I am reminded of the somewhat cynical remark made by someone a few years ago when he said “it’s well for those who can afford to say their prayers abroad”. It was a comment on the many thousands of Irish people who every year travel to places of pilgrimage like Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje, Rome, the Holy Land and the Camino.
Of course thousands more do stay closer to home as they climb Croagh Patrick, spend a few nights on Lough Derg or travel in busloads to Knock Shrine. Others prefer to stay even closer to home as they visit holy wells and smaller shrines. These very local places of pilgrimage create a different dimension to prayer and spirituality. The gatherings recall local faith history and tell the story in a much more intimate and personal way.
On the Feast of the Assumption this year I experienced such a local gathering and it affirmed and celebrated my faith as much as any pilgrimage I have made to the great shrines of the world. The local story is all important and in our case it was all about a roof! During the 18th Century the only place Mass was celebrated in Rathdowney parish was a ‘Mass Pit’ in the corner of a big field in the townland of Graigueavalla. The Mass Pit did have a fairly simple church building. Towards the end of the century when things got better for the Catholic community the local parish priest was given an acre of land to build a new church about two miles from the Mass Pit. Building work began immediately but when the walls were built there were no funds to roof the new chapel. Resourceful local men decided to lift the roof from the building in the Mass Pit and carried it the two miles “whole and intact” and placed it on the walls of the new church at Grogan. Grogan then became the main place of worship in our parish for a further 200 years.
One of the great local features is the ‘Mass Path’ which led to Grogan. Countless generations of Mass-goers arrived on foot, on bicycles or by pony and trap and then walked the mile-long Mass Path together. Before the opening words of the Mass were uttered the gathering rites were well under way along the Mass Path.
August 15 this year turned out to be a balmy summer evening as our parish revisited this unique chapter of our local faith story.
We gathered in the Mass Pit in Graigueavalla for a sprinkling rite to recall our Baptism. Then we began the two mile walk, again carrying the ‘roof’ which this time was going to form a canopy over a new altar at Grogan. Along the way we paused at the beginning of The Mass Path as Liam Lawton sang his haunting piece: “For all those whom we remember there will always be a place…”
Almost 600 locals and our diaspora walked the path of our ancestors, many of them carrying a memory card, a Rosary or some other symbol of those who have gone before us marked with the sign of faith, a faith they passed on to us. The Mass in Grogan that evening was full of memory, emotion and celebration…‘Do This in Memory of Me…’ Absolutely!
The Mass Path
A winding way through meadows sweet
A course shaped out by faithful feet
Though centuries long have flown
That beaten track at once will tell
It bore the people when the bell
Called them to God’s dear home
A narrow road amongst the trees
Mid summer’s sun and winter’s breeze
The fervent people come
The old go slow, the young run fast
Until their goal is reached at last
The gates of God’s own home...
– From The Mass Path by Andy Dowling
A couple who had been married for many years sometimes hit a rocky patch and there were times when there was ‘picture but no sound’ for days on end. During one of these ‘blackout’ periods the couple were traveling to visit family. On passing a field the husband noticed his wife paying particular attention to a pack of mules running in the field. In his first words to his wife in days he sarcastically said “related I presume?” “Yes,” said the wife, “through marriage!”