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For the Preservation of the Deposit of the Faith
For the Kingdom of God to come!
The Count of Montalembert, who has travelled for a long time in Ireland, has written beautiful pages on the people of this country, which European civilization has in turn persecuted, betrayed and forgotten; a people who have lived by one thing only, faith; and who have kept as their only heritage the tombs and beliefs of their fathers. The illustrious writer will tell us himself in a few poignant pages the impressions he felt while visiting these Christians so worthy of our respect and sympathy:
“Many a Sunday, on entering an Irish town, I have seen the streets crowded with ploughmen kneeling in every direction, but turning all their eyes to some low door, some obscure alley which leads to the Catholic chapel, built behind the houses, in those times of persecution when the exercise of worship was a crime of treason. The immense crowd that pressed to enter the narrow and hidden enclosure forbade the access to two thirds of the faithful; but they knew that the mass was being said, and they remained on their knees in the nearby streets to unite themselves in intention with the priest of the Most High. Many times I mingled with them, and I enjoyed the astonishment with which they saw a stranger, a man who was not poor like them, taking the holy water like them and bowing before their altar. Often, from the top of the gallery reserved for women, I have contemplated one of the most curious spectacles that one can conceive, the nave of a Catholic chapel during the sermon. This nave is given over to men; there are no seats, the population rushes in, and these flocks follow one another until the first comers are squeezed against the altar rail, so as not to be able to move a single member. All that can be seen is a moving mass of black-haired heads so close together that you would think one could walk over them without danger. From minute to minute the mass shakes, agitates; long groans, deep sighs are heard; some wipe their eyes, others beat their chests; each oratorical movement of the priest is seized upon instantly, and the impression it produces is never concealed. A cry of love and pain answers each of his prayers, each of his reproaches. It is a father who speaks to his children, and these children adore their father.
“The religious habits of the rural parishes seemed to me even more touching. I shall never forget the first Mass I heard in a country chapel. One day I came to the foot of an escarpment, the base of which was covered with a thick plantation of fir and oak trees; I set foot on the ground to climb it.
“I had hardly taken a few steps when my attention was drawn to a man kneeling at the foot of one of these fir trees; I soon saw several others in the same posture: the higher I climbed, the greater the number of prostrate peasants; finally, at the top of the hill, I saw an edifice in the shape of a cross, built of badly joined stones, without cement and covered with thatch. All around, a crowd of tall, robust and energetic men were kneeling, their heads uncovered, despite the rain that fell in torrents and the mud that sagged under them. A profound silence reigned everywhere. It was the Catholic chapel in Blarney, and the priest was saying mass. I arrived at the moment of the elevation, and all this fervent population prostrated themselves on the ground. I tried to get under the roof of the narrow chapel, which was full of people. There was no seat, no ornament, not even a pavement: the only floor was the damp, stony earth, an open roof, and some candles. I heard the priest announce in Irish, in the language of the Catholic people, that on a certain day he would go, in order to shorten the road of his parishioners, to such and such a hut, which would become, during that time, the house of God, that he would distribute the sacraments there and that he would receive the bread on which his children are fed. Soon the Holy Sacrifice was over; the priest mounted his horse and left; then everyone got up and set out for their homes: some, itinerant ploughmen, carrying their harvesters’ scythes with them, headed for the nearest cottage to ask for hospitality, which is a right; others, taking their wives with them, returned to their distant homes. Many stayed to pray longer to the Lord, prostrate in the mud, in the middle of this silent enclosure chosen by the poor and faithful people in the time of the ancient persecutions.
“And all this is happening not beneath the bright sunshine, under the pure blue sky of Italy, in that atmosphere where devotion is almost a voluptuousness, but under the dark, damp, cold sky of the British Isles, far from all the seductions of the fine arts, next to a factory or a plant.
“The foreigner who saw these things had also knelt with these poor Christians, and he had risen with a heart full of pride, of happiness, in thinking that he too was of that religion which does not die, which has survived the gigantic triumphs of the Middle Ages, the cruel struggles of the Reformation, to the perfidious splendors of Louis XIV, to the merciless persecution of the last century, and which, at the moment when the incredulity that its eternity wearies hastens to dig a tomb for it, finds itself in the deserts of Ireland and America, free and poor as at its cradle.
“In the county of Cork, there is a parish composed of two vast islands. When the sea between them is too stormy to allow the inhabitants of one of them to go and hear the Mass of their solitary parish priest, they approach the seashore with their faces turned towards the place where they know the priest is celebrating the holy mysteries, and at the hour he has indicated. There they kneel on the shore, rise at the gospel, prostrate themselves at the elevation, and thus unite themselves, in all the fervent simplicity of their hearts, to the Sacrifice from which the waves and the storm separate them.
“A few years ago, a terrible famine devastated Ireland; the potato crop had failed, and these unfortunate people, who in times of the greatest abundance never have bread to eat, were dying by the thousands. England came to the aid of her vassals by means of a subscription which soon amounted to several millions. But before the necessary supplies arrived, unheard-of misfortunes occurred, and entire regions were depopulated. Among others, the inhabitants of a large parish in one of the most remote counties of Ireland, completely deprived of food, and reduced to the last degree of inanition, were waiting only for death to complete their torment. The Catholic priest had not wished to leave his flock and was starving with them; when he saw that no help was near and that there was no hope, he went from hut to hut saying to them, “My children, in this fatal moment let us not forget our Lord, the Lord God who gives life and takes it away.” At his voice, fifteen hundred naked specters dragged themselves to the church and prostrated themselves there; the priest went up to the altar, and there, stretching his thin hands over the heads of the dying, he chanted the litanies of the dying and the prayers of the dead.
“For myself, I have never seen these solemn episodes, these times of popular and religious exaltation, so numerous in the annals of Ireland. I have only witnessed the spectacle of their daily piety; I have only passed among their trials and their habitual virtues.”
(Count Charles de Montalembert.)