A remarkable student retreat

December 20, 2021 in News

Secret Masses in penal times, a mother whose own son imprisoned her for not swearing allegiance to the English Crown, and the place where Gay Byrne’s funeral Mass was said. All this was part of the Clongowes College Transition Year retreat that the students took part in recently.

Sean O’Rourke, Faith Development worker in the school, took the boys on a Pilgrim Path around six churches in Dublin, including St Francis Xavier Church in Gardiner St. Their facilitator for the day, Anita Phelan, led them in prayer, reflection and story-telling. It turned out to be a deeply moving and meditative day for all involved as is clear from this detailed and evocative account below from Sean.

Pupils on the pilgrim path

“May I find in myself… a secret stillness…” These words of John O’Donoghue greeted Transition Year students yesterday in reflective booklets as they gathered for ‘A Pilgrim Path’ retreat across the churches of Dublin.

At the same time, they were welcomed warmly by an experienced and embodied stillness in our facilitator, Anita Phelan, whose depth of presence, care, and attention for students was palpable. “God is your friend… You have a relationship with God… Let me tell you about my nephew…” Anita began and led the day through story, and retreatants were entirely hooked.

Suddenly revealed were the martyred histories of ‘Adam and Eve’s pub’ where secret Masses were celebrated in penal times, the arrival of the Franciscan Order to Dublin, and the many people and services who remain and are catered for today.

After some prayer and group reflection, participants wandered through the Church and were able to appreciate the art and architecture more fully, venturing upstairs to behind stained glass windows and into the former friars’ chairs. Students were invited to light candles for their own intentions, friends, and families, and then processed to the Procathedral where further history, beauty, and blessings were invoked.

On the outside of the ‘Pro students were introduced to a statue commemorating two martyrs for the Irish Church, a mother whose own son imprisoned her for not swearing allegiance to the English Crown, and a former archbishop of Dublin who died also while defending the faith.

Once inside, our students had an opportunity for adoration with parishioners of the Blessed Sacrament, as the light shone wonderfully through the Church’s stained-glass, and Anita introduced the students to further history of St Mary’s and Christian mediation. We heard of Pope Francis’ visit to the Procathedral in 2018, the many State ceremonies that have taken place on site, and the funeral of beloved former journalist, Gay Byrne whose funeral Mass was celebrated by Irish Jesuit Provincial, Leonard Moloney SJ.

Next, we were invited to a side chapel to interact with a number of artifacts and chalices of the Archdiocese, and most impressively and generously, led into the Church’s crypt by the general manager, Robbie. Venturing under the Church building was thrilling, as students learned of the underground passages that connect St Mary’s to other churches across Dublin City and the GPO. This same passageway had been used by the revolutionaries of the 1916 Rising, which once discovered by the British, put a stop to the rebellion forces’ smuggling of arms and ammunition.

We also saw the tombs of the wealthy and poor families who were buried there, in addition to archbishops of the past century. The pilgrimage continued next to St Saviour’s Dominican Church, where participants were invited to write a personal letter to God, and introduced to the many events run by the parish and for young people.

The stunning rose window and gothic design shone through the mid-morning light, as students became still once again in a reflection led by our facilitator: “What is it that you’re carrying? What is it that you need?”

Anita shared what it meant to pray to God, “Prayer is not about reaming off loads of Hail Marys and Our Fathers,” she said, “although they can be helpful.” Prayer is a personal encounter of hearts with the Trinity of Love, illustrated beautifully by a story of a seven-year-old Anita knew, who said, ‘I just like to talk to God… I like to ask how His day is going!”’

Participants next had a lunch opportunity at the Garden of Remembrance, overlooking the Cross at the centre and appreciating the many who had given their lives for Irish freedom. Some left for local delis and takeaway spots for nourishment, as Anita shared, “I have learned in this job to go with the flow of a day,” and “let the Spirit carry the group.”

This contrasted with Anita’s experience of classroom setting in schools, where she taught for over ten years and served also as a guidance counsellor. Curriculum outcomes, structure, and strict timings were not as applicable on a retreat day, as one had to meet the kids in a more holistic, pastoral manner.

Our final stop in the tour (normally there would be five churches visited) was at St Francis Xavier’s Church in Gardiner Street. The setting and artwork was again stunning, as retreatants reflected on the lives of St Ignatius, Blessed John Sullivan, Peter McVerry SJ, and the current work of the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice.

Further candles lit, and a final reflection and feedback session included insight and contributions. “I found peace in the city,” “I got to connect with God more deeply,” “I will meditate more,” “I prayed,” the students offered.

“I want to leave you with a symbol from the day of blessing and peace,” Anita said, handing out crosses from Medjugorje. “Take this with you, and know that you are welcome in a church at any time.”

Sean O’Rourke
Clongowes Wood College SJ
December 2021