the town of Knock shone the light of encouragement. The housekeeper of Knock Parish Church noticed figures outside the church on August 21, 1879, and two women who were walking by the church noticed them shortly thereafter. The witnesses reported that the figures were hovering about two feet off the ground and bathed in a bright white light (a farmer later reported seeing the light from a distance of half a mile away).
After the initial witnesses alerted others in the parish, other people came to see the apparition. A total of 15 people (men and women ranging in ages from 5 to 75) saw the apparition for nearly two hours while standing in pouring rain. The witnesses were completely soaked by the rain, but reported that the figures in the apparition, and the ground underneath the figures, remained completely dry. Some of the witnesses prayed while they watched the apparition.
A Glorious Symbolic Vision
The apparition featured Mary (clothed in a long white cloak, with her eyes and hands raised upward as if in prayer), Saint Joseph (to Mary's right, also wearing a white cloak, and looking at Mary), Saint John the Evangelist (to Mary's left, wearing white bishop's clothing, and holding an open book in his left hand), and, behind them and to the left, a plain altar featuring a cross, a lamb, and angels flying around the altar in adoration.
None of the figures (including Mary) delivered a message of any kind in words. The image they presented was symbolic of serving Jesus Christ, whom the Bible calls the "Lamb of God" because of his sacrificial death to pay for humanity's sins and connect them to a holy God.
In his book Marian Apparitions, the Bible, and the Modern World, Donal Anthony Foley writes, "The fact that no verbal message was delivered is not a strong objection to Knock, considering the powerful meaning of the symbols found in the apparition. It would have taken many words from Mary to convey the complicated ideas expressed in the apparition, and the dramatic tableau is a good example of the adage that a 'picture is worth a thousand words.' In any event, God is completely free to make use of symbolism, rather than words, in order to deliver His message."
The angels in the vision likely represented the angels who minister at "the altar in the Temple of God in heaven," Foley writes.
Investigating the Apparition
All of the witnesses to the apparition gave official depositions to a church inquiry commission six weeks after the event, describing their experiences in great detail. The commission found that there was no way to explain the apparition by natural causes and said that it was likely to have been a supernatural event.
Shortly after the apparition, some notable miracles happened in the lives of people who visited the parish church in Knock to worship. A young girl who had been deaf suddenly received hearing 10 days after the apparition.
By the following year (1880), the parish priest had recorded instances of about 300 miraculous cures in his diary, including some disabled people walking again some blind people receiving sight again, as well as cures for other conditions, such as skin problems. The archbishop of Hobart, Tasmania was cured of blindness when he visited the Knock Parish Church in 1882.
The Catholic Church set up a commission in 1936 to investigate the miracles that had been reported since the apparition occurred in 1879. That commission concluded that the healing cases people had experienced were likely miraculous because they couldn't be explained medically.
Today, many people visit the shrine that was built in remembrance of Mary's apparition in Knock (Our Lady of Knock, Queen of Ireland Basilica) to worship and seek healing and growth in their lives.