Village of Knock gets ready for the Pope's visit

Covered with bunting, flags and tens of thousands of flowers, Knock quickly prepares for the arrival of Pope Francis.

The excitement hovered through the village of Co Mayo since the pope's visit in June was confirmed – and with more than 45,000 people expected to occupy the streets, local people have worked around the clock.

About one and a half million pilgrims visit Knock Shrine every year to see the place where about 15 people in August 1879 witnessed an apparition of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and John the Evangelist.

Pope Francis prayer tickets for sale in Knock, Co. Mayo (Niall Carson / PA)

With just a few days to go for the papal visit, Knock knocks in the colors of the Vatican, and the head of Pope Francis appears on flags, posters, coffee mugs and fridge magnets.

The visit of the Pope takes about 80 minutes and includes a tour of the village and a visit to the Apparition Chapel before addressing the audience from a stage.

Fr Richard Gibbons, who was Knock's six-year-old priest and rector of Knock Shrine, played a major role in the enormous planning operation.

From tree cutting to painting and deciding on water locations, Fr Gibbons described the practical aspects of preparation for a pope visit.

"It was absolutely hectic since we were officially informed in June," he said.

"Everyone filled in 110% and wanted to help in any way.

"We are almost ready, there are a few bits and pieces to post – but we do everything to sign ourselves.

"It goes from tree cutting to how many people you have to place, to bring pilgrims to water locations, grass cutting and medical locations, safety, painting and eating, accommodation and parking – there is an abundance of things to do.

"Before the pope arrives, there is music, singing and prayer.When he arrives at Knock, he will go to the Appearance Chapel for a private prayer, where he will light a candle for families and then he will send golden rosary beads to Our Lady. Woman offering and he will come out and go to the staged area where he will address the crowd.

"After he has left, we will have the open-air mass at the shrine.

The excitement can be felt and everyone gets their place ready and cleaned.

People are just excited in anticipation of this visit because it means so much to them.

"There is also a feeling of joy.

"Nobody ever thinks they are lucky enough to welcome a Pope at the place where they are in charge.

"I feel honored and enthusiastic about it." It is a tremendous honor for everyone to welcome the Holy Father because it recognizes the work of the Shrine and we have done a lot of work over the years in relation to renew the Shrine and refurbish the Basilica. "

People visit the Basilica at Knock Shrine in Co Mayo (Niall Carson / PA)

Their annual novena – devotional prayer in public and private – ends this week before Knock crashes while a team spends three days to put the infrastructure in place.

Anne Lavin, head of the horticulture department, said that more than 50,000 flowers were planted around the village prior to the Pope's visit on Sunday.

Dahlia's, begonia's, lobelia's and lavender are among the colorful flowers that run across the church grounds.

Mrs. Lavin worked in the horticultural team at Knock Shrine for almost 40 years and was there for the last papal visit in 1979.

A team of 20 employees has worked hard in recent weeks to fight the hot sun and heavy rain.

She said: "The gardening team is a jack-of-all-trades, we pick up the nest, sweep, take care of the candles, clean the toilets, mow the grass and hedges, we are the dream team.

"The team has contributed and everyone gives extra time.

"We have had a crazy heat and now rain with the last couple, so that takes its own toll.

"It will be great to know that Pope Francis will see our work."

In August 1879, about 15 people from the village saw a light coming from the parish church and saw the appearance that lasted about two hours.

Each of the witnesses was asked to give a testimony to a committee of inquiry set up in the months after the apparition.

Maria Casey, head of marketing and communication at pilgrimage, said that the testimony statements will be read as part of the papal visit.

She added: "Behind the scenes there is a huge amount of work – from the Liturgy team, the gardening team and the choir." Everyone works very hard.

"It is a huge logistical operation and the pressure is really under way."

Tickets for the visit to the Pope went on the market at 5 am and were sold out in less than two hours.

The Pope travels through the crowd of 45,000 people in the Popemobiel, while local parishioners will get first preference for where they will be.

John Prendergast, a business owner in Knock, has lived in the village all his life.

He proudly shows a large statue of Pope Francis under his religious merchandise.

He said: "We are all really looking forward to the arrival of the Pope, I have heard that he is a man with a great, great faith.

"The whole community is very enthusiastic about his visit.

"In the past three weeks, many decorations and flags have appeared on the market.

"There will be a lot of security and some of the roads will also close.

"Tens of thousands of people will come to Knock to see the pope, it will be extraordinary."

– Press Association

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