The younger VAKs are recog­nis­able by their cheer­ful orange hood­ies or bright green T-shirts

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - FRONT PAGE - RETRO LOOK

We are here to give them a cup of tea and a break.”

Each pris­tine white uni­form bears the hand­maids’ crest with a gold em­broi­dered trin­ity knot and the let­ters CM, which stands for Cumhala Mhuire or Hand­maid of Mary. Ev­ery veil car­ries a golden rose, which is linked to the 1879 ap­pari­tion. Pos­si­ble changes to the hand­maids’ uni­form may be com­ing down the line — but Cather­ine and Ellen are un­fazed.

“Most hand­maids are mar­ried with chil­dren, but the uni­form makes us look like nuns. If the uni­form changes, we won’t be wor­ried, and though we don’t yet know what it may be­come, it may be still some­thing that still stands out in the crowd,” Cather­ine says. For now, they re­gard their retro look with a cer­tain level of af­fec­tion.

But the need for an up­date to the hand­maids’ look has been high­lighted by the emer­gence of a new co­hort of younger vol­un­teers in Knock. VAKs, or Vol­un­teers At Knock, are usu­ally recog­nis­able, Mairead Jen­nings of Knock Youth Min­istry ex­plains, by their cheer­ful orange hood­ies or bright green T-shirts. This year, there are 120 VAKs work­ing at week­ends and dur­ing the novena. When the 16 to 18-year-olds are not hang­ing out in the ‘Hub’, they are around the grounds greet­ing pil­grims and as­sist­ing any that need in­for­ma­tion and help. Their hood­ies sport a smi­ley face with a ‘HI!’ on it, prompt­ing some to start call­ing them ‘HIs’. They cer­tainly don’t look like nuns.

There is a vi­brancy and sense of new­ness in Knock th­ese days which the ever-present rain can’t dampen. Knock’s mes­sage, ac­cord­ing to Ellen, is one of hope, and rain is an em­blem of the ir­re­press­ible spirit of the place and a re­minder of that night on Au­gust 21, 1879.

Knock is about putting the weak and vul­ner­a­ble cen­tre stage and about the west of Ire­land do­ing things for it­self. To the naysay­ers who com­plain about the rain, she re­minds them: “If Our Lady couldn’t man­age to pick a fine day (the ap­pari­tion oc­curred amid tor­ren­tial rain), then what hope have you of get­ting a sunny day!”

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