By Sarah Mac Donald
KNOCK, Ireland (OSV News) — President Joe Biden was moved to tears at Ireland’s National Marian Shrine in Knock, County Mayo, April 14 on learning that the priest who gave his terminally ill son, Beau Biden, the last rites in 2015 was now serving at the popular Irish shrine.
The president of the United States learned of Father Frank O’Grady’s role in his son’s final hours while visiting the basilica in Knock accompanied by the shrine’s rector, Father Richard Gibbons. Father Gibbons had only learned of the coincidence a couple of hours before Biden’s arrival in the small village in western Ireland.
Father Gibbons told OSV News that the president was “very emotional” and broke down. He then insisted on meeting Father O’Grady, even though the elderly priest hadn’t been cleared by security services.
At the Apparition Chapel, which is located beside the basilica, Joe Biden embraced Father O’Grady, who was formerly an Army chaplain at Walter Reed Military Hospital in Maryland, where Beau Biden spent the last six weeks of his life battling brain cancer.
After the meeting with Father O’Grady, Biden entered Knock’s Apparition Chapel to light a candle and pray.
It was “soul time”, according to Father Gibbons, who presented the president with a simple white prayer candle decorated with the fleur-de-lis, which is a lily and the symbol of Our Lady. After Biden lit the candle, he and Father Gibbons recited a decade of the rosary.
The rector then left him to have “a private moment” alone in prayer. “That was a deep spiritual moment for him,” Father Gibbons said.
Speaking after the visit, Father Gibbons recalled that Beau Biden was the first person Joe Biden spoke about on entering the Knock Basilica. “He wanted to remember his son and he wanted to remember his family. I explained to him that Knock is where the interface of people’s personal lives and faith meet.”
The rector of the famous Irish sanctuary said he had pointed out St. Joseph’s place in the apparition as Joe Biden’s personal patron. “I also explained that nothing was said in the apparition and that it was a complex apparition seen by ordinary people who went back to their ordinary lives after they witnessed it.”
Two popes have visited the shrine—St John Paul II on the centenary of the apparition in 1979 and Pope Francis in 2018. Biden revealed to Father Gibbons that Pope Francis had called him after he was elected president and told him not to forget about the poor.
One of the stories Father Gibbons exchanged with Biden was that of John Curry, who at age 5 was the youngest of the 15 witnesses who saw the apparition of Our Lady, St Joseph, St John the Evangelist and the Lamb of God at the gable wall of the parish church in Knock over a period of two hours Aug. 21, 1879.
“John Curry died in poverty. He was buried in a pauper’s grave on Long Island (New York). I told the president that he was an immigrant who didn’t fully realise the American dream as everybody hopes to do. I explained that we had hoped to erect a headstone over his grave and to get Cardinal (Timothy) Dolan to bless it,” Father Gibbons told OSV News. “But Cardinal Dolan had the fantastic generosity to exhume him and had him buried in Old St Patrick’s in New York in 2017.”
Before his departure, Father Gibbons gifted Biden with a piece of the original stone gable wall where the apparition took place.
“He laughed; he told stories; I told stories; and he cried. There was the wonderful connection between family and faith and then at the end, I presented him with the gift, which was the little piece of stone—and he loved that.”
After Knock, Biden had a number of other engagements in County Mayo, including visiting the Mayo-Roscommon Hospice of which he is patron. The president unveiled a plaque to Beau Biden at the hospice.
Biden was scheduled to deliver a major public address in Ballina town, County Mayo, on the evening of April 14, in front of St Muredach’s Cathedral after viewing his family’s ancestry records with the parish priest, Father Kieran Holmes.