Fr Kevin Hegarty
Mass rocks are a feature of the Irish religious landscape. They belong to a period in the early 18th century, when due to the Penal Laws, Catholic worship was severely restricted and Catholics had often to resort to open-air venues in remote locations for the celebration of the Eucharist.
Dr Hilary Bishop of the University of Liverpool has researched Mass rocks in Cork, Galway, Mayo and Monaghan. She claims the the existing inventories of rocks are incomplete. She has discovered that in Cork there are 300 more then there are on the archaeological database. She invites anyone aware of the location of a Mass rock to contact her at www.findamassrock.com.
One of the purposes of the penal was to extinguish Catholicism in Ireland. According to the Lord Chancellor of the time ‘the law does not suppose any such person to exist as an Irish Roman Catholic’.
Fair-minded Protestant historian William Hartpole Lecky wrote ‘eloquently of the effect’ on Catholic ministry:
“In their own dioceses, in the midst of a purely Catholic country, is the performance of religious duties which are absolutely essential to the maintenance of their religion, the Catholic bishops were compelled to live in obscure hovels and under feigned names, moving continually from place to place, meeting their flocks under the shadow of the night, not infrequently taking refuge from their pursuers in caverns or among the mountains.”
In those unhappy, far off days it was dangerous to celebrate or attend Mass in Ireland. More recently, on March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero discovered how dangerous it was in El Salvador.
That evening, as he said Mass in the Church of the Divine Providence, a gunman shot him dead. Blood, pouring from his heart, soaked the white Communion hosts. The country was engulfed in a civil war between a repressive right-wing government and a socialist opposition. In the previous three years, Romero had emerged as the premier voice of opposition to a government that favoured the rich and denied social and economic rights to a poor population.
There was nothing in Romero’s post to suggest a revolutionary future. He was born, just over a century ago, into a large family in Ciudad Barrios where his father was in charge of the local telegraph office. He first worked as a carpenter and later in the gold mines. His childhood desire to become a priest remained strong, however, so he enrolled in the local seminary. An able student, he was transferred to Rome where he completed doctoral studies and was ordained in 1942.
Parish work followed. He gained a reputation as an impressive preacher. He advanced solidly through the ecclesiastical ranks becoming an auxiliary bishop in 1970 and archbishop of San Salvador seven years later. Conservatives welcomed his elevation to the premier see in the country. The believed he was one of them. They noted that he had been schooled in the rigid piety of the Opus Dei organisation and that he had no connection with the liberation theology movement.
Soon after his appointment, Romero’s friend, Fr Rutilio Grande who had been developing self-help groups among the poor, was assassinated. His death irrevocably changed the course of the archbishop’s life: “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, if they killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.”
So he did. Over the next three years he relentlessly exposed the disappearances, tortures and murders perpetrated by the state as they sought to stifle the cry of the poor. On the day before his assassination he called on Salvadoran soldiers to stop cooperating with the state’s reign of terror.
Pope Francis is to canonise his fellow South American shortly. The story of the Mass rocks and Romero’s life remind us that the Christian way can be challenging and sometimes may demand the ultimate price.