Fr John Harris, OP*
The annual pilgrimage in the footsteps of St Patrick on 'Reek Sunday'
Each year thousands of people of all ages travel to the West of Ireland to climb St Patrick's Mountain. It is a pilgrimage of faith and one that has much to teach the Irish Church as it faces the challenges set before it by Pope Benedict XVI in his recent Letter to the Church in Ireland. In that letter the Holy Father prayed that "the wounds afflicting so many individuals and families may be healed and that the Church in Ireland may experience a season of rebirth and spiritual renewal".
Located in County Mayo, on the west coast of Ireland, Croagh Patrick is a cone-shaped mountain tipped with white quartz that is also known as "the Reek". The ancient name of the place was "Cruachan Aigle" roughly meaning "the act of celebrating or holding festivals". Rising 2,510 feet (762 m.), there is reason to believe that before Christianity came to Ireland it was a place of religious cult. It is said that St Patrick (the Apostle to Ireland) spent the Lent of 441 AD on the mountain in prayer and fasting. The climbing of the Reek is for us now in Ireland a symbol of what lies ahead of us as "we overcome the present crisis and become once more a convincing witness to the truth and, the goodness of Almighty God, made manifest in his Son Jesus Christ".
The last Sunday in July is called "Reek Sunday". On this day thousands of pilgrims come to climb "the Reek". On Reek Sunday 2009 it was estimated that nearly 20,000 made the pilgrimage. Up until the 1970s the climb took place during the night so that the pilgrims would reach the summit for the Mass at dawn. Due to the danger involved this practise has been discontinued. Now the climb begins at dawn and continues throughout the day. Mass is celebrated and confessions are heard in the little chapel at the summit. Traditionally people climbed the rocky mountain in their bare feet, while this custom has not died out it is now practiced by the committed few.
I remember one Reek Sunday travelling with my younger Dominican brethren and a group of young people who worship in our church in Dublin. The moment I stepped on the bus I saw the changing face of the Irish Church. The bus was filled with young people, but the vast majority of them were not Irish. On this Irish pilgrimage to an ancient Irish place of prayer and penance were Poles, Czechs, Spaniards, Italians, and Slovaks. Here was the new reality of the Church in Ireland. This influx of Catholics from across the New Europe is now quickly becoming the young heart of the Irish Church. All those centuries ago the Irish monks travelled to these far away countries bringing with them the faith of Patrick and now the children of this preaching are coming to walk in the footsteps of Patrick. Will these young Catholics ignite the flame of the faith of Patrick once again in Ireland? Something new is being born and we must allow the spirit to breathe.
The climb begins with a prayer at the statue of St Patrick and we were off. Filled with enthusiasm the initial climb was enjoyable and relaxed. We were encouraged in our ordeal by the smiles and words of support from those descending the mountain.
However as the climb became steeper the silence became noticeable. Here in the silence one was left with the struggle and one's own thoughts. Now the laughing and jokes were no more. Now the determination to keep going pushed me on. Even at this early stage I almost gave up but I did not, encouraged by the example of my fellow pilgrims. In the Church we need each other. In my heart I could hear the words of the young French girl, Joan of Arc, "Always forward". In the struggle the words of the saints give us the heart to keep going.
The Pope has given us three concrete initiatives to encourage us at this time in the Irish Church. He has asked us to offer our Friday penances for an outpouring of God's mercy and the Holy Spirit's gifts of holiness and strength. He has encouraged us to discover anew the sacrament of Reconciliation and finally to give particular attention to Eucharistic adoration.
Also in the silent struggle I remembered Jesus in his Agony in the Garden. His friends were close-by but fundamentally he had to go that last distance alone. I remembered the words of St John of the Cross, "The alone to the Alone". This now became a journey in fidelity to God and a continuing endeavour to keep saying "Yes" to the Lord. The silent walk was no longer against the mountain but towards the Lord. At the deepest of levels in our spiritual life each of us is a hermit, each of us have our own special relationship with the Lord. Our spiritual life is an inner chamber where no one sees into but the Father who sees all that is done in secret. And this was still the easy part of the climb.
If one is fit the first part of the climb is a hill-walk, and no doubt some would say easy-going while all the time the splendid beauty of the West of Ireland is opening her treasures beneath you. On a beautifully clear day the magnificence of the rugged country-side is overwhelming. When the path is flat, the walk, along the ridge is a joy and one feels the worst is over. Surely the Lord could not be asking more. Does he never give up? Indeed our God is a jealous God, whose love for us does not allow us to give up half way. For in the story of love there can be no half measures. To love is to give all as Jesus himself showed us on Calvary. This flat ridge is but a short respite before the real climb begins.
The second climb begins with prayers at a "station", a moment when some of us regrouped and prayed together before beginning the final part of the climb. But all the time as you pray you know the summit's assent calls. The next part of the climb is a lot steeper and the path goes over loose rocks so it is important to look where you place your feet so as not to slip. At one stage, almost exhausted I stopped on a rock, I prayed it would not slip for there was no way I could save myself. Standing on this rock I prayed for Peter, "may the Lord bless our Pope, may his faith not fail and may he strengthen the People of God on its pilgrim journey".
Climbing now, at times using hands as well as feet, there was no time to pray just to push on. Now was the time for the body to do the praying. How often have people said to me in hospital that in their suffering they cannot pray. But the Lord sees deeper than the words we use. We pray as we are.
At times I wondered if this was ever going to finish. Had someone taken the summit away? In a strange way now it was not the enthusiasm of youth that gave me the energy to climb but the silent example of the older generation, as they faithfully put one aged foot before another aged foot. "If that old lady can do it, surely I can also". How we need one another, the faithful example of a generation who have moved beyond youthful fervour to the constancy of a life lived in commitment.
As I got closer to the top I needed the reassuring words of those coming down. Words of support telling me it was not all in vain, they had been there, they had gone through what I was going through and they had lived to tell the story. We need to hear the stories of believers. We need to share our faith. Those who have remained faithful need to tell the younger generation how they have survived and why. We in Ireland need to remember the martyrs, of the Irish Church who for almost 300 hundred years kept the faith of their fathers in the face of terrible persecutions; we have the example of the monks of the ancient Irish monasteries who kept the flame of faith alive in Europe.
With what great relief I saw a man use his mobile phone. I pointed him out to my sister who was climbing nearby me and said "Surely he must be at the top and is now attempting to tell the world". I started to smile, a mobile phone here on Croagh Patrick, a sign of modernity in this ancient place but it gave me the energy to make the final assault. The Lord speaks to us in so many different ways if we but have the ears to hear. I finally arrived.
The first words I heard at the top were the words of the Second Eucharist Prayer. Never in my life have the familiar words of the Mass filled my heart with so much joy. Here at the end of the struggle was the comfort of what was most familiar. The words spoken by Christ in love, "take and eat, this is my body given for you". Was it like this for the disciples on the shore of Lake Tiberius when Jesus asked them to "come and have breakfast"? The words of the Mass told me that I had arrived and He was waiting for me. To receive him in Holy Communion on that mountain made the whole struggle worthwhile. Here was the reason for the whole day.
About 100 years ago a little chapel was built on the mountain. Praying at this chapel, listening to the words of love in the Scripture and receiving the love in the Eucharist reminds me of the words of the Pope in his Letter to the children and young people of Ireland: "It is in the Church that you will find Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today and forever. He loves you and he has offered himself on the cross for you. Seek a personal relationship with him within the communion of his Church, for he will never betray your trust! He alone can satisfy your deepest longings and give your lives their fullest meaning by directing them to the service of others. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and his goodness, and shelter the flame of faith in your heart". Here at the summit is the opportunity to go to confession. Now is the time to make your peace with God and thus receiving his love and forgiveness one begins anew, refreshed. The Christian story continues and we are part of the ongoing pilgrimage of faith.
Finally the time to celebrate with the people you last saw by the statue of St Patrick arrived. We shared our sandwiches and told the stories, in our various languages, of how we managed to keep going. Now was the time for the photos to prove we had actually arrived. But before the descent there was again time for silence, but now it was the silence of awe and wonder as I looked over the hundreds of islands in Clew Bay and praised the splendour of God. I thought of the words of John Paul II when he says that we humans are the priests of all creation speaking in its name. On a clear day it was easy to see the beauty of creation and to understand why the ancient Irish called this place a place of celebration.
As we descended it was now our time to encourage those still climbing. What we had received we had to pass on to those coming after us. We cannot keep the Good News to ourselves we must pass it to those who are still struggling. The walk down is also difficult and one had to be careful, but now at least one had the comfort of knowing one had succeeded and was now heading home.
As we travelled back on the bus the young people sang their hymns and folk songs, I was amazed at their strength and enthusiasm. Pope Benedict XVI says now to such young people "Together with your fellow Catholics in Ireland, I look to you to be faithful disciples of our Lord and to bring your much-needed enthusiasm and idealism to the rebuilding and renewal of our beloved Church".
After spending Lent 441 AD on this mountain Patrick came down on Easter Sunday to continue his preaching. He had come through his time of trial and penance; he had faced his failures and his temptations. Renewed by the Paschal Mystery of Christ he took up again his mission to Ireland. We now in Ireland are going through a time of great purification, but we too must be renewed by Christ and continue in our day the mission of St Patrick. The climb may be difficult but the victory is won for it is Christ's.
*Regent of Studies for the Irish Dominican Proveince
Weekly Edition in English
28 July 2010, page 9
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