By Katherine Long | Editor

Bishop Robert J. Cunningham and the Catholic Sun led a pilgrimage to Ireland Oct. 9 to 19, bringing 27 pilgrims to spiritual, historic, and scenic sites across the Emerald Isle, and leaving with each pilgrim transformed.

Every day included Mass and prayer, history and lore, nourishment for soul and mind.

We were blessed to visit the illuminated Gospel manuscript known as the Book of Kells at Trinity College in Dublin; the ruins of Mellifont Abbey, the first Cistercian abbey founded in Ireland; Monasterboice, the site of a monastery founded by St. Buite; and the Rock of Cashel, reputed to be the site where St. Patrick baptized King Aengus.

We offered prayers before the relics of St. Oliver Plunkett at St. Peter’s Church in Drogheda; at the stone at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick said to mark the burial ground of St. Patrick; and at the Tobernalt holy well where, in penal times, the Catholic faith was practiced in seclusion.

We traveled through Northern Ireland, learning about the pain of the past and witnessing the promise of the present and future.

We experienced the exhilarating beauty of God’s creation in the basalt pillars of the Giant’s Causeway and the soaring cliffs of Slieve League.

We enjoyed the hospitality of the Irish people everywhere, but were especially blessed by visits with Father Dean Laverty and the community at the Church of the Holy Family in Ardara; Archbishop of Cashel and Emly Kieran O’Reilly; and Father Willie Purcell, Ireland’s National Vocations Coordinator.

We celebrated our final Mass together at St. Mary’s Church in Clonmel — the parish where Bishop Cunningham’s grandmother was baptized. As Bishop noted in his homily, Clonmel’s parish church is in some ways where our journey began so many years ago — through the faith passed down by those who came before us.

(We even weathered Hurricane Ophelia, thanks to our intrepid guide Pierce Kavanagh and team, and the prayers of many at home.)

Photos and posts from each day of the pilgrimage can be found here.

Bishop Cunningham and Father Joe O’Connor, pastor of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Baldwinsville, and who assisted on the pilgrimage, provided each pilgrim with a journal as we departed Syracuse. The pocket-sized pages supplied each day’s readings, quotes from Scripture or a saint, prayers, and prayer advice.

The journal also highlighted a quote from Benedictine Sister Macrina Wiederkehr: “A pilgrimage is a ritual journey with a hallowed purpose. Every step along the way has meaning. The pilgrim knows that life-giving challenges will emerge. A pilgrimage is not a vacation; it is a transformational journey during which significant change takes place. New insights are given. Deeper understanding is attained. New and old places in the heart are visited. Blessings are received and healing takes place. On return from the pilgrimage, life is seen with different eyes. Nothing will ever be quite the same again.”

Each pilgrim was invited to consider what he or she hoped to gain during the journey. Upon our return, several pilgrims offered reflections on the graces they received:

“I discovered how relatively easy it can be to set aside time for reflection each day as we did in praying the Rosary each day we journeyed, and that setting aside time for reflection on matters of faith is essential to maturing in one’s faith. It just takes determination and commitment on my part. How could I not realize God’s great love for me while viewing the fantastic Irish landscape and sensing the warmth of the Irish people? But I realize this can be found all around me in everyday life — it just requires that I stop and take time for reflection. I also benefitted from the example of my fellow pilgrims — some who were daunting in their ability to cope with changeable weather conditions and somewhat difficult terrain. Seeing them push ever onward despite these inconveniences to complete their journey of faith to me was astounding and strengthening.” — Karen McBride, Utica

“The most significant grace I received on the pilgrimage was a new level of awareness. Father O’Connor ended one of his homilies with a ‘Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ thought we could use at bedtime when reviewing our activities for that day. Were there situations today when I was too hard on a person or perhaps on myself? Was there an incident when I was too soft and should have spoken up or reacted with more firmness? And finally, were there things I did or said today that were just right — not too hard and not too soft?” — Tina Dyer, Fulton

“How beautiful it was to not only share the delicious Irish food and drink with our fellow pilgrim travelers but also to receive the heavenly (Eucharistic) food at daily Mass at the many beautiful Catholic churches in Ireland! It was inspiring to learn more about the life of St. Patrick at the Center in Downpatrick and to see the relics of St. Oliver Plunkett at St. Peter’s Church in Drogheda. It was a blessing to meet new Catholic friends from our diocese while traveling through the many beautiful areas of Ireland. Our tour guide Pierce made the trip extra special with his splendid commentary and his attention and detail to each one of us.  He really made the ‘sun shine’ even when we were traveling through the remnants of Hurricane Ophelia.” — Elizabeth Oczkowski, Baldwinsville

“Our faith can sometimes be taken for granted, especially when we are born into and raised in a Roman Catholic family. Having visited Northern Ireland on our pilgrimage, I can really appreciate how important our religious freedom is. I feel compassion for our ancestors — they had to struggle, and some had to give their lives for their belief in God. Our trip was truly enjoyable in all aspects. We happily made new friends and hope to keep in touch. We will always remember the sacred places we visited and how much our lives have been enriched by this special pilgrimage.” — Diane Daley, Syracuse

“Reflecting back on our pilgrimage to Ireland, I believe I received a sense of inner peace, joy to be with so many wonderful people (now ‘family’), and a love and gratitude for my faith that invited me to open my heart and mind and listen as God speaks to me so that I can move closer to Him. I am definitely not the same person I was before this pilgrimage.” — Carol Caruso, Clark Mills

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