While it is not yet possible to welcome pilgrims, the spiritual storehouse that is Lough Derg is very much open Fr La Flynn tells Michael Kelly
In a normal year, Lough Derg in Co. Donegal would now be putting the finishing touches to plans to welcome pilgrims to the penitential island. But these are not normal times. The coronavirus pandemic has jettisoned many a plan and – at least for now – the pilgrimage site known as St Patrick’s Purgatory will not welcome visitors for the traditional three-day pilgrimage.
But, conscious that pilgrims have been drawn to Lough Derg from ancient times, the current prior Fr La Flynn has decided that he will move to the island next month – the day when pilgrims would normally be expected – and remain on the island keeping a prayerful presence until pilgrims are free to join him when restrictions are lifted.
Fr La insists that his presence is a reminder “that Lough Derg hasn’t gone away, and while at this particular stage people cannot yet physically come to us, my sense was that it was my place to be there”.
He is also determined to try to keep up some of the normal routine of the island so that pilgrims know it is there as a powerhouse of prayer. He will celebrate Mass each morning at 6.30am and recite night payer at 9.30pm – the traditional times that pilgrims would gather together. Fr La will also make one station prayer in his bare feet every day.
While the island – at least at the beginning of the season – will not physically welcome pilgrims, Fr La has been inspired by the many petitions that he receives online from all over the world asking for prayers. He responds to each request personally and, more importantly, brings every intention to prayer.
So far, Lough Derg has successfully hosted a number of one-day retreats online during the month of May. Fr La says the response has been overwhelming while admitting it’s been a “very different experience”.
“We are still here, and in some sense we are offering to go on pilgrimage and to meet people where they are,” he says.
Fr La is modest about his decision to move to the island and demurs at any suggestion that it is heroic or he is taking on the life of a hermit.
“You could say that, in a sense. But, I wouldn’t be pushing that…I wouldn’t like to overstate it,” he says.
“It’s important for me that it would be authentic, and that it would be a symbol of solidarity for people who would normally come and would have a strong desire to come but are prevented from making the pilgrimage,” Fr La says.
He is also inviting people to join in the full pilgrimage with him remotely on the last weekend of June (26-28). This, Fr La says, is “not a virtual pilgrimage in the sense that the invitation will be for people to keep vigil and make the stations at home just as if they were physically present on the island”.
He is optimistic that he will be able to welcome actual pilgrims later in the season. “By the current version of the roadmap we would be hopeful that we would be able to open for the last week in July and the August fortnight” he says.
He has already set up a sub-group that has begun to work through the public health protocols to ensure that staff feel safe and happy to receive pilgrims “in confidence and safety”.
When the island does re-open for pilgrims, Fr La is conscious that things won’t proceed as usual. “We wouldn’t be able to have the weekend numbers that we would normally have…so there’d be a call to be made about what our capacity might be”. This will mean implementing a booking process rather than the tradition of people just turning up to join the pilgrimage.
Fr La says he has been “very moved” by the numbers of people who are determined to come once the island is open.
Those who will be joining Fr La on the pilgrimage from afar on the last weekend in June are not the first pilgrims to complete the Lough Derg experience at a distance from the island. Almost a century ago in 1921, a group of detainees from the prison camp in Ballykinlar in Co. Down performed the pilgrimage in the camp after permission was sought from the prior. The pilgrimage lasted from August 11-15 and the prisoners performed three extra stations as the governor would not allow the 24-hour vigil. All other regulations of the pilgrimage were performed and the prior had commemorative medals struck for the prisoners and presented them to each of the men who took part. Two years later, 194 Republican internees on board the prison ship Argenta took part in a special pilgrimage on board the ship when it was moored in Belfast Lough in August. The prison chaplain sent the prior a list of the names and they too received a commemorative medal to mark the occasion.
“This was a real pilgrimage without the travel,” Fr La insists, “and that’s what we’re proposing to offer this year as well: to make the pilgrimage – the full pilgrimage – on three days Saturday, June 27 to Monday, June 29.
“We are going to offer people the chance to register and join with me in making the pilgrimage – but they’ll be registering to make the pilgrimage with the full pilgrimage exercises wherever they are.”
“They’ll be on ‘pilgrim’s honour’,” Fr La says, “that if they register they will do the whole pilgrimage with the fast, vigil and stations at home.”
Fr La is conscious that the Covid-19 lockdown is having a dramatic effect on people emotionally, spiritually and mentally. As well as the loss of livelihoods, he is conscious that people are missing the public celebration of Mass and other liturgies. But he is also conscious that the enduring presence of Lough Derg is a sign of hope and a promise that things will get better, for the island too has known tough times.
In October 1632, the Protestant Bishop of Clogher James Spottiswoode personally supervised the destruction of everything on the island. Well, almost everything.
“For me, the most moving stone on Lough Derg is the column that we call St Patrick’s Cross – as far as we know it was the only thing retrieved from the lake [after the destruction],” he says.
For many centuries, pilgrims have come to Lough Derg from all over the known world. It’s clear that Fr La is conscious of the mantle he now carries as prior. “What is entrusted to us is the tradition of Lough Derg. And at this particular absolutely unique time the challenge for us is to ask: ‘how can we be faithful to the tradition of Lough Derg?’”
Fr La answers his own question by quoting the hymn The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, is Ended where the hymnist asserts that “the voice of prayer is never silent”.
“And that’s particularly true for Lough Derg. It’s true from season to season, and from century to century. But it’s particularly true of the 10 or 11 weeks of the three-day pilgrimage. That from those who come at the beginning of June, to those who leave on August 15, the vigil goes on from day to day – and the voice of prayer is never silent.
“That’s what is entrusted to us – and that’s why I’m going to the island: to, in some humble way, be a token of the fact that the voice of prayer on Lough Derg is not going to be silenced by Covid-19,” Fr La says.