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