Archdeacon Cavanagh

Archdeacon Cavanagh, the priest at Knock when the apparition took place, pictured outside his home.

Archdeacon Cavanagh Remembered - The First Protector and Promoter of Knock

Msgr. Michael Walsh

I wish to speak about Bartholomew Cavanagh, the priest, the saintly priest, the good shepherd of his flock, the caring pastor, the man of prayer, the man of God, chosen by God to be the first protector and promoter of Our Lady's Shrine at Knock.

When I was growing up in the parish of Aghamore about five miles from here, there were still people living who had remembered Archdeacon Cavanagh as their Parish Priest. In particular I remember my grandfather speaking of him with the greatest respect and reverence. 

In the short time available to me now, I wish to speak about Bartholomew Cavanagh, the priest, the saintly priest, the good shepherd of his flock, the caring pastor, the man of prayer, the man of God. Already while Bartholomew Cavanagh was still a student in St. Jarlarth's College, the Tuam Diocesan Seminary, and later in St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, his fellow students had regarded him as being of exceptional personal piety. 

In Maynooth he would have studied Sacred Scripture, theology, spirituality, the principles leading to a life of holiness towards, which all priests were required to aspire and put into practice. He would have learned, too, the meaning of the priesthood. 

A priest was ordained to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ, to celebrate the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass for the people, to administer the sacraments of salvation, to imitate Christ in his dealings with people, to bring Christ to the people. All of this education and training was exactly what Bartholomew Cavanagh wished to make his own. He was full of zeal and determination to put into practice all that he had learned. 

Jesus Was His Model in all His Work 

He was ordained a priest in 1846, and appointed shortly afterwards as Curate in the parish of Westport. A priests first appointment in a parish is an experience of great joy, the joy of sharing with Jesus Christ in the work of his priesthood. No doubt Fr. Cavanagh had that great joy. 

But the year was 1846, the second year of the Great Famine and that was a time of hunger, disease and death in Ireland. The conditions in which he was to work were horrific. However, he was not disheartened but was determined to do all in his power to feed the hungry, to visit the sick; to minister to the dying. He was urged on in his work when he saw Christ in each person that he served: Jesus said: "As you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me." Matt. 35. 

It is recorded that on many days he anointed as many as forty dying parishioners before breakfast. In the midst of all his labours he showed kindness to all in need. He was patient and gentle to all comers. He took Jesus as his model in all his work. 

His Personal Qualities Greatly Impressed His New Flock 

In 1867 he was appointed Parish Priest of the combined parishes of Knock and Aghamore. He immediately immersed himself in the work of the parish - celebrating Mass, preaching to the people, hearing confessions, attending to the sick, caring for the poor and destitute, organising the building and staffing of schools. 

He greatly impressed his new flock with the same personal qualities which he displayed in Westport, It was noted that he spent a lot of time in prayer both in the church and in his house. He would have noticed the inscription on a slab in the west wall of the church which read: "My house shall be called the house of prayer to all nations. This is the gate of the Lord; the just shall enter into it." 

He himself was a man of prayer, deep, contemplative prayer. His sermons often dealt with the heavenly truths on which he had meditated in his prayer. Frequent topics in his sermons were the ever Blessed Trinity, the adorable Heart of Jesus, the ever Immaculate Mother of God, the souls in Purgatory. 

His devotion to the souls in Purgatory was due to his love for all God's people, living and dead. It was also due in large measure to his devotion to the Mother of God. As Mother of the living and the dead, Mary would have a special love for her children in Purgatory and would greatly desire their release from Purgatory and entry into heaven. 

He placed great emphasis on the importance of the Morning Offering. He instructed his flock to offer up all their thoughts, words, deeds and sufferings to the adorable Heart of Jesus. In this way they would sanctify their whole day and give glory to God by everything that they did. 

Protector and Promoter of the Apparition 

He was already twelve years in Knock when the Apparition took place. This was a startling happening for Knock and the whole country. It is as well to state that the sanctity of Fr. Cavanagh was well known to the people of both Westport and the parish of Knock-Aghamore before the Apparition happened. Indeed, the people of Knock declared that Knock was chosen by God for the Apparition because of the holiness of their priest. As further evidence of this they drew attention to the extraordinary coincidence that on the morning of the day of the Apparition Fr. Cavanagh had just completed the celebration of one hundred Masses for the Holy Souls. 

Fr. Cavanagh did not himself see the Apparition, even though his housekeeper told him there was something wonderful to see at the gable of the church. We will never know all that went through his mind that evening. On the following morning when he heard reports from several parishioners about the Apparition he had no hesitation in accepting everything they told him. He considered it entirely suitable that the Lord should show this manifestation to the people and not to the priest. He gladly accepted the role of being protector and promoter of the Apparition. You might say he undertook, in his own humble way, the roles of both St. Joseph and St. John. 

A Miraculous Gift From Heaven 

The Apparition was to Archdeacon Cavanagh a miraculous gift from heaven. He was not thinking of his own prestige. He saw the Apparition as a wonderful opportunity for promoting the glory of God and the good of the people. 

His workload was heavy enough before this, but now it was enormously increased. He was available at all hours of the day for receiving and welcoming people to the shrine. He provided Masses and religious services for countless groups of pilgrims, but above all, he spent long hours every day in his confessional. In between the various activities, he found time for his own personal, private prayer before the Lord in his tabertacle. 

No doubt he was a priest of inexhaustible energy in his work for the Lord. He was self-sacrificing in his service to people. In the eyes of the people he was a priest of extraordinary sanctity. It is not surprising that he was often said to be like the famous Cure d'Ars, St. John Vianney. 

I finish with the description I gave of Archdeacon Bartholomew Cavanagh at the beginning of this talk - the saintly priest, the good shepherd of his flock, the caring pastor, the man of prayer, the man of God. Finally, I add another description - the priest chosen by God to be the first protector and promoter of Our Lady's Shrine at Knock.

 Homily given in Knock Basilica on the occasion of the Centenary Celebrations of Archdeacon Cavanagh's death. 7/9/1997.