A Mountain That “Moves”
IN THE west of Ireland, the unique conical shape of Croagh Patrick stands out from the surrounding mountains. Each year, on the last Sunday of July, the mountaintop appears to be moving when as many as 30,000 people, young and old alike, climb to the summit (2,510 feet [765 m]) on an annual pilgrimage.
On this day, pilgrims ascend and descend on a pathway that is narrow, rough, and, in places, precarious. In fact, the final ascent (approximately a thousand feet [300 m]) is extremely steep and consists almost entirely of loose rock, thus making the climb hazardous as well as exhausting.
Some will make this climb barefoot, and a few will even complete some parts on their knees. In times past, the pilgrimage began in the dark of night.
Why is Croagh Patrick such an important experience for so many?
Long Established as a Place of Pilgrimage
In the early part of the fifth century C.E., the Roman Catholic Church sent Patrick as a missionary bishop to Ireland. His main objective was to convert the Irish to Christianity, and during his years of preaching and working among the people, Patrick is credited with having laid the foundation for the Catholic Church there.
His work took him to a number of locations throughout the country. One was the west of Ireland where, according to some sources, he spent 40 days and nights on top of a mountain that came to be named after him—Croagh Patrick (meaning “Hill of Patrick”). There he fasted and prayed for the success of his mission.
Over the years many legends have developed about his exploits. One of the most famous is that while on that mountain, Patrick banished all the snakes from Ireland.
Tradition has it that he built a small church on the summit. Although that building is long since gone, the original foundation still exists, and the site as well as the mountain has been a place of pilgrimage through the years.
Features of the Pilgrimage
For someone advanced in years or who is not used to mountain climbing, just to complete the three-mile [5 km] uphill trek and descend safely is an accomplishment in itself.
At strategic places along the path, emergency teams stand ready to deal with an assortment of injuries.
There are three places, or stations, en route where the pilgrims perform various penitential exercises. These are fully explained on a notice board at the start of the climb.—See box.
Why Do They Climb?
Why do so many make this arduous pilgrimage? Why do some go to such extremes when they make the climb?
Well, some believe that by praying during the pilgrimage, their petitions for personal benefit are more likely to be heard. Others do it in pursuit of forgiveness for some wrongdoing. For others, this is a way of saying thanks. Certainly, many go for the social aspect of it. One authority remarked that it was ‘an expression of community spirit and communal love.’ He also said that climbing Croagh Patrick “was their way of following in St. Patrick’s footsteps and of recognising the debt they owed him in faith.” He added that, most important, the climb is “a form of penance because the physical exertion involved is a real penitential exercise. The slow climb to the top is a long act of contrition.”
One man stated proudly that he had made the climb 25 times! He did it, he said, “to do a bit of penance!” Another man explained simply, “No pain, no gain!”
Although it is not essential, many climb the mountain barefoot. Why do that? First, they consider the ground to be “holy” and so remove their shoes. Second, it is in keeping with their objective of ‘doing a bit of penance.’ This also explains why some even perform the stations on their knees.
Moved to Appreciate the Creator
But what if someone did not share the religious sentiments of pilgrims who climb on a special day? With good weather conditions and a strong pair of shoes, the mountain can be climbed at any time. We did not climb on a day when a moving mass of pilgrims was making the ascent. During our frequent pauses to rest, we were able to reflect on the climb itself and the effect it has had on so many. Imagining thousands of pilgrims making this strenuous climb and performing the various penitential exercises, we felt impelled to wonder, ‘Is this what God requires? Does the ritual of climbing or walking around certain monuments while reciting prayers repetitiously really draw anyone closer to God?’ What about Jesus’ counsel on repetitious prayers at Matthew 6:6, 7?
Certainly, we did not climb the mountain to have a religious experience. Still, we did feel closer to our Creator because we could appreciate his creation, mountains anywhere being a part of earth’s wonders. From the summit we were able to enjoy an unhindered view of the beautiful landscape, even seeing where the land met the Atlantic Ocean. The small islands shimmering in the bay below us on one side contrasted vividly with the rugged and barren mountainous region on the other.
We thought of the three stations. The words of Jesus himself came to mind, when he told his true followers: “When praying, do not say the same things over and over again, just as the people of the nations do, for they imagine they will get a hearing for their use of many words.”—Matthew 6:7.
We realized that the mountain had become part of a tradition that has bound thousands of people in laborious ritual. We considered how that contrasted with the freedom spoken of by the apostle John when he said: “We observe his [God’s] commandments; and yet his commandments are not burdensome.”—1 John 5:3.
We enjoyed our outing, including the climb up Croagh Patrick. It moved us to look forward to the time when all mankind will be freed from nonbiblical traditions and be able to worship earth’s loving Creator “with spirit and truth.”—John 4:24.
[Box on page 27]
Main Features of Pilgrimage
Every pilgrim who ascends the mountain on St. Patrick’s Day or within the octave, or any time during the months of June, July, August & September, & PRAYS IN OR NEAR THE CHAPEL for the intentions of the Pope may gain a plenary indulgence on condition of going to Confession and Holy Communion on the Summit or within the week.
THE TRADITIONAL STATIONS
There are three “stations” (1) At the base of the cone or Leacht Benain, (2) On the summit, (3) Roilig Muire, some distance down the Lecanvey [a town] side of the mountain.
1st Station - LEACHT BENAIN
The pilgrim walks seven times around the mound of stones saying 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Marys and one Creed
2nd Station - THE SUMMIT
(a) The pilgrim kneels and says 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Marys and one Creed
(b) The pilgrim prays near the Chapel for the Pope’s intentions
(c) The pilgrim walks 15 times around the Chapel saying 15 Our Fathers, 15 Hail Mary’s and one Creed
(d) The pilgrim walks 7 times around Leaba Phadraig [Patricks’ Bed] saying 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Marys and one Creed
3rd Station - ROILIG MUIRE
The pilgrim walks 7 times around each mound of stones saying 7 Our Fathers, 7 Hail Marys and one Creed at each [there are three mounds] and finally goes around the whole enclosure of Roilig Muire 7 times praying.