IRELAND: The longings and the lessons in the Mass Rocks

One of our frequent, fecund, and most flexible of commentators here alerted me to a piece at National Catholic Register.

I find this simultaneously discouraging and encouraging.

Ireland’s ‘Mass Rocks’ Are Becoming Popular Again

Remote flat rocks in the hills of rural Ireland were once popular places for small groups of people who had gathered to participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass in the mid-16th century and beyond. They became known as “Mass Rocks” and there were thousands of them dotted all over Ireland, helping the Catholic faith survive under persecution while providing the Catholic Church with thousands of priest-martyrs — including famous saints such as St. Oliver Plunkett, the Archbishop of Armagh.

During the 1650s, when Oliver Cromwell and his troops came to Ireland, many of the clergy had to flee for their lives, while others stayed and remained faithful in order to minister to their scattered flocks — albeit in secret and in disguise. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass was said in the open on a rock which more than likely came from one of the monasteries or churches that Cromwell and his thugs had burned down and looted. The Penal Laws were enacted in 1695 whereby bishops and priests were banned from Ireland. Many went to safe countries like France, Portugal and Hungary, as was the case of Bishop Walter Lynch of Clonfert, who brought with him a miraculous image of Our Lady, “Consoler of the Afflicted.” Ireland was consecrated to Our Lady before this very image in 1662 by all the Irish bishops before their departure from Ireland.   [I did not know that!]

Since March 2020, with the COVID-19 lockdown in Ireland, people have begun returning to the Mass Rocks to pray while the churches up and down the country were closed. While some faithful priests offered the Mass with small groups of the faithful at the Mass Rocks, other groups of laity would gather [NB] and place priestly vestments on a Mass Rock while praying the Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy together. [*sniff*] This way, in the face of the lockdown and other obstacles, the Catholic faith and prayer is being preserved in the rural countryside of Ireland.

The Catholic bishops in Ireland will admit to having lost a large portion of the Catholic population who will never return to the Church or to the sacraments. Much of the blame lies with the bishops themselves, who for years ignored the call to instruct, to teach and to abandon sugarcoated homilies, while ignoring the steady advance of same-sex unions and abortion in the country.

Should another lockdown be enacted again for any period of time, the faithful people, like their forefathers before them, will return again and to Ireland’s beloved and revered Mass Rocks to pray, with or without their priests. May the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary now triumph over all evil and every sickness — let Christ be Over all Viruses and Infectious Diseases (COVID).

That image of people at a Mass rock, with vestments but no priest…. gosh.

We are seeing the Church experience a Job-like testing. If Christ endured a Passion, the Church must endure a Passion as well. The Passion reveals the radical, unfathomable depths of God’s love. We must learn to recognize this love, and manifest it. We are going to experience painful but purifying down-sizing. We must creatively form places where the Faith and love can “dwell”, habitats of Faith.

In the wake of the terrible scandals which deluged Ireland, Benedict XVI urged in a letter to the Irish people that they return to traditional faith and faith practices.

That doesn’t apply to Ireland alone, but everywhere.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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  1. ex seaxe says:

    There has been a sudden and steep rise in cases in the last three weeks, both in Ireland and the UK. The Irish have reimposed the ban on public religious services, which they dropped many weeks ago. I suspect this surge has more to do with the start of the football season than other factors. Although the matches are behind closed doors, fans want the crowd atmosphere so gather to watch in bars. The Irish government at least has the sense to ban that as well.
    Some of my most memorable liturgical experiences involved crowd roaring as well, for example shaking the roof of Westminster Cathedral with the congregational parts of Credo III. (Though we would be no match for the organ at full throttle).

  2. Kevin says:

    Pray and Fast, then pray and fast some more, lest, to a man our Bishops may be lost! The Silence, is black and it’s deafening.

  3. Kathleen10 says:

    Pope Benedict, I believe, saw this coming. Before everything went south he mentioned the likely, smaller church that was coming.
    Fr. Z I’m not proud of this, but I’m not ashamed either. I haven’t been to Holy Mass since March. I hope to go tomorrow, but will not approach for Holy Communion because I haven’t been to Confession. The church has left the faithful behind. The church, chases the world. We know the church still exists, in the Traditional Latin Rite. It seems likely that until the people are again hearing Mass in the fields, the church will continue to chase the world. When the money runs out, so will the hirelings who are in the seats of power. But when will China run out of money. China has very deep pockets.
    The Irish people going to the Mass rocks are the faithful, the blessed ones, the lucky ones. It is sad to imagine them putting the vestments on rocks. What wonderful zeal. God sees them all.

  4. tho says:

    Poor Ireland, betrayed by the English because of their faith, now betrayed by the curse of modernism. Ireland hasn’t had a decent leader since Brian Boru. The last time I looked their leader was a Hindu homosexual.

  5. JustaSinner says:

    Cromwell, ANOTHER reason I root for Australia during the Ashes…

  6. APX says:


    Who are you speaking about?

  7. OssaSola says:

    Ha! May God bless those Irish Bishops for “spiking the well” with a consecration to Our Lady before getting on the boat!

  8. Pingback: Mass rocks, the devotion of the people, and encouragement for priests from St John Paul

  9. JonathanTX says:

    I’m reminded of the opening scene from the Martin Sheen movie Catholics, where he arrives while the TLM is being celebrated outside on a Mass Rock. IIRC, Father Z even had a still shot from this very scene in a post not long ago.

  10. Charivari Rob says:

    Yes, numbers increasing in Ireland and the UK (and other places as well) with precautions and restrictions increasing, but particular hot spot in Northern Ireland.
    That’s why the Republic has put higher restrictions – levels 3 or 4 on their current chart – on the counties bordering the North.

  11. tho says:

    APX… That is my take on the sadness of Irish history. The bright spot of Irish history had been it’s unswerving faithfulness to unadulterated Catholicism, sadly it seems now to have joined the Spirit of VII with gusto.
    Perhaps my take is a bit over stated, if so, I meant no harm.

  12. The Masked Chicken says:

    Better a Mass Rock than a Rock Mass :)

    Challenge: find other situations where adjectives and nouns may be interchanged leading to different definitions.
    1. light candle vs. candle light

    The Chicken

  13. Fr. Kelly says:

    Perhaps not quite what you had in mind, Chicken, but how about

    Better a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.

  14. Aquinas Gal says:

    I remember in at least one of his Holy Thursday letter to priests, Saint John Paul spoke about the sadness of the faithful not having a priest to celebrate Mass, and he mentioned something about draping the vestments over a rock.

  15. WVC says:

    @ The Chicken

    This is like a weird variation on the song the Crows sing in Dumbo (I done seen ’bout everything when I see an Elephant Fly!).

    Here are a few I came up with while trying to rock twin babies to sleep – some of them are iffy (?)

    Killer Whale vs. Whale Killer
    School Bus vs. Bus School (?)
    Spotted Dog vs. Dog Spotted
    Drunk Tank vs. Tank Drunk (?)
    Cat Skin vs. Skin Cat
    Wrist Watch vs. Watch Wrist
    Number 2 Pencil vs. Pencil Number 2
    Helicopter Pilot vs. Pilot Helicopter
    Chewing Gum vs. Gum Chewing
    Baseball Bat vs. Bat Baseball (? – seems like it needs an article)
    Door Lock vs. Lock Door
    Washing Machine vs. Machine Washing
    Baby Sitting vs. Sitting Baby
    Door Prize vs. Prize Door (?)
    Elevator Lift vs. Lift Elevator
    Diet Coke vs. Coke Diet (a new weight loss program endorsed by Hunter Biden!!)

  16. WVC says:

    @JonathanTX – I also think of that movie (I think it was also called “The Conflict” – at least that’s what it was called when I found it in a Dollar Tree bin). It was actually a great movie all the way up to the end, at which point it turns very, very stupid (I’m not posting spoilers, although it’s an old movie).

  17. WVC says:

    Thought of two more while brushing my teeth:
    County Fair vs. Fair County
    Mouse Trap vs. Trap Mouse

  18. Semper Gumby says:

    “This way [Mass Rocks], in the face of the lockdown and other obstacles, the Catholic faith and prayer is being preserved in the rural countryside of Ireland.”

    Spiritual and situational awareness. Faith and Reason.

    “Much of the blame lies with the bishops themselves.”

    God bless our faithful bishops and faithful priests.

    “While some faithful priests offered the Mass with small groups of the faithful at the Mass Rocks, other groups of laity would gather and place priestly vestments on a Mass Rock while praying the Rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy together.”

    A poignant photo of a Mass Rock in a forest in Ireland accompanies the Register’s article. The Mass Rock under the trees recalls Psalm 137: “By the waters of Babylon there we sat weeping when we remembered Zion… But how could we sing a song of the Lord in a foreign land?”

    With Faith, Fortitude and Perseverance. True, that’s easy to say and difficult to achieve. It does take time. Developing the virtues and practicing them will always be impeded by our human imperfections. Philippians 3:12: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.”

    Our predicament, as conservatives understand, is not the result of politics (“liberalism”, “Americanism”, “Irelandism”) or economics (“capitalism”), though politics and economics certainly merit our attention.

    The cause of our predicament is something more fundamental. Fr. Richard John Neuhaus observed, “Politics is chiefly a function of culture, at the heart of culture is morality, and at the heart of morality is religion.”

    He adds: “As Christians and as Americans, in this our awkward duality of citizenship, we seek to be faithful in a time not of our choosing but of our testing. We resist the hubris of presuming that it is the definitive time and place of historical promise or tragedy, but it is our time and place.”

    Ecclesiastes 3: “There is an appointed time and place for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens. A time to give birth, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and a time to build.”

    Then, a day arrived near the Sea of Galilee when Jesus Christ said, as recorded in Matthew 16:18, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”

    Amidst the raucousness and temptations of modernity, the Mass Rocks are among the “Permanent Things” to be reclaimed in this time of testing as not only our heritage but essential to our nature.

  19. Veronica scriptor velum says:

    In an old post from the ‘Catholicism Pure & Simple‘ blog I saw a beautiful engraving from an old traditional missal of a priest celebrating Mass at one of those secret rocks during Penal Times in Ireland.

  20. Suburbanbanshee says:

    “Catholics”, “The Catholics”, and “The Conflict” are the same movie, IIRC.

  21. Semper Gumby says:

    Christopher Dawson in “Religion and the Rise of Western Culture”, discussing the situation about AD 600:

    “While in the Mediterranean the monks were retreating from the dying culture of the ancient world, in the North monasticism was becoming the creator of a new Christian culture and a school of the Christian Life for the new peoples of the West.”

    “In Ireland the Roman tradition of city life and the city episcopate were non-existent, and so it was natural that the Irish Church should have found its natural centres in the monasteries which rapidly became very numerous and very populous.”

    “It was only in the furthest West in the new Celtic [Irish] Churches that the use of rhythmical and, above all, rimed poetry was fully developed in the service of the liturgy as well as for private prayer.”

    Fr. William Slattery, “Heroism and Genius”, from Chapter 4, “The Benedictine and Irish monks”:

    “D-Days: Disembarking of Columbanus in France and of Columba in Scotland

    “Due to the missionary impulse given to the Benedictines by Pope Gregory the Great [c. 595], they began to emerge from Italy, spreading northward…But twenty years before the sons of Saint Benedict had arrived from the south, there had landed on the shores of northern France bands of fiercely austere but winsome monks who came from the finis terrae (end of the earth), the mist-covered island lashed by Atlantic waves on the westernmost regions of the known world. On the coast of Brittany at Guimorais, between Saint-Malo and Mont-Saint-Michel, there is a granite cross to recall that day in 575 when the Irish priest Columbanus, accompanied by twelve monks, disembarked. These men blazed a trail across France, the Rhinelands, Switzerland, and northern Italy- the area that would largely comprise the heartlands of Charlemagne’s eighth-century empire- founding or inspiring some two hundred monasteries before 730…they were the oases in which there occurred the renaissance of learning and the birth of a new Christian culture under Alcuin and Charlemagne.”

    A tour of Ireland’s monasteries:

    Hiking the Monastic Sites of Glendalough:

  22. Semper Gumby says:

    A friend makes a good point: Columbanus and his twelve monks were on a quest to bring souls to Eternal Life. May I add: Yes, this is the Great Commission.

    Matthew 28:

    16 Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. 17 And when they saw him they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.”

    May I kindly point out that “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” does not mean make Protestant or Catholic police states of all nations. In this Fallen World there will be successes and disappointments, victories and defeats. In this world “we will have trouble” and “some will doubt” (which, er, is an understatement).

    Every Christian has a bad day sometimes, but over the long-term panic, rage, and desperation are not the preferred methods of dealing with this our time of testing.

    Strength and Honor (ok, couldn’t resist that one). Christus Vincit.

  23. Semper Gumby says:

    Another friend raises an interesting point regarding my previous comment: How about an Irish police state?

    Yes, that is interesting. But an Irish police state would never work. With a pub on every corner and Guinness in every glass the government would not survive to see its first sunrise. See “The Quiet Man” for more details.

    Wait a minute. A Chuck Norris police state…

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