Pope Francis has elevated the National Sanctuary of Our Lady of Knock to the status of an International Shrine of Eucharistic and Marian Devotion.

In a message delivered from the Vatican via video link March 19, the feast of St. Joseph, Pope Francis described it as an "important moment in the life of the shrine" and "a great responsibility."

With all churches in Ireland closed to public worship under Level 5 COVID-19 restrictions, the pope's message was relayed to an empty Apparition Chapel at Knock Shrine, where Mass was concelebrated by Archbishop Michael Neary of Tuam and Knock's rector, Father Richard Gibbons. The Mass was livestreamed.

Speaking in Italian, Pope Francis said the designation would mean always having "your arms wide open as a sign of welcome to every pilgrim who may arrive from any part of the world, asking nothing in return but only recognizing him as a brother or a sister who desires to share the same experience of fraternal prayer."

Paying tribute to the Irish faithful he said: "You have been a missionary people. We cannot forget how many priests left their homeland in order to become missionaries of the Gospel. Nor can we forget the many lay people who immigrated to faraway lands but still kept their devotion to Our Lady."

The apparition in Knock occurred Aug. 21, 1879, when Mary, St. Joseph and St. John the Evangelist appeared at the south gable of the Knock parish church. The silent apparition was witnessed by 15 people, ranging from young children to the elderly.

A nun stands stands outside Ireland's Knock Shrine July 23, 2018. Pope Francis delivered a special virtual message recognizing the shrine as an International Marian and Eucharistic Shrine during Mass March 19, 2021. (CNS photo/Clodagh Kilcoyne, Reuters)

St. John Paul II visited Knock in 1979, the centenary of the apparition, as part of his apostolic pilgrimage to Ireland.

Pope Francis, who visited the shrine in 2018 during the World Meeting of Families, said the message that comes from Knock is that of "the great value of silence for our faith."

"It is this silence in the face of mystery, which does not mean giving up on understanding, but understanding while aided and supported by the love of Jesus, who offered himself for all of us as the Lamb sacrificed for the salvation of humanity."

Welcoming Pope Francis' special honor for Knock, Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Northern Ireland -- Ireland's primatial see -- said the Irish church has "always known that Knock is a very special place."

In a video message, Archbishop Martin said, "I am particularly pleased that Pope Francis has made this announcement to coincide with the beginning of the Year of the Family, because Knock is very much a family place.

"Many families, like my own, visit there at different times of the year in order to find some peace and consolation and indeed to find some hope in difficult days, just as Our Lady came to Knock in 1879 to bring hope to the people at a time of distress" in Ireland's post-famine era.

Responding to the pope's message, Archbishop Neary, who as archbishop of Tuam is in charge of the shrine, said: "This is a momentous event, and it is most fitting that it would be announced and celebrated on the feast of St. Joseph in the Year of St. Joseph," because the saint appeared in the apparitions.

He prayed that pilgrims who come to Knock, carrying their crosses, will "experience deeply God's closeness, the tenderness of the Virgin Mary and the company of the saints," so as to be encouraged and enabled to return home with a more buoyant faith, with hope in their hearts and a more ardent love for God and neighbor.

Father Gibbons told Catholic News Service, "Since the time of the apparition, Knock Shrine has been a place of hope and given comfort and consolation to people. The completely unique nature of the apparition scene is something that has fascinated and inspired people for generations. This is an historic milestone for Ireland's National Eucharistic and Marian Shrine."