"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
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 beespecially
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
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.