Faith Matters

Covid can't silence Lough Derg's spirit

Covid means that for a second season in a row, the Lough Derg boats will not be ferrying pilgrims - yet, explains Prior Fr La Flynn, the voice of prayer will not be silenced...

Fr La Flynn, the Prior of Lough Derg, pictured praying at St Patrick's Purgatory's penitential beds last year. Yesterday he started a lone vigil on the island for the second year in a row, as Covid restrictions mean pilgrims are still not able to return to the site. Picture by Paul Faith/AFP

BY tradition, Tuesday, as with generations of June the firsts before it, ought to have marked the start of Lough Derg's pilgrimage season, heralding the arrival of the first of the 10,000-plus people who visit the Co Donegal island sanctuary each summer.

Yet for the second year in a row, Station Island today still awaits its first visitor; despite recent relaxations, coronavirus restrictions mean that Lough Derg will have to wait before it can reopen for the safe return of the pilgrims.

The island might be quietened, but it is not silent. As with last year, the Prior at Lough Derg, Fr La Flynn, has started his witness of a daily Station Prayer and is going to the island each day on behalf of the pilgrims who would otherwise attend.

"The voice of prayer will not be silenced," he says.

"The tradition of prayer and intercession is part of the fabric of this place.

"As I take up the daily Station Prayer of the Pilgrimage I do so with a glad heart, carrying the prayer of our pilgrim family near and far."

Fr Flynn says he offers "a pledge of assurance" that the petitions and prayers sent to Lough Derg "will be remembered before God on this holy ground".

Although he would prefer the island to be bustling with pilgrims, Fr Flynn admits to something of a sense of excitement to being there alone.

"Imagine what it is like for me to have the sense of all those centuries of spiritual endeavour behind me," he explains.

"I see myself simply as a kind of humble 'place-marker' for the continuity of the pilgrimage experience until the pilgrims themselves can return to take up what is really their own tradition and - in many cases - the tradition of their families back through the generations."

The island pilgrimages traditionally continue until the middle of August, and Fr Flynn says it is important that spirit of witness continues despite the constraints imposed by the pandemic.

"Lough Derg sees itself with a responsibility towards its thousands of faithful pilgrims and friends, to help them keep connected to the momentum of prayer that I hope to maintain until August 15," he says.

The voice of prayer will not be silenced. The tradition of prayer and intercession is part of the fabric of this place

Fr La Flynn, Lough Derg Prior 

Covid-19 restrictions have eased and while a return to public worship in general in the Republic is welcome, Fr Flynn explains the circumstances aren't right to allow Lough Derg's particular form of pilgrimage to resume.

"We accept that the steady roll-out of the vaccine programme is something that is a priority for people at this time, offering hope and joy," he says.

"We respect the wisdom of a phased and stable relaxing of restrictions. The timing is just not on our side this year.

"It has not been an easy decision for us to announce that the traditional pilgrimage and the autumn day retreats on the island will remain suspended for a second pilgrimage season in a row."

The "shared nature" of the island - for sleeping and meals, as well as the limited capacity of the penitential beds - is the greatest limitation on enabling the resumption of three-day pilgrimages, says Fr Flynn.

"For the one-day retreats, we would have to operate with significantly reduced numbers," he adds.

"Numbers in the Basilica would be the easy bit of the challenge.

"Think of limited capacity on boats, the impact on the timetable of limited numbers for a sitting in the dining room and cleaning between sittings.

"This would limit our usual programme for the day."

There is a financial aspect, too. "To confidently meet the public health requirements for gatherings would also require significant additional staff and expenditure that would plunge Lough Derg into immense financial difficulty," says Fr Flynn.

"We have considered every angle of this and it is very clear to us that this very disappointing decision is the right one at this time."

There will, however, be other opportunities to visit, explains Fr Flynn.

"Many areas of society are returning to some normality, and I particularly rejoice at the welcome return of faithful people to their places of worship," he says.

"I want to say that Lough Derg is still here. I am very confident that, with a further easing of restrictions on outdoor gatherings in the coming weeks, Lough Derg will be able to offer the 'Pilgrimage along the Lakeshore' with a possibility of open-air Mass."

Fr La Flynn celebrates Mass at the Mass Rock on Lough Derg's pilgrim path last summer

As with many other parts of society, churches and faith communities have responded with creativity and flexibility to the restrictions imposed by Covid-19.

Lough Derg has been no different, and next month will repeat its 'Pilgrimage from Afar', an opportunity to 'do Lough Derg' virtually.

"From their own home, pilgrims will be able to join with me and some members of our pastoral team to do their three-day pilgrimage from where they are, with a live stream link," says Fr Flynn.

"Participation in 'Do Lough Derg from wherever you are' will be open to anyone across Ireland and indeed worldwide who is up for the challenge of the traditional pilgrimage.

"Last year we were joined across timelines by pilgrims from Beijing to Vancouver, all sharing in a continuum of prayer that has been kept alive by families from generation to generation back through the centuries."

More by visiting, emailing or telephoning 00353 (0) 71 9861518.

An ancient place of pilgrimage

SAINT Patrick's Sanctuary, Lough Derg, lies about four miles north of the village of Pettigo in Co Donegal, close to the border with Fermanagh.

Station Island, the location of the pilgrimage, is often referred to as Saint Patrick's Purgatory or simply Lough Derg.

It has been under the custodianship of the Diocese of Clogher since 1780.

Records of the story of Lough Derg stretch back more than 1,500 years with a heritage interwoven with St Patrick.

Ancient writings have it that the first monks settled at Lough Derg in the 5th century, not long after St Patrick came to Ireland.

It would seem to have been well established as a place of pilgrimage by the 9th century, and there is a famous world map of 1492 on which the only place marked for Ireland is St Patrick's Purgatory.

By tradition, the Lough Derg pilgrimage season runs from May through until October, with the three-day pilgrimage season running from June 1 to August 15.

One-day retreats and special retreat days run in the months of May, late August and September, with youth retreats usually scheduled for September and October.

A 'Pilgrimage along the Lakeshore', with guided walks along the pilgrim path on the shore, has been developed recently.

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