Inappropriate “Speech” at Knock Novena

by Anne Keeling

Are celebrities now our spiritual guides?

On Wednesday the 16th of August, during the annual Knock Novena, RTE TV sports broadcaster Marty Morrissey was the invited “speaker” at the afternoon and evening Solemn Novena Mass in the Basilica.
Odd choice? Certainly. A layman for starters, and, as he confessed himself in his opening few words, no Holy Joe. In fact he went on to say that he was “no Holy Marty”. This coyly irreverent pun was the closest he came to mentioning the Mother of God and set the tone for his entire speech.

Having read reports of Mr Morrissey’s speech I was able to see for myself a recording of the evening one on the Knock Shrine website. For all that his half-hour talk included no doubt sincere reflections on his hints for living a full life (which were well-meaning but nothing to do with the Knock Novena) the glaring impropriety is that he stood at the pulpit in front of the Blessed Sacrament in the Basilica of Ireland’s national Marian shrine, during Mass, and behaved like a cross between a stand-up comedian and an MC at a GAA Gala Night in Montrose.

When did Novenas start having laypeople making speeches rather than priests giving homilies?

This isn’t the first time an RTE personality has addressed the Knock Novena as Mr Morrissey told us himself that he was baffled at being asked by Rector of Knock Fr Richard Gibbons until he was told that Bryan Dobson of RTE News had spoken there in recent years.

So are RTE personalities now our religious guides? Or have our congregations become so feeble-minded that this is the only calibre of homilist that will draw us in our thousands and entertain us, as we seem to need to be entertained, not with the higher teachings of the Church but with amateur psychology? And, do we as a Church feel compelled in Ireland to curry favour with an organisation that displays its contempt for the Catholic faith with alarming regularity?

But I digress.

Let me give a better flavour of the proceedings. Fr Gibbons prefaced his introduction of Mr Morrissey by telling the congregation about the scheduled performance in the Basilica later in the year of Handel’s Messiah featuring who else but the RTE Concert Orchestra. He also mentioned a book on sale in the shrine’s bookshop which he told us tied in with the theme of the day – “Sport and Spirituality”. I’m sorry but as someone who does not have a fatal attraction for sport I find the marriage of these two words confusing and a bit irritating.

Even before he walked on to the sanctuary the mere mention of Mr Morrissey by Fr Gibbons led to an enthusiastic round of applause from the excited congregation. Then more applause as Mr Morrissey stepped up. The entire talk was punctuated by bursts of applause.

As I said it was the evening Mass that I saw. Mr Morrissey opened his talk thus:
“To be honest I feel I’ve already played a match today and we’re now gone into extra time.” Yes, sporting banter was to be the order of the day. This kind of thing always makes me wince when it crops up during religious occasions, as, in Ireland, it frequently does.

A joke from Mr Morrissey about thinking Fr Gibbons’ call was to ask him for tickets to the All-Ireland Final between Dublin and Mayo elicited a burst of laughter. From then on there were regular peals from the congregation who seemed to be as delighted as a typical Friday night Late Late Show audience.

The “Marty Love Trip”

“I’m Marty and I love to party!” said Mr Morrissey, hands in the air. I noticed that he had, for reasons best known to himself, chosen to leave the top buttons of his shirt undone.

The “Marty Love Trip”, as he called it, followed shortly afterwards. He asked the congregation to turn to their neighbour on their right, say hello, how are you, and maybe tell them you love them. They were then told to do the same with their neighbour on their left. In the middle of Mass, when all attention should be focused on Jesus, here people were focusing on each other. It was highly irreverent and probably embarrassing if people were honest about it. Mr Morrissey joked that he was feeling disappointed that he himself “got no hug up here” but one of the priests, perhaps feeling under obligation, duly approached and embraced him. “That wasn’t in the script!” said Mr Morrissey.

“What would you do if you won the Lotto?” he went on to ask. He suggested you might buy a new car, or take a sun holiday, or “maybe give a P45 to Paddy the husband that has driven you mad for the last forty years.” He later rolled back on that one but he’d gotten the dig in by then.

Then there was the very politically correct statement: “Love can be romantic, like a love between two humans.” Two humans? Well, it’s post-traditional marriage Ireland now, isn’t it?

“I’m getting to know where my audience is from,” he remarked, after a round of sporty jokes. Audience was exactly what he meant. This was entertainment after all.

He spoke about the importance of kind words and quoted Dale Carnegie, author of “How to Win Friends and Influence People”, referencing the power of positive compared to negative speech. Again this is well-meaning. The message of his talk was on living life to the full and clearly he wanted to motivate people. Then he expanded:

“Living life to the full isn’t all about partying and having a good time but, if you happen to be that type of person, let me recommend Copper Face Jack’s in Dublin, the Castle in Westport and the Queen’s Hotel in Ennis. Sorry Father, I’m joking.”

The old cheeky-comment-in-front-of-the-clergy routine. With apparently not a scintilla of respect for the fact that he was standing in the Divine Presence.

As for Copper Face Jack’s, it is apparently one of Dublin’s most popular nightclubs, open seven nights a week. A customer left a review of it on its website, which included the words “girls in heels toppling over left and right and very embarrassingly intoxicated crowds”, so, pretty much standard fare for most Irish nightclubs. This country has a history of problem drinking and it is only getting worse but, why not just all have a laugh about it and lighten up?


Knock Basilica is not Croke Park

Concluding his words on the importance of family he called for “a massive, massive ‘bualadh bos’” for all parents and their children”. Commendable sentiment but, for goodness sake, he was not in Croke Park.
“I can’t come to Knock,” he stated, nearing the end of his speech, “and not mention the Mayo football team.” No. But you can come to Knock and not mention Our Lady.

The end of Mr Morrissey’s talk took the biscuit. Saying that he always likes to be “a little bit different” he exhorted the crowd to give “three cheers for the Knock Novena”. So he cried “Hip hip” to be greeted by a modest “hurray”. This wasn’t stirring enough.

“Give it welly! Imagine your county has just won the All-Ireland… lift the roof here in the Basilica! Hip hip!”
This time the “audience” responded in great style and belted back a loud “hurray” three times. Mr Morrissey thanked his “audience” and withdrew from the sanctuary whereupon the “audience” rose to their feet, priests included bar one, in a generous standing ovation.

Yes, a resounding success.

I’m as Irish as the next person but I can see that we have a problem in this country. We are so ridiculously obsessed with the “craic” that we don’t know often when we need to tone it down. Some things just aren’t funny and trying to knock “a bit of craic” out of them is childish to say the least.

I’ve long felt, also, that the GAA is taken too seriously and lamented how it is often inextricably linked with the Church in many Irish communities. Perhaps they are not mutually exclusive but it seems, for many, one takes precedence over the other and the Irish clergy just encourage that. I recall hearing the words of a Kerry politician who said that football was the “life blood” of his county. This doesn’t seem a balanced perspective.


Paddy Power’s objectionable stunt

Sadly the day after Marty Morrissey’s talk another objectionable GAA-related stunt was pulled at Knock when Paddy Power bookmakers projected a 70 ft image on the Basilica of Our Lady holding the Sam Maguire cup aloft over her head. I don’t even want to explain the reasoning behind it as it doesn’t deserve explanation. It is so stupid and so disappointing and the fact that it was allowed is astonishing as it must be deemed offensive, even blasphemous, by most faithful Catholics.

A precedent was set in this type of thing by the Vatican itself when in December 2015 huge images of animals and ecology were projected on to St Peter’s Basilica to highlight “environmental concerns and conservation issues”. I suppose it was presumed that what was good enough for the Vatican was good enough for Knock.
Well, with all due respect, it’s not good enough. What were those responsible thinking of? What are they allowing the Knock Novena to become? In attempting to attract people at any cost they are losing sight of the requirement to edify, not degrade.

The Church is God’s house and, as one person commented simply on the Knock Shrine Facebook page, “Jesus loves his people and expects sincere attempts of reverence to His Father.” Well said.

Lumen Fidei Campaign to End Liturgical Abuses In Knock