Pope John Paul II: Memories to Cherish

September-October 1979

The Pope in Ireland—A Salute to Irish Faith

by Barbara Beckwith

St. Anthony Messenger
December 1979

"Nothing could mean more," said Pat Nolan, religious affairs correspondent for The Irish Times, as he struggled to explain to me what Pope John Paul II's visit to Ireland meant to the Irish. "You see, Ireland is so Catholic....''

Of the country's 3.5 million Catholics, it is estimated that 2.5 million saw the pope during his whirlwind weekend tour (September 29-October 1, 1979), which crisscrossed the country from Dublin to Drogheda to Galway to Knock to Maynooth to Limerick.

Plea for Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland

Two weeks before the pope's visit, British war hero and elder statesman Lord Mountbatten and three members of his party were killed when his boat exploded on Donegal Bay. The IRA (Provisional Irish Republican Army), an outlawed guerrilla group fighting to end British rule in Northern Ireland, claimed responsibility for the death, calling it "an execution."

With that as backdrop, the pope chose not to go to Northern Ireland, but on Saturday went only as far north as Drogheda, 30 miles from the border. John Paul issued a definitive statement against the spiral of violence. He reminded his hearers, "All who take the sword will perish by the sword."

He made a strong appeal to the IRA: ''On my knees I beg you to turn away from the paths of violence and to return to the ways of peace....Violence only delays the day of justice....Further violence in Ireland will only drag down to ruin the land you claim to love and the values you claim to cherish. In the name of God I beg you...."

The pope appealed separately to young people: "I say to you, with all the love I have for you, with all the trust I have in young people: Do not listen to voices which speak the language of hatred, revenge, retaliation. Do not follow any leaders who train you in the ways of inflicting death....The true courage lies in working for peace.''

The following Tuesday the Provisional IRA in Belfast issued a statement bluntly rejecting Pope John Paul's plea for an end to violence, claiming it has "widespread support" for its operations: "In all conscience we believe that force is by far the only means of removing the evil of the British presence in Ireland." However, the movement's political wing, the Provisional Sinn Fein, announced that they "would welcome an opportunity for direct contact with Pope John Paul, whose genuine interest in achieving true peace based on justice is warmly appreciated."

While it may appear that John Paul as a "pilgrim for peace" may not have made much headway, it is impossible to predict how effective his passionate plea for peace will be—especially among Ireland's young people.

Endorsement of Knock

Knock is a tiny rural village which recently celebrated the centennial of its mysterious happening. On August 21, 1879, fifteen people reported seeing an apparition on the gable wall of the parish church. They stood watching for two hours in the pouring rain. The witnesses spoke of three figures identified as the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist, standing beside an altar bearing a lamb.

Canonical inquiries of 1879 and 1937 reported that "the testimony of all, taken as a whole, is trustworthy and satisfactory," although like all private revelations, an apparition never becomes part of Catholic teaching. Individual Catholics can judge the evidence for themselves. Knock has the full approval and recognition granted other Marian shrines like Lourdes, Fatima and LaSalette.

Pope John Paul said at Knock, "Here I am at the goal of my pilgrimage to Ireland." He recalled his own devotion to Mary and took his theme from Mary's words at Cana, said about her Son: "Do whatever he tells you." He presented Knock with a personal gift, a magnificent gold rose, symbolic of the rose in Mary's crown in the apparition.

Christ was the center of Pope John Paul II's unique visit to Ireland. Long will the Irish treasure that memory.

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