PASSING ON THE FAITH IN MUDDY BOOTS
Dermott J. Mullan, 404 Park Circle Elkton MD 21921: firstname.lastname@example.org
For a Catholic parent, the business of passing on the faith to one’s children is surely one of the most important tasks in life. If I as a parent fail in this one task, it matters little how successful I may be in other areas of parenting.
In this regard, Bill McCartney, the founder of Promise Keepers offers a vivid analogy. McCartney used to be a football coach, so he likes to use examples from the world of sports when he talks about the faith. He likens the process of passing on the faith to a relay race. The secret of winning a relay race lies in the efficiency with which the baton is passed from one runner to another. If that skill is not practised to perfection, there is a real risk that the runners may fumble the baton at the critical moment. And if a fumble happens in any one of the four passes which occur in a relay race, chances are good that the race will be lost.
According to McCartney’s analogy, if parents “fumble” during the process of passing on the faith, there’s a real risk that the faith will not “take hold” with the children.
By God’s grace, I was born into a family in
It is astonishing to consider how many
“relays” there were in the “Catholic race” into which I entered when I was
born. Almost 1500 years had elapsed since St Patrick’s death, so if we allow
for roughly 30 years between generations on average, there must have been about
50 generations of Irish Catholics before I was born. Apparently, at the
crossover between each of these generations, the “baton” that St Patrick
To appreciate the magnitude of this work of grace, I find it helpful to think about a parallel to the genealogies that appear in the Bible (“…David begat Solomon, who begat Rehoboam, who begat Abijah…”). Of course, I cannot supply many of the names of who “begat” whom in my family tree, but using the average of 30 years for a generation, I can write down at least roughly the years when the Catholic “baton” was evidently passed from parent to child. I received the faith in the 1950’s from my father Gerard, who received it from his father Michael in the 1920’s. Before that, I know no names, but the baton must have been passed on (roughly) in the years 1890, 1860, 1830, 1800, 1770 (before the USA started), 1740, 1710, 1680, 1650, 1620, 1590, 1560, 1530 (when Henry the Eighth of England was still Catholic), 1500, 1470 (before Columbus sailed the ocean blue), 1440, 1410, 1380, 1350, 1320, 1290, 1260, 1220 (when Francis, Dominic, and Thomas were serving the Church with their various talents), 1190, 1160, 1130, 1100, 1070, 1040 (before the first Gothic cathedrals), 1010, 970, 940, 910, 880, 850, 820, 790 (when Charlemagne was building Christendom in Europe), 760, 730, 700, 670, 640, 610, 580 (when Gregory the Great was pope), 550, 520, 490 (before Clovis and his Franks converted), and finally 460, when St Patrick himself was still evangelizing.
On each of those fifty (or so) occasions, the baton was passed on without a fumble in a remarkable succession by people whose names are now known only to God.
Such a large number of successful baton passes are all the more remarkable because passing on the Catholic faith was sometimes very difficult for my ancestors. The difficulties arose because parents can do only so much to pass on the faith to their children: as an essential accompaniment to the parents’ role, there is a fundamental need for access to one who stands in as “another Christ”. That is, there is need for access to a priest. It is the priest, and the priest alone, who supplies the sacraments of Confession and Communion that are the “source and summit” of Catholic life. If a growing child has no access to these sacraments, the “baton” may be fumbled between one generation and the next.
Now, it is a historical fact that, for
several centuries, the ruling class in
And this is where my ancestors relied on
“muddy boots” to make sure that their children received the sacraments. To see
why this was so, we need to think about how my ancestors actually went to
During the centuries of persecution, when a priest would arrive in secret in my home town, word would be spread quietly among the Catholics to gather in a remote location for Mass. The name of the location is Corradinna, a few miles south of town, up in the hills where a local dip in the topography provides protection from prying eyes. A group of men on the surrounding hilltops would be on the lookout for the approach of any English spies. And out there, exposed to the elements, the hunted priest would risk his life for the collected families by celebrating Mass on a large outcropping of rock. That outcropping became known as the Mass Rock.
I visited Corradinna a few years ago. I will never forget it. It is a desolate spot. Underfoot, the ground is marshy, with reeds and heather growing out of the peaty soil, with barely enough grass to feed a few hardy sheep. The wind whips through the rushes and the heather, and since it rains over there almost every day, the ground is soft and squishy. If a crowd of people were to come tramping across the heather, the ground would readily turn to mud. For the families who attended Mass at Corradinna in bygone days, they would have done so in muddy boots.
Standing at the Mass Rock in Corradinna, it is striking to recall that some of my own ancestors would have stood there, watching as the priest made his way through the well-known parts of the Mass. And at the Consecration, when the priest would raise aloft the Body and Blood of Christ, even the look-outs on the surrounding hills would be able to see what they were living for. If I push my imagination a bit, I can almost hear the congregation singing the melodious hymns which expressed their love for the great themes of Irish Catholic life: the Blessed Sacrament, the Sacred Heart, Our Lady, and the Pope.
Tough though it was, those families who
gathered at Corradinna, and at other Mass Rocks, were
faithful to the call they had received from God. It is significant that when
the Blessed Mother appeared in
And it is precisely because of that
faithfulness, muddy boots and all, that I am Catholic today. Those men and
women, with the help of brave priests, passed on the baton of faith to their
children, who in turn passed it on to their own children, and so on down
through the centuries until it was time for me to be born. And my mother and
father passed it on to me by making it easy for me to go to Confession, and
making sure that I attended Mass every Sunday. When I was growing up, priests
were no longer outlaws, and we were allowed to have Mass in our
The Mass Rock at Corradinna
is within the territorial limits of the Diocese of Derry, the diocese in which
a devastating event occurred in 1972. The incident in question has become known
to the world as “Bloody Sunday”: English soldiers shot 13 Catholic civilians
dead in the streets of the city of
When my wife and I were blessed with children, we were living far away from Corradinna. But it then became our turn to see to it that the Catholic baton would be passed on to our children as faithfully as my ancestors had done. Some words of Christ have impressed me greatly in this regard: “Freely you have been given, freely you must share” (Matt. 10,6). The men and women who gathered at Corradinna in centuries past saw to it that I was provided with a priceless gift, and now I must pass it on. And although my wife and I can do some of this process at home, it is to those “other Christs” (the priests) that our children still must turn for the sacraments. So I try to make it easy for my children to go to Confession regularly, and to Mass every Sunday. My children’s shoes are usually clean at Mass, although in deference to my ancestors, I do not insist on this point.
Now when I attend Mass, and the priest invites us to
pray the Our Father, I find myself going back in imagination to Corradinna. In my mind’s eye I see the priest at the Mass
Rock, and the hillside covered by crowds of men, women, and children in muddy
boots, all doing the same thing that makes us Catholic to this very day:
calling upon God as Father in the midst of the Church. And in solidarity with
those ancestors of mine, I like to recite the words of the Our Father in the
Irish language. It is the least I can do to express my gratitude to them (and
to St Patrick, who started the “relay race” in