Faith Matters

Mass rock tradition serves as a powerful reminder

The Catholic Mass remains as relevant as ever, says Fr Edward O'Donnell, and the desire to take part an expression of gratitude to God

Ireland's Mass rock tradition, recalled at contemporary ceremonies such as this at Glenside Road in Belfast, speaks of the importance of remembering Christ's death. Picture by Cliff Donaldson

IN that period of Irish history known as 'the penal times', life was difficult for Irish Catholics; churches were closed, bishops were banished and many priests were forced to leave the country.

Yet in spite of difficulty and danger priests continued to celebrate Mass for the people in secret isolated outdoor locations, using rocks for an Altar.

Where they survive these Mass rocks continue to be venerated to this day. When I was a young boy my family lived on a rather isolated farm. In one of the fields there was a Mass rock and my mother use to send us children to the Mass rock to say a prayer.

The Mass rocks of Ireland are a powerful reminder of the faith of our ancestors and the importance of the Mass for them.

An old prayer expresses the joy of the people as they arrived for Mass: "A thousand welcomes, King of the Sunday, Son of the Virgin, who rose from the dead."

When some say that they find Mass no longer relevant, I think of the Mass rocks, and the love of the Mass that inspired priests and people to gather there in all weathers, and in spite of great danger. The old Irish use to say:

"Do not give up on the Mass for anything.

In this world there is nothing greater.

We offer praise and deepest thanks

to the only Son who rose from the dead."

The miracle of God's love in the Mass is here for us today just as it was for our ancestors in their day.

When this miracle is not appreciated is not the problem with today's values and attitudes, and not with the Mass?

That secret English Catholic, William Shakespeare, wrote in As You Like It: "Blow, blow, thou winter wind, thou art not so unkind as man's ingratitude... Thy sting is not so sharp as a friend remembered not."

Is it true then that when society feels self-sufficient it loses a sense of gratitude? The words of Jesus in chapter 7 of St Mark's gospel challenge all of us: "This people honours me only with lip service, while their hearts are far from me."

One of the most striking things about the Mass, and which we can easily miss because of our busy lifestyles, is its simplicity.

At the Last Supper, Our Lord did not invent some elaborate ritual full of pomp and circumstance; rather he took a simple ritual that was common in every Jewish home.

At a family meal the head of the household would take some bread and pray: "Blessed are you, Lord our God, King of the universe, you who bring forth bread from the earth."

Then the bread was raised up before God, broken and shared with those at the table. At the end of the meal, a cup of wine was taken, raised up before God, and God was thanked for the food given, for his goodness in the past, and his continued protection sought.

Then all present would drink from the cup. The family praised God and God blessed the family. This ancient ritual is observed in pious Jewish homes to this day on the eve of the Sabbath.

Jesus then gave this ritual a new significance at the Last Supper; the bread now his body, the wine now his blood.

This is our Mass; here we praise God and God blesses us. The simple action of taking bread and wine, and doing as Jesus said, is a great wonder, a great miracle of love.

How can it be said that the Mass should be more relevant to life? To paraphrase the words of Moses in Deuteronomy chapter 4, we can add nothing to what Jesus commanded, and take nothing from it.

As the spirit of gratitude grows, and as we count our many blessings, the Mass becomes more and more relevant.

Gratitude to one's parents is the most basic human instinct; our gratitude to our parents is the best model we have for our debt of gratitude to God.

Our obligation to take part in Sunday Mass is not so much an obligation imposed by Church law, but an obligation that springs from something much deeper and more profound, one that comes from an instinct of the heart, because it is in the heart that we acknowledge our indebtedness to God.

In King Lear, Shakespeare wrote: "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child!"

One of the basic signs of being a Christian redeemed by God's love has to be a heart overflowing with thanksgiving and praise. For such a heart the Mass is not only relevant, it simply cannot live without it.

With the old Irish we say:

"We walk in blessed company:

Mary on her way with friends

to join her Son on Calvary

to share a love that never ends."

:: Fr Edward O'Donnell is parish priest of St Brigid's parish in Belfast

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