By God's grace, I was born into a family in Ireland who passed on the “baton” of the Catholic faith to me. My parents had themselves received the “baton” from their own good parents, and they from theirs, and so on back to the time of St. Patrick (387-461).

For a Catholic parent, the business of passing on the faith to one's children is surely one of the most important tasks in life. If I as a parent fail in this one task, it matters little how successful I might be in other areas of parenting.

Passing on the faith has been likened to a relay race. The secret of winning a relay race lies in the efficiency with which the baton is passed from one runner to another. If that skill is not practiced to perfection, there is a real risk a runner may fumble the baton at the critical moment, thereby losing the race.

According to this analogy, if parents “fumble” during the process of passing on the faith, there's a real risk that the faith will not “take hold” with the children.

It is astonishing to consider how many “relays” there were in the “Catholic race” into which I was born. Almost 1,500 years had elapsed since St. Patrick's death, so allowing for roughly 30 years between generations on average, there must have been about 50 generations of Irish Catholics before I was born.

Apparently, the baton St. Patrick introduced to Ireland was passed on about 50 times without a fumble in a remarkable succession by people whose names are now known only to God.

Such a large number of successful baton passes are all the more remarkable because passing on the Catholic faith was sometimes very difficult for my ancestors.

The difficulties arose because parents can do only so much to pass on the faith to their children: As an essential accompaniment to the parents' role, there is a fundamental need for access to a priest. It is the priest and the priest alone who supplies the sacraments of confession and Communion, the “source and summit” of Catholic life. Without access to priests, the baton might be fumbled between one generation and the next.

Corradinna Catholics

Now it is a historical fact that, for several centuries, Irish priests were hunted relentlessly as criminals, and Irish Catholics never knew when they would next have a chance to attend Mass. For sure, there would be no Mass in the parish church.

And this is where my ancestors relied on “muddy boots” to make sure their children met a priest. To understand this, we must think about what going to Mass required.

During the centuries of persecution, when a priest would arrive in secret in my hometown, word would spread quietly among the Catholics to gather in a remote location for Mass, a place called Corradinna. It is a few miles south of town, up in the hills where a local dip in the topography provides protection from prying eyes. A group of men on the surrounding hilltops would give warning if the English approached. And out there, exposed to the elements, the hunted priest would risk his life by celebrating Mass on a large outcropping of rock. That outcropping became known as the Mass Rock.

I visited Corradinna a few years ago. It is a desolate spot, with reeds and heather growing in the peaty soil. There is barely enough grass to feed a few hardy sheep. The wind whips through the rushes and the heather, and the rain makes the ground soft. If a crowd of people comes tramping across the heather, the ground readily turns to mud. Families attending Mass at Corradinna would have done so in muddy boots.

Standing at the Mass Rock in Corradinna, it is striking to recall that some of my own ancestors probably stood right there, watching as the priest made his way through the well-known parts of the Mass. And at the consecration, when the priest would raise aloft the Body and Blood of Christ, even the lookouts on the surrounding hills would be able to see what they were living for. If I push my imagination a bit, I can almost hear the congregation singing the melodious hymns that expressed the great themes of Irish Catholic life: the Blessed Sacrament, the Sacred Heart, Our Lady and the Pope.

Tough though it was, those families who gathered at Corradinna — and at other Mass Rocks around the country — were faithful to the call they had received from God. When the Blessed Mother appeared in Ireland in 1879 (at Knock), the apparition included a Lamb on an altar and St. John the Evangelist in bishop's robes. It was heaven's way of recognizing the Irish people's faithfulness to the Mass and to the Church during centuries of persecution.

And it is precisely because of that faithfulness, muddy boots and all, that I am Catholic today. Those men and women, with the help of heroic priests, passed on the baton of faith to their children down through the centuries until I arrived. And my mother and father passed it on to me by making it easy for me to go to confession and making sure I attended Mass every Sunday. When I was growing up, priests were allowed to celebrate Mass in our parish church. Our shoes weren't muddy any longer, but it was the same Mass as at Corradinna.

When my wife and I were blessed with children, we were living far away from Corradinna. But still the question is: Will I work as hard to pass on the baton as my ancestors did?

Some words of Christ have impressed me greatly in this regard: “Freely you have been given, freely you must share” (Matthew 10:6). The people who gathered at Corradinna in centuries past saw to it that I was provided with a priceless gift. Now it is my turn to pass it on. And although my wife and I can do some of this process at home, it is still essential for our children to have access to priests. So I try to make it easy for my children to go to confession regularly and to Mass every Sunday and holy day.

My children's shoes are usually clean at Mass, although I do not insist on this.

Now, whenever I attend Mass and the priest invites us to pray the Our Father, I find myself going back in imagination to Corradinna. In my mind's eye I see the priest at the Mass Rock and the hillside covered by crowds of men, women and children in muddy boots, all doing the same thing that makes us Catholic to this very day: calling upon God as father in the midst of the church. And in solidarity with those ancestors of mine, I like to recite the words of the Our Father in the Irish language.

It is a small token of my profound gratitude to them (and to St. Patrick) for passing on to me the priceless baton of the Catholic faith.

Dermott J. Mullan writes from Elkton, Maryland.

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