Upon These Rocks

The photo above was taken exactly one year ago. It was the first picture in a photo album/memory book that one of the pilgrims created and sent to Bishop Malone after the Ireland Pilgrimage he led last October. I’d never seen the photo before viewing the book and hardly remembered the photo being taken. But then I recalled that someone had gotten a photo of the Bishop and me as we were walking down from the Rock of Cashel after our group tour.

Rock of Cashel actual

The Rock of Cashel in Tipperary is one of the most famous sites in Ireland. “Cashel” is an Anglicized version of the Gaelic “caiseal,” which means fortress (similar to the English “castle” as you may have surmised.) Amidst the gorgeous green countryside, this massive edifice rises up and gives you a powerful sense of its former glory. The grounds include a round tower, 13th-century Gothic cathedral and a 12th-century Romanesque chapel that houses stunning frescoes. The Rock of Cashel is also known as St. Patrick’s Rock since legend holds that the greatest Irish saint visited Cashel to baptize King Aengus, Ireland’s first Christian ruler.


Our pilgrimage also brought us to a rock of a much more humble nature. The Rock of Cashel may boast historical and architectural significance, but this other rock is an even greater treasure. On our way to the Marian Shrine at Knock, our group stopped by Tobernalt, a holy well in Sligo. Tobernalt is translated as “the well in the cliff” and as these photos illustrate, that is an apt name for the spot. In addition to the natural spring well that is renowned for its curative powers, Tobernalt is also known for its Mass Rock.


During the penal days in Ireland, Catholics were not able to attend Mass publicly due to persecution from the British. Thus the priests and people looked for hidden areas where Mass could be celebrated on a large rock. Tobernalt was an ideal secluded spot at which to celebrate a clandestine Mass. In those days, priests were hunted men with a price on their heads. Traveling in disguise, these brave priests journeyed from one Mass rock to the next in order to bring the sacraments to the Irish people. While Mass was celebrated, sentinels kept close watch from nearby look-outs in order to prevent any surprise attacks by British soldiers.

Everyone at such a Mass was there at great personal risk. At that time, anyone found participating in any form of Catholic worship was subject to extreme fines and/or imprisonment. For priests, the penalty was much more severe – they would pay with their lives. Can you imagine celebrating such a Mass or attending it? You were risking either your life or your livelihood to be there. You did not know if you would ever celebrate or attend another Mass. What reverence, adoration and love must have marked such a Mass!


When you arrive at Tobernalt, you are greeted by the sign shown above. It reads:

Pilgrim walk softly, this is holy ground.
It has been made holy by the feet of generations
Who came here to worship God,
To hear Mass, to honor Our Lady,
To pray for their needs and for peace.
Here are the memories of a poor, persecuted people.
They braved death to come.
They walked barefoot through the woods to worship in secret.
Here are memories of hunted priests,
Offering Mass in this hallowed place at risk of their lives.

Will their sufferings and sacrifices be in vain?
They have handed on a torch – let us keep that torch alight!

The very thought of Tobernalt brings tears to my eyes. It is humbling to consider the faith of my ancestors. How very weak is my faith in comparison! They were willing to sacrifice everything in order to attend the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. Theirs was an heroic faith.

Then too I consider the hunted priests, who brought Jesus to these persecuted Catholics all across the Irish countryside. Talk about heroes! A sizable bounty was on their heads and a horrible fate awaited them if they were captured: they’d be hung until almost dead before their torsos were sliced and disemboweled. Finally they would be beheaded. If a priest was found while being sheltered by Catholics, the people would be hung alongside the priest they had harbored.

Such was the harsh reality for Catholics in 17th century Ireland. For us Catholics in 21st century America, it is hard to fathom such unbelievable circumstances. Yet we the clergy and laity of 2018 profess the very same faith as the priests and people of the Mass Rocks. They were willing to die for their faith. Are we willing to live for it?

As much as we know our hierarchy and clergy need to be reformed and renewed, we the laity have need of such renewal as well. We are all called to holiness in the particular circumstances of our lives. While we respectfully challenge our clerical leaders, we must also challenge ourselves. Our faith calls us to greatness – how will we answer that call?

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.

The gates of hell seem perilously close these days, but they must have seemed even closer to the Catholics of 17th century Ireland. They practiced their faith despite incredible persecution. May we, the Catholics of early 21st century America, live out our faith with similar fortitude, gratitude and courage.

They have handed on a torch – let us keep that torch alight!

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