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A Dublin Tour

August 14, 2008

A Dublin Tour

Each week I join Mr. Rob Astorino for a one-hour program on the Catholic Channel, No. 159, of Sirius Satellite Radio. Rob is the program director of the channel and acts as my interlocutor for the show, which is aired on Thursdays at 1 p.m., Saturdays at 6 a.m., Sundays at 9 a.m. and 6 p.m. and Mondays at midnight. The format of what we have come to call "A Conversation With the Cardinal" includes a different theme each week having to do with Theology, Sacred Scripture, Church History or even Canon Law; a discussion of liturgies and events in which I have been involved as Archbishop of New York; and the answering of questions that listeners pose in letters, telephone calls and especially e-mail.

Some weeks ago I reported that I had been in Rome for meetings at the Vatican and later in Dublin for some days of prayer and reflection. Shortly thereafter I received a letter from a man living in one of the upper counties of the Archdiocese with a very courteously expressed complaint. He reminded me that, when I go away from New York for whatever reason, I usually describe on "A Conversation With the Cardinal" what I have seen and heard. "You were in Rome and you told of your visit to the church where St. Paul had been held prisoner, and you told it both on Sirius Satellite Radio and in an article in Catholic New York. But not a word about your days in Dublin. How about an article about 'Dublin's Fair City' in Catholic New York? With a name like 'Egan' you have to have Irish blood in your veins."

I examined my conscience and concluded that my correspondent was 100 percent correct. Here is an effort to make amends.

The doctor who replaced my left knee some years ago told me that I should try to take a walk each day to keep the legs in shape and the knee in operation. In New York this is not easy to do because of an overcrowded calendar. In Dublin, however, I followed the doctor's orders, made my way on foot to a church or shrine each day, and came away from all of them both informed and inspired.

One Sunday, having celebrated Mass very early in the morning, I walked over to St. Mary's Pro-Cathedral for Mass there at 8 o'clock. The two historic cathedrals of Dublin—St. Patrick's and Christ Church—were taken over by Established Anglican Church in the 1500s; and it was not until early in the 1800s that the Catholics were permitted to build another for themselves. It was to be on O'Connell Street, one of the principal thoroughfares of the City. This, however, was disallowed by the Protestant establishment. Hence, it is located on Marlborough Street in a less elegant area known as "Monto."

As the Mass was about to conclude, a priest approached the podium to announce that the Pro-Cathedral's celebrated Palestrina Choir, which once included the great Irish tenor, John McCormack, was on vacation. Its place at the 10:30 Mass would be taken, he said, by the Chorus of the City of Dublin. I decided to stay for yet another liturgy.

The pews of the imposing edifice were two-thirds full for the 8 o'clock Mass and packed for the 10:30. I was deeply taken by every element of the celebration. The ceremonies were dignified, the homily was insightful and the choir was a delight. Indeed, the music was so outstanding that, at the conclusion of the final chorus, the congregation broke into applause. What impressed me most, however, was the age of the congregation. I had been led to expect only gray heads. Such, however, was not the case. Men and women in their 20s, 30s and 40s were the majority, many with children in tow. When I returned to where I was staying, the morning newspaper featured the priestly ordination of three young men in the Pro-Cathedral the day before. I could not imagine a more encouraging climax to my visit to St. Mary's.

The Carmelite Church known as Whitefriars was another destination of my daily walks. It is immense and most deserving of a visit from anyone coming to Dublin. In the 16th century, it was seized by King Henry VIII and closed until 1827, when the Carmelite Fathers, the "Whitefriars," reopened and renovated it. I attended a noon Mass there one weekday. Well over 200 men and women were at prayer in a lovely liturgy made doubly moving by a homily that focused on St. Benedict of Norcia, the founder of Western monasticism and the saint of the day.

On the right aisle as I entered, I discovered with delight a mammoth shrine, the centerpiece of which is a tall, carved-oak statue of the Madonna that is alleged to be the only such image to have escaped the onslaughts of King Henry and his successors. As I was about to move into a pew, however, my attention was caught by another less impressive shrine on the opposite wall, the centerpiece of which is a stand into which a relic of St. Valentine given to the church by Pope Gregory XVI in 1837 has been inserted and above which one finds a brightly painted statue of the saint. Next to the stand is a table on which is placed a large, open book, bound in leather and accompanied by a sign inviting the faithful to write a prayer to St. Valentine in the book. There were several such prayers written on the page before me. One, however, that was printed on a scrap of paper and inserted into the book's binding was of particular note. It read: "Holy Saint, help me thank the Lord for my wonderful wife." When the Mass was over, I passed a long line of men and women waiting to go to Confession and moved out into the street. The sun was shining, the prayer to St. Valentine was still ringing in my mind's ear, and all seemed right with the world.

Trinity College is neither a church nor a shrine. It is, however, built on land once owned by Augustinian monks and in 1592 confiscated by order of Queen Elizabeth I. What no Catholic visitor to this institution of learning, whose students are now largely Catholic, will want to miss is to be found in the building known as the "Old Library." It is the "Book of Kells," one of the oldest books in the world, dated around 800 and containing the four Gospels, Prefaces for Masses and other assorted prayers—all in Latin and embellished with some of the most intricate decorations anyone could imagine. I went to see it, first and foremost, for reasons spiritual, since one cannot look at its pages without sensing that they are prayers in art and a testament to a most profound love for the Word of God.

The volume is made up of 680 pages and was produced in the Monastery of St. Columcille on the Island of Iona. Early in the 800s it was taken to County Meath in Ireland, where it was stolen in 1007. Found buried three months later, it was restored and finally brought to Trinity College in 1654. Two pages were open for me to see. The most elaborately decorated was the title page of the Gospel of St. Matthew, containing three Greek letters for "Christos," that is, "Christ." They are painted in bright orange, yellow and red and are so full of details that the eye does not know where to settle. Embellished with images of angels, animals and flowers of various kinds, they powerfully proclaim an indomitable reverence for what our God has shared with us in the Scriptures and in the prayers of His Church.

Shortly before leaving Dublin, a priest friend told me that I absolutely had to visit the Kilmainham Gaol (Jail), the infamous institution in which so many Irish men and women were held and killed because of love of and loyalty to their land and their faith. "Take the tour," he said, "and at the first stop you will see why this place is a 'must' for a Catholic, and especially a Catholic priest."

He was right on target. For the first room to which our group was taken by the very articulate and very Catholic guide was a windowless chapel whose altar and other liturgical appurtenances had been fashioned out of wood by prisoners who were being ferociously mistreated and in not a few instances slowly starved to death.

Two young men from the United States in jackets announcing the university they were attending or had attended went down on their knees when the guide finished her description of the place, made the Sign of the Cross and remained kneeling with their heads bowed. Three others followed suit, as did I. In all frankness, I must confess that I listened to the rest of the tour with a certain indifference. For I did not want to lose the sense of deep-down holiness that had suddenly taken hold. Thankfully, it remained with me as we left the last stop of the tour, an exercise yard where, after the Easter Rising of 1916, a host of Ireland's most beloved heroes were executed. There was nothing in the yard apart from two black crosses, one of which marked where 12 rebel commanders were killed leaning against a pile of sacks and the second marking where the celebrated James Connolly, sick unto death, was killed while strapped to a chair. They spoke volumes about so much pain borne by so many for so long.

I left the Gaol in haste so as to visit one of the non-Catholic Cathedrals, Christ Church. The reason was my desire to say a prayer near the reliquary that is said to contain the heart of St. Lawrence O'Toole, who became the first Archbishop of Dublin in 1162, attended the Third Lateran Ecumenical Council in Rome, and gallantly defended the rights and interests of the Church against the intrusions of King Henry II. As I waited to pay for a book about the saint that I was purchasing for the pastor of St. Lawrence O'Toole parish in Brewster, New York, I caught sight of a rather large area for the sale of religious goods on my right. Hanging on the longest wall were dozens upon dozens of rosaries of all colors and sizes. I could not help but suspect that St. Lawrence was often amused by the spectacle from his place in heaven. Certainly, I was, from my place in "Dublin's Fair—And Holy—City."

Edward Cardinal Egan
Archbishop of New York

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