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At Knock Shrine, Biden meets priest who gave Beau last rites

President Joe Biden touches part of the original stonework from the apparition gable at the Knock Shrine as he talks with Father Richard Gibbons, parish priest and rector of Knock Shrine, in Knock, Ireland, Friday, April 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

KNOCK, Ireland (AP) — President Joe Biden was moved to tears on Friday during a stop at a Catholic shrine when he discovered that a chaplain there had performed last rites for his late son Beau Biden.

“It was incredible to see him,” Biden said later during remarks at the foot of a cathedral in nearby Ballina. “It seemed like a sign.”

Knock Shrine is a pilgrimage site where, according to Catholic lore, the saints Mary, Joseph and John the Evangelist appeared near a stone wall in 1879. Biden touched the remaining old wall, and toured the site with priest Father Richard Gibbons.

Gibbons said he discovered earlier in the day that the Father Frank O’Grady working at the site was the same one who’d performed last rites, a ceremony in the Catholic faith that spiritually prepares people for death, for Beau.

It’s common in the Catholic faith for priests to move around to different posts during their lives in the church. O’Grady is a former U.S. Army chaplain and was formerly assigned to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where Beau died in 2015 from brain cancer at the age of 46.

Gibbons said he did not know about the Biden connection until Friday.

“I told the president that,” Gibbons told BBC Ulster. “He wanted to meet him straightaway, so he dispatched a Secret Service agent to go and find him.”

He said it was “a wonderful, spontaneous thing that happened.”

“He was crying and it really affected him,” Gibbons said of Biden. “Then we said a prayer, we said a decade of the rosary for his family, we lit a candle. Then he took a moment or two for private prayer.”

O’Grady told Irish national broadcaster RTE that he was summoned to meet the president.

“He gave me a big hug, it was like a reunion. He told me he appreciated everything that was done,” he said. “I hadn’t seen him really in eight years since Beau died. His son Hunter was there too, so we had a real reunion.”

O’Grady said of the president, “He has been grieving a lot, but I think the grief is kind of going down a bit. We talked a little bit about how grief can take several years.”

The death of his elder son rocked the president, who was vice president at the time. He said he chose not to run for president in 2016 in part because of Beau’s death. He talks of Beau often, including during a speech to the Irish parliament this week when he said it was his son who should have been standing there as president.

After the visit to the shrine on Friday, Biden toured a hospice center that displays a plaque commemorating his son.

Biden was in Ireland this week with his sister Valerie and son Hunter, touring his ancestral home and meeting with the nation’s leaders.