The National Novena to Our Lady of Knock, one of the highest profile events in the Irish Church’s annual calendar, has been cancelled for the first time since 1977, over concerns around pilgrim safety during the Covid-19 pandemic.
On Friday, Fr Richard Gibbons, Rector of Knock Shrine announced that the Novena, which attracts up to 150,000 pilgrims over nine days in August, is being postponed until perhaps later this year, although whether it goes ahead at all will depend on Government guidance.
The Novena takes place every year from 14 – 22 August and offers pilgrims a variety of guest speakers who reflect upon faith and contemporary society.
Speaking to The Tablet, Fr Gibbons explained that the title of this year’s novena would have been ‘Faith in Changing Times’.
“It certainly is ‘changing times’! Our decision was based on the need to make sure that people are safe. We are postponing because it is the right thing to do; we are very conscious of the health and safety of parishioners, pilgrims, priests, our staff and volunteers. Everybody has to be kept safe. People visiting have to be sure that the place is safe to come to.”
He said people should “look forward with faith to brighter and better days”.
However, the parish priest acknowledged that the cancellation of the novena would have “huge economic consequences not only for the shrine itself but also for the wider community in Knock”.
He was unable to give The Tablet a figure for the likely losses due to the cancellation of the novena but admitted that they would be “quite huge”.
He said Knock House Hotel has been closed since the start of lockdown and will not reopen until next Easter. B&Bs and other hotels in the area will also feel the loss of the novena which attracts thousands of pilgrims each day at the height of the summer season.
“This has been a very difficult decision that will cause a great deal of disappointment to pilgrims, it also has economic consequences for the wider community and the shrine itself. However, the health and safety of our parishioners, pilgrims, priests, staff and volunteers is of paramount importance to us at this worrying time,” Fr Gibbons said.
But he said that for many places and many events across the country it has been the same story. “It is important to be prudent and responsible and trust in God that next year will be much better. Please God we can move on.”
As the Co Mayo Shrine gradually reopened for Mass in recent weeks, Fr Gibbons’ team in Knock has successfully and safely restricted capacity for its three daily Masses.
However, he admitted, “Even though the Shrine grounds cover over 100 acres, it would be impossible to control in a safe manner large outdoor gatherings which would undoubtedly come for the Novena.”
Though the Novena is postponed, the shrine will remain open and will continue to offer Daily Masses in Knock Basilica at 12 noon, 3pm and 7.30pm with restricted capacity and on a first-come, first-served basis.
Pilgrims may also avail of Confession in the Chapel of Reconciliation. The Parish Church is available for private prayer and pilgrims can light candles. In all these locations strict queueing and social distancing measures apply.
Knock Shrine’s online religious services saw a surge in numbers over the lockdown. According to Fr Gibbons, the three daily Masses and the daily Rosary were watched via Facebook, the website and YouTube by between 12,000 and 20,000 people from countries like Canada, the UK, the USA, Vietnam and closer to home.
This in turn led to an uptake in the shrine’s online ‘light a candle’ facility and orders in religious objects and religious books from the shrine shop.
Another popular religious event that should have been taking place this weekend but has been cancelled is the Reek Sunday climb of Croagh Patrick. Organisers have appealed to the thousands of people who would usually take part in the pilgrimage to stay away this year in the interests of health and safety.