PASSING ON THE FAITH IN MUDDY BOOTS

 

Dermott J. Mullan, 404 Park Circle Elkton MD 21921: mullan@bartol.udel.edu

 

 

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 Ireland who passed on the “baton” of the Catholic faith to me. My parents had themselves received the “baton” from their own good parents, and they from theirs, and so on back into the dim and distant past. In fact, if the history could be well documented, the “baton” could be traced all the way back to the time of St Patrick (431-461).

 

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 introduced to Ireland was successfully passed on to one of my ancestors. As a result, when I arrived on the scene, by God’s grace St Patrick’s “baton” was still there, whole and intact, ready to be passed on to me.

 

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 Ireland treated priests as criminals. As a result, priests were hunted relentlessly, and forced to operate in secret. In those days, Irish Catholics never knew when they would next have a chance to attend Mass. All they knew for sure was that the Mass would not be celebrated in public in their parish Church.

 

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 Mass.

 

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 Ireland in 1879 in a town called Knock, part of the apparition was a Lamb on an altar: this was heaven’s way of recognizing the Irish people’s faithfulness to the Mass during centuries of persecution.

 

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 parish Church. So our shoes weren’t muddy any longer. But it was the same Mass.

 

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 Derry during a civil rights march. As the victims lay dying on the street, TV viewers could see amidst the chaos a lone priest who moved from one victim to another, waving a white cloth, and administering the last rites. That priest was Father Edward Daly: after that dreadful day, he left Derry for a period of time in an attempt to erase the memory of the horror he had witnessed. But the Pope had plans for him, and Father Daly was eventually returned to Derry as bishop. Shortly after being installed in his new see, Bishop Daly went in pilgrimage to Corradinna, to celebrate Mass on that hallowed Rock. In this tangible way, Bishop Daly gave witness of solidarity with the generations of Irish Catholics who had held on to their faith through centuries of suffering.

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 Ireland) for passing on to me the priceless “baton” of the Catholic faith.