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September 2, 2009
Croagh Patrick: icon of Irish Catholic faith
By Christopher Stefanick
Speaking at a youth rally in Ireland this past summer was one of the greatest honors I’ve ever received in ministry. For one weekend I got to be a part of evangelization in the place my faith and my blood find their roots.
The site most indelibly etched into my memory is Croagh Patrick (Patrick’s Mountain), where Irish land and spirit meet and crescendo into a huge granite peak. Once regarded as a Mount Olympus for pagan gods by the Celtic people, it is now one of the most sacred places in Christian Europe. More than 1,600 years ago, St. Patrick climbed this mountain to fast and pray for 40 days and to claim Ireland for Christ. His path has been followed by countless pilgrims since.
I was there for the weekend of Reek Sunday (the last Sunday of July) when tens of thousands make the pilgrimage every year. It’s no easy journey. The Croagh looks like someone took the top of a pyramid-shaped “fourteener” (if you’re not from Colorado that’s our affectionate term for a mountain over 14,000 feet) and plopped it down on the coast in rural Ireland.
Young and old, in shape and out of shape, some barefoot for penance trudge over slippery, jagged rocks to the peak as their ancestors had since St. Patrick made his famous ascent. Not surprisingly, helicopters are regularly called in for rescue. I asked several people what the significance was of that particular Sunday. “I don’t know,” was the reply. But they trudged on!
Croagh Patrick is a perfect icon of Irish Catholicism. The massive granite rock stands out in stark opposition to the surrounding landscape. It is constantly barraged by fast moving storms, shrouded in fog, struck by lightening, ever fighting with the sky, but there it stands unmoved through the millennia.
So it is with Irish faith. It blossomed in the midst of a violent pagan world. Despite the claims of “born-again pagans,” raping and pillaging was common practice, life was short, often ending violently and all traces of charity were notably lacking before Ireland became Christian. Patrick, like many missionaries, brought civilization when he brought Christ.
Patrick found himself the constant object of spells, curses and death threats. Not long after Christendom replaced pagandom in Ireland, the island nation was barraged by Viking raids. Centuries of attack on Irish faith, language and culture from England followed. Through it all Catholic Ireland dug in its heels and stood as firm as Croagh Patrick.
The new enemy to Irish faith is different, though, not coming in the form of frontal attack but the seduction of materialism, convenience and the neo-hedonism of Europe. A perfect snapshot of this seduction happened when a mining company had the audacity to explore Croagh Patrick in the 1980s and found traces of gold. In the eloquent understating of the Irish, Mayo County Council ruled that the gold was “fine where it was.” Thank God.
Over the past 30 years Ireland has risen among European nations in wealth and power, but its rock-solid foundation of faith has concurrently weakened. Mass attendance has plummeted from 90 percent in the late 70s to 25 percent today. Suicide rates have reached an all-time high. STD’s are on the rise as well. There is a growing crisis in meaning and hope in Ireland, as in the whole western world.
Despite this cultural decline, it was amazing to see how Catholicism remains central to Ireland’s national identity. Some of the secular papers I read there have so many references to the Church they looked like diocesan papers in the United States. Abortion is still illegal. And Ireland has remained a final stronghold against some of the morally liberal initiatives of the European Union.
But the holy stubbornness that saved Ireland from past enemies won’t save her from this one for long. The ability to dig in your heels doesn’t help you stand your ground against seduction—only clinging to what matters most. Thankfully, in the midst of the new storms battering Irish culture, it’s not hard to find countless faithful clinging to Christ with a new fervor.
Ecclesial movements are blossoming. Significant youth ministry efforts are underway. There is a surge in vocations. Thirty-six men, many of them young, are entering seminary this year. Perpetual adoration was recently started in more than 400 parishes. The rally where I spoke at the Knock Shrine drew over 500 young people. Thousands were packed into the shrine for Sunday Mass. Their voices filled the church as they sang, belting out the words, “Golden Rose, Queen of Ireland … Lady of Knock, my Queen of Peace.”
Unlike some other European countries hope is not yet lost for the Catholic culture that civilized Ireland and from there much of northern Europe. Perhaps renewal will come for Europe from that little island nation once again. If this new surge of faith doesn’t win back the heart of Irish culture it’s only a matter of time before Croagh Patrick is mined. But for now there is reason to hope that the “Golden Rose” will remain forever the Queen of Ireland.
Speaker and author Christopher Stefanick is director of Youth, Young Adult and Campus Ministry for the Denver Archdiocese. Visit www.chris- stefanick.com.