This week sees the third diocesan pilgrimage to Knock led by an American bishop in as many years, but if Wisconsin’s Diocese of Green Bay is less familiar to Irish Catholics than Cardinal Timothy Dolan’s New York or Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s Boston, it’s hardly one without a spiritual kinship to Ireland’s national shrine.
The National Shrine of Our Lady of Good Help, the United States’ only recognised Marian apparition site, lies in the small rural community of Champion, just 25km from the city of Green Bay.
If the shrine is largely unknown here, this is perhaps unsurprising; as Bishop David Ricken says, it’s largely unknown even in the US, although devotion to the site has spread rapidly in recent years.
In October 1859, 20 years before the Knock apparition, a young Belgian immigrant called Adele Brise reported having encountered a woman clothed in white with a yellow sash around her waist, standing between a hemlock tree and a maple tree. The woman, she said, was surrounded by a bright light and crowned with stars. Terrified, she prayed until the vision disappeared.
On her way to Mass with her sister and another woman the following Sunday she – unlike her companions – saw the same woman. She saw her again when returning, and, following her parish priest’s advice, asked “In the Name of God, who are you and what do you wish of me?”
“I am the Queen of Heaven, who prays for the conversion of sinners, and I wish you to do the same,” replied the woman, directing Adele to “gather the children in this wild country and teach them what they should know for salvation”.
Then just 28, Adele devoted the rest of her life – she died in 1896 – to teaching the children of the area, at first travelling from house to house and then building a school and forming a community of sisters at the site of the apparitions.
“When I first came here in 2008, my predecessor Bishop Zubik, who was moved to Pittsburg, had already opened an investigation of the shrine, and he left a memorandum for me saying that he believed this really needed to be investigated,” Bishop Ricken says. “The reason he said that was the same reason I found, that as we talked to people at the shrine, mostly people who worked and volunteered there, but also people in the neighbourhood, they all believed that it happened – there was no doubt in anybody’s mind.”
Describing the shrine’s peaceful atmosphere as “really heavenly”, Dr Ricken says it has had a constant history of miracles and answered prayers, noting also the local tradition of couples who would become formally engaged to each other in front of the shrine’s statue of Mary.
“I heard all these stories, and I thought my goodness, this is really unusual, and there was so much unanimity by the neighbours and everybody in the area that I thought this does need to be investigated,” he says, adding that it was only then he discovered that the initial process of investigation and approval is a carefully regulated diocesan affair rather than a centralised Vatican process.
During the process the diocese regularly kept the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome informed, with the CDF thanking and encouraging them along the way.
Asked why this only happened under him, rather than his predecessors – he is Green Bay’s 12th bishop – he says this formal process didn’t exist until the late 1970s. “But I would say this too,” he adds, “every bishop of the Diocese of Green Bay came to the shrine for their main Mass on the feast of the Assumption, August 15, nearly every year since it began, so their respect for the shrine – their belief in the shrine – certainly was manifested by their actions toward it.”
One of the process’ three external experts took a ‘devil’s advocate’ position in the investigation – Dr Rickens notes that this is “always good to have” – with the others independently answering his concerns, one stating: “Bishop, I’ve reviewed many of these types of situations. Many of them are fraudulent – this one is not.”
A curious feature about such apparitions as those at Knock and Champion is that they involve ordinary people – the kind of people Pope Francis refers to as “the holy, faithful people of God”. Asked why he thinks Mary appears to simple people, rather than more sophisticated sorts like, for example, academics or bishops, Dr Ricken is thoughtful.
“I think the reason Our Blessed Mother chooses people like that is because they have less filters to go through,” he says. “Most of us have been educated to have all kinds of filters of exclusion when we think something’s a little crazy, or we have so much education that we’re always filtering everything through our educated eyes.”
Simpler people might see things more clearly, he suspects. “With a poor person or a child or a person who is uneducated – maybe they don’t have all those filters. They see something, they assess it, they ask for advice, and they believe it, and then they do whatever the messenger has asked them to do: those are the common elements. I don’t think there’s all the screening or filtering that most of us do who have all kinds of baggage.
“Usually they’re simple people – not dumb people – simple people who are open and docile to the Blessed Mother, to the Holy Spirit, and when they ask them to do something, they do it. I think that’s kind of what happens,” he says.
Adele Brise certainly fits this model, he notes, describing how she had made a promise to enter religious life in Belgium but was urged by her parish priest to join her parents in their new country, where they would need her help.
“She did that out of obedience to Church authority. She came here with them, and she still felt this disappointment that she hadn’t followed through on her commitment, so then the Blessed Mother came to her,” he says, adding, “She became a Third Order Franciscan and led a community, so she fulfilled her promise beautifully.”
The bishop’s formal approval of the shrine, announced on December 8, 2010, was followed by the US bishops’ designation of the shrine as a national shrine on August 15, 2016. “That was not so much about the apparition itself,” he clarifies, “but if it were a problem the bishops would not have given it approval as a national shrine.
“Even though the bishops’ conference does not run it – that’s up to the local diocese to run it and be totally responsible for it – it has their approval as a worthy place to visit.”
Knock’s rector, Fr Richard Gibbons, sometimes speaks of Knock as a ‘national resource’ for the Irish Church, and Dr Ricken thinks this could be a useful model for Champion: “I love that idea, and I think because of the fact that it’s the only approved apparition in the United States we may be able to position it that way.
“We’ve gone from 10,000 pilgrims a year in 2010 to now 130-150,000 – we’re projecting 150,000 pilgrims this year. That’s nothing compared to Knock, but it’s very rapid growth at about 20% per year and I recognise we’re going to have to do a lot to expand just to be able to welcome the pilgrims and provide Mass and confessions for them, which we’re keeping up with now but just barely,” he says.
Although he thinks the shrine staff may have to expand beyond the three priests who currently work there, he is not sure what this might entail: “I don’t like to get ahead of the Blessed Mother; this is her place, and I’m trying to discern.”
With Mary’s blessing, he continues, the shrine is drawing pilgrims without a sophisticated attempt to market it: “I think what Fr Richard is doing presumes a lot of good organisational background in Knock, and we just don’t have that. We don’t have the superstructure and the substructure enough to do it. So, we’re just letting her lead the way and I’m just trying to follow.”
Following Our Lady’s lead – and the example of Adele Brise – has been key to Green Bay’s New Evangelisation initiative ‘Disciples on the Way’, Dr Ricken adds, describing Mary as “the greatest evangeliser of all time”, and musing on the uniqueness of Our Lady of Good Help.
“Adele Brise, who was the visionary, was a young adult – I’m emphasising that these days as well because we’re really trying to reach that audience – immigrant from Belgium,” he says, who “was kind of lost” before Mary gave her her mission.
“She said go out to the children in this wild country, teach them to make the Sign of the Cross, catechise them, and prepare them for the sacraments. That couldn’t be more right on to the needs of today,” he says.
“She’d go 40 miles at a time before she’d go home, on foot, going from home to home to exchange her work for the permission of the parents to catechise their children. And the parents, if they were listening too, were learning and converting too, because they’d been away from the Church.”
The lesson’s a timely one: “The pedagogy is right – it’s perfect for our day because we really need to touch the families as we’re working with the children. There’s just so many things that are right about it, and I think that’s why it’s catching on.”
The New Evangelisation – the Church’s mission to its established territories – could hardly be closer to Dr Ricken’s heart, ordained as he was by St John Paul on the Feast of the Epiphany in 2000. “I was one of 12 ordained to be sent out to the world – I was the only American ordained by John Paul, so I feel very close to him and I also feel a special mandate to advance the New Evangelisation. That’s how he explained it: we were advancing into a new century, a new millennium, and we were being ordained to advance the new evangelisation wherever we were sent.”
Originally from Dodge City, Kansas, and having been a priest of Pueblo, Colorado, Dr Ricken was ordained to head the diocese of Cheyenne, Wyoming, a diocese over three times the size of Ireland and – with just 10% of the population being Catholic – mission territory by any definition. “I would put about 40-50,000 miles (64-80,000km) a year on my car going from village to village and parish to parish, trying to be really missionary in that place,” he says, adding “I loved it”.
While there, he says, he helped set up a Carmelite monastery – now known both for getting “all kinds of vocations” and for producing ‘Mystic Monk’ coffee – and a Catholic college.
The roots of Wyoming Catholic College lay in his recognition that young adults in the diocese weren’t connecting with the Church; a one-week seminar set out to expose young adults to Church tradition and the role of Church in culture, which led to a call for a Catholic college.
Although encouraged by this response, Dr Ricken feared the diocese lacked the financial and human resources to realise this call, but shortly agreed to set up an exploratory committee.
“We started it, and then one thing was blessed after another and another and another,” he says, relating how the Knights of Columbus raised $250,000 (€210,000) for the college while another donor gave 650 acres for a horse programme there – Wyoming being classic ‘Western’ country even now.
“I wrote a prayer called the Wyoming Prayer – you can look at it online – all about not doing more than God wanted or less than God wanted, not doing it sooner than God wanted or later than God wanted it,” he says. “That was a prayer that was given to me when I was agonising about how to pay the bills, and sure enough, the more I let go the better it went.”
Green Bay, he says, is a much more Catholic area, with just over a third of the population being Catholic, though Mass attendance on Sundays is only about 28% of those, he says, “so we really have to work hard and that’s what we’re striving to do”.
Curiously enough, the diocese’s New Evangelisation efforts are headed by a Carlow woman, Julianne Stanz – originally Donlon – who helped the bishop plan the diocese’s packed pilgrimage. Along with Knock the group is visiting spots as varied as Monasterboice, Downpatrick, Croagh Patrick, Galway, and Killarney.
“We have over 80 people coming,” the bishop says, highlighting how popular this pilgrimage is. “Normally the pilgrimages are about 48 to 50, so this is something that people really want to do and I would imagine that most of them have some connection to a relative, or some connection to Ireland.”
Speaking for himself, “I look to St Patrick as a real hero bishop who became one of the first missionaries to Ireland, and governed it so well, really pushing the life of the Church and of Christ forward”, adding that he’ll definitely be praying for his guidance in Green Bay.
Julianne was MC at all four plenary sessions of this summer’s Convocation of Catholic Leaders in Orlando, Florida, an event which signalled the US Church’s attempt to shift into a missionary key.
“It’s a whole new paradigm: we haven’t approached Faith in this way before, as Pope Francis is pushing us to missionary discipleship,” says Dr Ricken of the event that saw thousands of people representing 157 dioceses. “But Paul VI’s Evangelii Nuntiandi was tremendous and set the stage for this; John Paul referred to this again and again, and called this the ‘New Evangelisation’ especially for cultures that were losing the Faith; Benedict gave us a beautiful theology of the New Evangelisation and especially encounter – Benedict talked about encounter a lot, both with Christ and with others; and now Pope Francis is using those themes and showing us how to live the New Evangelisation.”
Praising the passion and commitment of the young people at Convocation, Dr Ricken says, “We need especially young people who are so conversant with social media, and we need to let them know what it is they’re being called by the Gospel and the Church to do and then to intersect with their generation. They can do that far better than I can or my generation.”