Sunday, May 1, 2011

To Set The Captives Free

It was a cool, dry night in late August 1889 when a young Irishman knelt on the ground near where the apparition of Our Lady had taken place. Taking off his cap, he bowed his head and prayed, Blessed Mother, I place my life entirely into your care. You know my faults and failings. You know when I fall, when I am struck down by the very curse of alcohol itself, and so it is to you I call for help. Please stay with me. Don’t leave me and when the evening of life falls upon me, may it be you, Blessed Mother, who will take me home.

Remaining on his knees Seán moved a few feet to the left, facing the spot where St. Joseph had appeared. Again, cap in hand, he bowed his head. St. Joseph, please be with my wife and two children. Be their guard and shield against all adversity. May I find comfort in knowing that you protect my family.

Praying more hastily to St. John the Evangelist, he continued, Bishop John, may you intercede for me and my fellow countrymen and for the rightful reclaiming of our land and Ireland’s freedom.

Thinking of the Lamb on the Altar he concluded;

May the Lamb of God have mercy on our brave men who have recently died and on me at the hour of my death, amen.

The young nationalist remained there for a few moments when a sudden dread came over him. Don’t go, his inner instinct whispered, Don’t go.

Standing up, he walked over to a group of men and shook each one’s hand, some of them unable to hide their tears as yet another voice for the people had to leave his country.

“I will write as soon as I have news of the situation here,” Andrew, a member of the group assured him. “Soon you will return again. I’ll make sure your wife and children get safely home tonight.”

“Let’s go, Seán,” a man standing nearby whispered. “Time is pressing on.”

Holding his wife Anna and their two young children John and Joseph close to him, Seán kissed them goodbye.

“I’ll be waiting for you my love,” she whispered, all choked up. “I’ll be waiting for your return to your family and homeland.”

It was the last time Anna and Seán held each other.

The glorious summer of 1978 enticed artists out of their studios and poets from their pub corners. Botanists toured along the Irish coastland, eager to make further studies on the seaweed by the coastal rocks. Flowers dressed in vibrant yellow sat along the lush green fields. Lilac blossoms and Irish Eyebrights won the visitors’ attention with their pretty bouquets of purple and white decorating the rugged landscape. Trees, heavy with blushing apples, lowered their branches as the harvest season drew near.

On the north-west coast of the country in late July two men were finishing up after a long day. The driver of the tractor waved cheerio to his companion in the field as he drove out onto the country road. Owen was heading for the pub. A pint of Harp would go down well after a great day’s harvest. He lit his Woodbine tobacco and tipped his hat to the evening sun.

Back in the field the whistling youth picked up his farm tools, delighted with the last of the windrows baled. He knew his grandparents would be pleased. As he walked across the field something happened. John was suddenly hit with a dizzy spell.

With his hand on his forehead, he made for the nearby hay stack where his lunch bag sat on the grass. The field began to fade in front of him. He leaned against the sturdy stack and eased himself gently down onto the grass. Reaching for his bag he took out the flask and poured the remainder of the tea into the cup. He was dehydrated. This was the second dizzy spell in a few months. The same strangest longing for a shot of whiskey came over him. John couldn’t understand it as he didn’t drink alcohol. Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead and his chest. He felt he was in fever. The young man drew up his knees and leaning forward, pressed his forehead upon them. Moments passed and he felt the dizziness subside. It was then he had the strangest experience.

With his forehead resting upon his knees and his left hand dropped to the side, John felt like he was a prisoner chained, with sweat pouring from his weak body. His ankle pinched as if it was trapped in a fetter and he wondered where such a thought came from. The area around his ankle bone became itchy. He took off his boots and socks. There was nothing there, no sign of swelling or insect bites. The young man looked up and around him. He pulled his socks back on, thinking the whole thing very odd. He remained in deep thought as the rhythm of the ocean waves lulled his pounding heart. He rested there a while.

After a short nap, John awoke to the sound of the gulls calling out as they flew overhead. His heart filled with gratitude as he looked at the beauty around him.

He reached inside his pocket and pulled out a pad and pen. The gathering waves from the ocean below, racing into the shore, added a passionate power and free movement to his thinking, as his creative spirit nudged the inspired writer. The sea breeze hurriedly flicked over the pages of his pad, and John grinned as nature played with him in his intention to capture the magnificence of God’s creation in his own words.

A short time passed when he had a sudden need to pray. His early morning and evening prayer had become as natural to him as the ebb and flow of the Atlantic tides. Taking out his beads John turned to Mary. He had not yet finished the last decade of the rosary when he suddenly fell into a deep silence unable to continue. His very soul seemed to be dipped into an ocean of grace from where his spirit was drawn upward to meet with an unseen holy presence that was light itself.

The sound of a tractor broke the silence as a voice shouted from the open gate,

“John, your grandmother is wondering what’s taking you so long. Supper was ready an hour ago.”

He opened his eyes, the experience still evident in his countenance. He wondered how two hours could pass that only felt like a few minutes.

John had no idea what lay ahead.

One month later, on a warm August afternoon, the two men from the north-west arrived at Knock Shrine. The basilica was already full of pilgrims and they were lucky to spy a few empty seats in the second row from the back, with a full view of the altar down in the centre.

Halfway through the Mass, celebrating the Queenship of Mary, something happened that would remain forever in the memory and heart of John.

They had arrived unseen, unheard. The very walls of the building seemed to open out revealing an even greater number in the fields outside. The Liturgy of the Eucharist had just begun.

Immediately after the final blessing, unable to wait for the closing hymn, John slipped out of his seat and walked out the side exit. Owen followed.

“What is it, John? What happened?”

He shook his head, first in disbelief and then in astonishment. Sitting down on a bench he stared into the distant countryside and gathered his thoughts. Overwhelmed at what he had just experienced, John felt an unexplainable pain in his heart and a need to cry at the realisation of what this could mean.

“So many of them,” he shook his head, “so many.”

“Who are ‘them’ John?” Owen asked.

John’s deep composure and inner peace left Owen in no doubt. He knew his friend well.

“Do you mean souls? You mean souls, don’t you?”

John nodded.

“Let’s go over to the Apparition Chapel and spend a few minutes there before we head home,” Owen suggested.

They both knelt down at the apparition site. John asked Our Lady’s intercession that God, in His generosity of grace, might grant him clarity in what it all meant. They remained there for some time.

Outside, sitting on a bench, John related to his long time friend what he had seen.

Owen listened to every word as he continued.

“Though they were not seen with physical eyes they were all there. Closest to me and a little above to my right, there was a brown haired man whose face was hollow-cheeked. He was chained. His shoulder blades were like a hanger for the old shirt he wore. He was bone thin. His head was bowed. He held a cap in his hand and he was looking to the altar where all the priests were concelebrating. Suddenly he raised his head and looked directly over at me. He looked like someone I know. He was about my own age. His gaze returned to the altar as the priests began the Liturgy of the Eucharist. He turned to look at me again before the entire scene disappeared.”

“Do you know about Archdeacon Cavanagh? He was parish priest at the time of the apparition in 1879?”

“I heard of him, but know very little about him,” John replied.

Owen stood up.

“Let’s take a walk over to where he’s buried.”

“The Archdeacon had just offered his hundredth Mass for the souls in purgatory, before the apparition took place. He was known far and wide as a saintly man,” Owen continued.

“Archdeacon Cavanagh gave the Last Rites to thousands of dying souls, many of whom he found homeless and starving. They came from all over to this humble pastor. My father tells me that my great grandfather, Patrick, went to him for confession and received his blessing before he set sail for America.”

John stopped outside the parish church and turned to Owen.

“That’s it!” he exclaimed. “That’s why he looked like someone I know, the man chained I mean. He looks like my grandfather Joseph. His father Seán went to America in 1889. He lost contact with his family. Nothing was ever heard of him again. My grandfather said his mother Anna never gave up hoping. Granddad used to hear her sobbing in her bed at night and he said he and his brother John felt a terrible gloom about the whole thing. For years she prayed and waited, even walking the beach every time a ship was in sight, praying he would be on it.”

Owen and John did their homework. The record of Seán’s passage on the ship that August of 1889 was found and a copy sent to John. His great grandfather’s arrival on Staten Island was also confirmed. The last piece of information took the longest. Prison archives were checked in New York and surrounding states. Finally they found what they had been looking for.

A record from an old prison south of New York City revealed Sean’s name and details. In October 1889, he was sent to prison on a charge of being drunk and disorderly and confined to a cell. He died in that prison five months later.

Fr. Peter, a man of deep personal prayer, was a spiritual director long enough to discern the difference between that which is of God and that which is of something else. He knew before his nephew’s friend had finished speaking, that John’s experiences from the evening in the field to what had happened during the Mass were very real. The priest thought it providential that his holiday to his brother in Ireland was at this particular time. He also believed he had more to take back with him to the United States, to his parishioners, than the promised holy water from Knock.

“Would you like to write about all that you have experienced John, to have it published?”

”No thank you, Father.”

”Why not, if I may ask?” the priest probed already knowing what the answer would be.

“What the Lord has blessed me with is not for monetary gain, Fr. Peter, it is for souls. I am a simple farmer and fisherman who would be poorer without God in my every day. I am not a seer, but if I were it would be even more important that I remain private regarding such things. You are free to speak of this matter, if it will have meaning for others, but without revealing my name. God’s graces are my wealth. This is sufficient for me and something I am deeply thankful for.”

He continued.

“I am a happy man to know a Mass will be offered by you, Father, for the soul of my great grandfather. Through the forgiveness of sins and by your priestly ministry, there awaits his spiritual freedom from the chains which have bound him in life and death.”

Father Peter asked one thing of John.

“Please write down everything and keep writing. I hope we meet again.”

The Mass for his great grandfather Seán was arranged by Fr. Peter. During the Mass, as he listened to the words…The Lord will open to them the gate of paradise and they will return to that homeland where there is no death, but everlasting joy, John thought of what he had experienced and what the pain in his heart had meant.

Little did he know as he knelt at the consecration, that his knees pressed into the very spot where his great grandfather had knelt on that August night of 1889, before his departure for America.

“This is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…”

John bowed his head and prayed for Seán.

At the same time that the Mass was being celebrated in this rural chapel in the West of Ireland, something was happening on an old site where once stood a prison, south of New York City. For with the Lord, one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day…

A young Irishman had lain in death on a cold, damp prison ground, his swollen ankle locked in a rusty manacle. Now, as the Mass came to an end, the spirit of Seán was lifted from the chains of death into eternal life, accompanied home by Our Lady of Knock, Queen of Ireland.


  1. Frances I've read the story several times and each time it brings tears to my eyes. What a beautiful story. There's a teaching in this. Thank you.

  2. Thank you, Irish. I should have said at the beginning of the story - "I dedicate this story to the souls in Purgatory."

  3. Thanks for this, and for "joining" me (and my ancestors!) to those who kneel at the altar of Knock.

    And speaking of prayers, remember my newest friend, a young man "J" - making his way out of addiction, and who had a wonderful (rather unbelievable really) job offer today.

    He wears a bracelet with wooden beads and a cross. I told him it was very close to Catholic! Almost a rosary (wrong number of decades). But going in the right direction.

  4. Thank you, Penny. I will remember "J". With friends like you he will keep going in the right direction.