From the mid-16th century onwards, small groups of Irish Catholics used to gather at remote flat rocks in the hills of rural areas to participate in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass.
These popular places became known as “Mass Rocks”. There were thousands of them dotted all over Ireland, helping the Catholic faith survive under persecution in an age of many priest-martyrs – including some famous saints such as 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 rocks where Catholics gathered had often come from one of the monasteries or churches that Cromwell and his thugs had burned down and looted.
Since lockdown closed the churches, people have been looking for other ways to pray. And as the rules were laxer for outdoor gatherings than indoor ones, lay people have once again made use of the Mass Rocks as places of prayer.
Like their forebears, people pray the Rosary together at the Mass Rocks – and a more recent devotion, the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. This way, in the face of the lockdown, Catholic faith and prayer have been preserved in rural Ireland.
Sadly, many Catholics will never return to Mass once churches fully reopen. Much of the blame lies with the bishops themselves, who for years ignored the call to instruct, to teach, and to abandon sugar-coated homilies, while remaining silent during referendums on same-sex unions and abortion.
The “fear factor” is another reason why many have stopped going to church. There is an atmosphere of alarm beyond anything reasonable.
People are not frightened in the same way when they visit restaurants, bars, banks and offices.
Should another lockdown be enacted again for any period of time, the faithful people, like their forefathers before them, will return again to the beloved and revered Mass Rocks of Ireland, with or without their priests – where they will turn to Our Lady as always with the Holy Rosary.