On pilgrimage, the old roads rose up to meet me

By Deacon Ed Sheffer | OSV News

We were 44 in number, fellow Catholics mostly unacquainted but journeying together thanks to a shared yearning to explore and discover our faith and the Scots-Irish lands of our common heritage.

Charm and hospitality were in abundance; we learned a good deal about the triumphs and the sorrows of the ones who came before us. Along the way, we encountered some of the most glorious and spiritually uplifting sites in the world.

As we got to know one another, we developed a wonderful comradery and formed some heartfelt friendships. Although Bishop Emeritus Gerald Kicanas and I have been friends for two decades, it was my first pilgrimage with him. I am extremely grateful for our time together and all the wonderful personal and pastoral touches he brought as we made a collective soul-trek, absorbing the spiritual, historic and scenic treasures across Ireland and Scotland until we were each of us transformed in our own ways.

Each day included the celebration of Mass along with potent prayer, history, laughter, and lore, all of which were refreshing nourishment for body, soul, and mind. It was humbling to be in the lands of such Saints as Patrick, Brigid, Kevin, Colman, Margaret, David, and Baithéne.

On our first full day in Ireland, we were graced to kickstart the pilgrimage by participating at Mass in one of the most important medieval ecclesiastical landscapes in Ireland: Glendalough. Saint Kevin, a sixth century monk and hermit, was on a spiritual quest — looking to remove obstacles to finding God — when he came upon this glacial valley and chose to settle in such a stunning, mountainous and picturesque site. This monastic settlement was significant, for it became a learning center whereby Christianity spread.

–“Dia Duit” (God be with you!).
We arrived at Glenstal Abbey, and God was indeed with us. Through the gates we were quickly welcomed by the charming Brother Padraig, with his lilting Irish brogue. We shared a laugh or two as he gave us a chatty tour that shared the history of the abbey while also revealing his own story. I walked away sensing that he, like Saint Kevin, had found his way to God by chasing peace and had therein found a lasting meaning and purpose to his life.

Next stop: Limerick where Irish coffee (which was invented here), awaited us. The day was capped off, and blessed, with Holy Mass at St. John’s Cathedral.

After Mass, those pilgrims who, as the Irish would say, were “born with the double dose of original sin,” headed off for a pint of Guinness (or two), and were delightfully entertained by a lively pub fiddler as we enjoyed a bit of Irish folk dance.

Blarney Castle was an iconic destination. The grounds surrounding the castle seemed almost mystical in their green and rolling beauty. This wasn’t really a spiritual stop but — whether attributable to kissing the Blarney Stone or not – afterwards we pilgrims seemed connected in an authentic and more intimate sense, as though the “gift of gab” had been conferred upon us in a deeper way.

As we traveled, our insightful tour guide, Peter, provided a good deal of humor along with historical pathos as he talked. We learned about the pain of the past and present, but also witnessed the hope of the future. Our driver Alan was a cheerful, gentle and kind soul. He and I had an espresso together during which I invited him to be prayerful about returning to Mass and bringing his family. “You know Alan, the presence of Judas is no reason to stay away from the party,” I told him, which brought a nod and a laugh.

Retired Bishop Gerald Kicanas and Deacon Ed Sheffer, both of the Diocese of Tucson, Ariz., are pictured during a pilgrim’s Mass at St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Glasgow, Scotland in this undated photo. (OSV News photo/courtesy Ed Sheffer)

In Dingle, my sister Mary Lou and I dug into a lunch of fish and chips. We followed that up with an espresso taken by the waterside and it felt like a sacred moment for us.

At the breathtaking Cliffs of Moher, mists all rising, it was possible to believe for a moment that I had entered into my favorite film, “The Princess Bride,” and was standing near the “Cliffs of Insanity,” a true treat.

–Knock and the door will be opened
Throughout Ireland we enjoyed the legendary hospitality of her people, but we were especially blessed by our visit to the international pilgrimage destination of Knock. Tradition holds that Knock had been blessed by St. Patrick, who prophesied that one day it would be a holy place. It was moving to serve as Deacon at Mass, there, pronouncing the Word at this holy shrine where Mary, St. Joseph and St. John the Apostles appeared in 1879. We pilgrims had brought with us a list of over one hundred petitions from parishioners back in Tucson; we placed it in the sanctuary and at Mass lifted each one of them up in prayer. We arranged for these petitions to remain there for one month and were given a commitment that they would be prayed over at all the Masses to be celebrated, throughout.

Following Mass, Bishop Kicanas and I encountered a couple from Northern Ireland. They had journeyed to Knock asking for Our Lady’s intervention for something very private and meaningful to them, and we were able to pray with them, and for their intention. This brief but beautiful engagement — the dynamic action of faith, shared — became one of the most meaningful takeaways from our trip.

The Emerald Isle is so richly imbued with beauty and faith, and that lively humor that makes the best of life’s difficulties, it is with terrible sadness that one must recognize the church’s decline in Ireland. Two of the dioceses we visited had zero seminarians.

St. Patrick, patron of Ireland, is depicted in a stained-glass window at St. John of God Church in Central Islip, N.Y. in this undated file photo. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

From Galway, we awoke at 3:00 AM to catch a flight to Glasgow, Scotland, arriving to the one and only full day of sunshine we had while there. We quickly made our way to Loch Lomond to look for the mysterious sea monster, Nessie. We must have missed her, but we did walk the grounds and take in the beauty of Balmaha, and lovely villages like Inchcailloch.

In Scotland it made sense to stop at a distillery in Pitlochry, where we learned how whiskey is made, is stored, and counts as a national treasure. So, yes, it also made sense (to most of us) to taste the wares. Then we made our way to Edinburgh and visited Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh has historic cobblestone streets and striking architecture which makes it surprisingly romantic. The city also has one of the world’s highest proportions of young adults and they are out in the city streets in large numbers, even during the work week. The street art is superb. So is the espresso. Mass at St. Andrews Cathedral, celebrated by Bishop Kicanas and where I again served as Deacon was very spiritually moving.

There is an ancient Irish proverb that says: “May the most you wish for be the least you get.” Well, we pilgrims were open to the unexpected and God did not disappoint us. We moved reflectively and gently through two spellbinding counties, with reverence for God’s presence in their midst, and heartfully offering a daily rosary on the tour bus. At one Mass we all had the chance to talk about who we were grateful to for helping us along in our faith. It was a powerful testimony of what pilgrimages so often reveal — that faith felt most deeply is faith shared, and passed down by those who came before us.
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Deacon Ed Sheffer serves at St. Thomas the Apostle Parish in Tucson, Arizona


Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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