19 June 2021, The Tablet

How 'Mass rocks' are renewing the faith in Ireland

How 'Mass rocks' are renewing the faith in Ireland

Ballyneety Mass Rock, Limerick with the Francican Friars of the Renewal

Mass has been said at ancient mass rocks across the Irish Church’s 26 dioceses as part of a campaign for the renewal of the faith in Ireland through the intercession of the Irish martyrs. 

The initiative has been spearheaded by Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) Ireland in support of persecuted Christians worldwide.

According to Aoife Martin of ACN Ireland, the inspiration for the “Revival of the Irish Mass Rocks” campaign came after seeing the images of Fr Gerard Quirke’s Easter Dawn Mass at a mass rock on Achill Island, Co Mayo on Easter Sunday.

“I was profoundly moved by the photos and thought wouldn’t it be amazing if we asked a priest in each of the 26 dioceses of Ireland to celebrate Mass at a mass rock in their diocese, thus returning to the sacred places where our ancestors went to worship in secret during penal times and where the Irish martyrs would have celebrated and received the Most Holy Eucharist.”

Monsignor Tommy Johnston of Achrony Diocese

She paid tribute to those in the past who “sacrificed so much so that we could have the gift of faith today”. 

“We asked each priest to celebrate each Mass for the same intention – for the renewal of the faith in Ireland, calling on the intercession of our Irish martyrs.” 

The ACN Ireland spokesperson said that following the positive response to the mass rock campaign, priests and organisers “feel very much inspired to make this an ongoing annual campaign, on the lead up to the Feast of the Irish Martyrs each year”.

This Sunday 20 June marks the Feast of the Irish Martyrs.

According to Aoife Martin, mass rocks were established all around the country in the sacred wilderness, in places of great serenity and closeness to God as a way of getting around anti-Catholic persecution in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.

Asked about the challenge of identifying and locating a mass rock in every diocese today, the ACN Ireland spokesperson said it was not too difficult.

“Mass rocks are widespread and located all over the country so there were plenty to choose from. By their very nature, they are located in secluded, hidden locations. Some are better known than others. Some Mass Rocks have been very well preserved and many parishes have a beautiful tradition of an annual mass rock liturgy.” 

Fr Bill Shaughnessy and Rev Derek Leonard celebrate at a Mass rock in the  Dublin Mountains

Other mass rocks remain hidden and unspoilt which, adds to the natural beauty of them. Fr Bill O’Shaughnessy celebrated mass in the Dublin Mountains at a rock which was surrounded by fallen trees. But that did not hinder Fr Bill.

Speaking to The Tablet Fr O’Shaughnessy explained: “The Mass rock is a 45-minute walk up a forest path to the brow of one of the mountains, and it is surrounded by a clump of trees, many of which had fallen on the rock. The foliage of fallen trees was so dense, that we were literally unable to walk around the mass rock. So, it was on the upper side of the rock I celebrated Mass. I used two tree stumps and positioned them on top of the mass rock and placed on them a square slab, which I used as the altar.”

But he noted that there was no signposting or indication of the significance of this rock. “I found out about it through a local priest, Fr Michael Hurley, who told me how to find it.

“In many respects the fact that the rock has no markings or a nicely built altar or steps made it all the more authentic and exactly the same as our ancestors would have found it, when they too celebrated Mass there during the Penal Laws,” he said.

Asked if he felt that the mass rocks reminded people that the difficulties encountered in practising the faith in 2020-21 was nothing compared to the cost for Catholics in penal times, Fr O’Shaughnessy said: “Obviously, the difficulties we have gone through in the past year pale in comparison to the violent persecutions of our ancestors during penal times. But our own time calls for exactly the intention of the mass rocks - renewal of the faith in Ireland through the intercession of the Irish Martyrs. The secular culture we find ourselves in is less than sympathetic to the Christian faith, let alone Catholicism.”

He paid tribute to the courage of lay men and women who speak up about their faith today in their places of work, and even in their families, which can sometimes result in social exclusion. “It is a persecution in its own way. There is a definite need for renewing our faith in Christ in Ireland.

“And the celebration of the Mass at these sacred sites, literally points towards where that renewal comes from Jesus Christ, specifically his living Eucharistic presence. And so just like our persecuted ancestors, we too must rally around Christ. He is the point of unity and renewal we must strive for and begin from.”

Aoife Martin concurs. She told The Tablet: “The difficulties the Catholic faithful have experienced during the past year since lockdowns began, though challenging, are nothing compared to what our ancestors endured during penal times. They willingly risked imprisonment and even death to attend and receive the Eucharist, some walking barefoot for over 20 miles, putting everything at risk. 

“We can draw so much courage, strength and inspiration from the Irish Martyrs and hence, our invitation to the Irish faithful and our Catholic brothers and sisters around the world to pray intentionally to the Irish Martyrs, for the renewal of the faith in Ireland.”

According to Fr Bill O’Shaughnessy, he felt uplifted by the celebration of Mass at the mass rock.

“To celebrate the Mass at the mass rock was a great source of joy, and renewal of faith for me. As a student of history and theology, to stand in the place where faithful priests before me, in times of great stress, trouble and turmoil for the Lord’s people and intercede for them, was a powerful moment of divine providence.”

“Even deeper than that, I found celebrating Mass at the rock gave me, as a priest, a powerful reminder of my mission in this world, which is to celebrate the sacrifice of the holy Mass for the beloved souls that God has placed under the care of my spiritual fatherhood. As a priest, Christ steps forward through me at each Mass to nourish his people with his own flesh.”

Fr Gerard Quirke at Achill Mass rock in Tuam.

For further information on the ACN Ireland Mass Rock Campaign or see details of all the Mass Rock Masses, please visit www.acnireland.org/mass-rocks


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