"What was the best part of your pilgrimage to Ireland?" I've heard that question a dozen times since our return from the "land of saints and scholars." The short answer is, the simple fact that I finally got there, for the first time, and just months before my 72nd birthday. Too long a wait, to be sure, but well worth it in every way. It was a truly blessed journey of faith and prayer, joy and beauty, history and ... fun.
I find it difficult, though, to single out one "best part" of the experience. There are just too many memorable moments. How do I compare the stunning, startling beauty of the Cliffs of Moher with the quiet, emotional visit to St. Mary's Church in Croom, County Limerick, where my grandfather Samuel A. Malone was baptized in the early 1870s? It was a great joy to celebrate Eucharist there, a few feet from the font where my grandfather, who immigrated to the United States and died before I was born, was washed in the waters of baptism and graced to hand on the Catholic faith to my father, also Sam, and so, to me and my sister. I think we all prayed in gratitude for the faith that came to us from our ancestors.
So many places we visited and people we met will be memories forever. After landing in Dublin, we drove to Armagh in the north, Ireland's historic spiritual capital for 1500 years. We celebrated Mass in the Catholic cathedral of St. Patrick and then visited the Anglican cathedral of the same name. It was on the site of this Anglican Church that Patrick had built a small church in the fifth century. (This cathedral was originally Catholic, of course, until the fallout from King Henry VIII's rebellion.)
As our journey continued, we stood on other ground made holy by Patrick (including a holy well, one of hundreds in the country, once pre-Christian ritual places), where, it is believed, the saint baptized converts. We visited the place where St. Brigid established a community of nuns, and then Glendalough, site of a monastery established by St. Kevin. Thus our trip was truly a pilgrimage. We concentrated on the holy sites, celebrated Mass each day, and prayed the rosary together. Along the way we delighted in God's creation as the Irish landscape rolled by with its green grass and plenty of goats and rocks!
And we did enjoy one another. I didn't need to remind my fellow pilgrims that prayers do not preclude pubs, where we enjoyed a few very pleasant hours listening to traditional Irish music and watching the mesmerizing dancing while sipping on a pint of Guinness.
My thanks to all those who made this memorable journey possible especially to Belinda Lewis Held, associate director of religious and cultural tours for Unitours, who assisted me in planning this pilgrimage and then journeyed with us throughout Ireland. I look forward to future collaborations with Belinda and Unitours as I am already planning another pilgrimage for 2018. Stay tuned for location and itinerary details!