The beginning of June each year marks the start of the traditional Three Day Pilgrimage Season at Lough Derg.
In normal times the June holiday weekend on Station Island would be busy with hundreds of pilgrims crossing over to take off their shoes and begin their ‘Station’.
This year the Prior, Fr La Flynn, will move alone to the island to keep a prayerful presence there until pilgrims are able to return, please God, in the later months of the summer.
Fr La comments on why he is determined to keep the tradition of prayer alive during this time of pandemic:
“Lough Derg is still here. At this time of year for many centuries now, pilgrims have come to this place apart, to this out-of-the-way corner of God’s creation.
“They come to ‘do Lough Derg’ – to make space for the deeper things, to find peace, spiritual nourishment and new direction on their journey of life.
“At this extraordinary moment in history, the challenge for us who are entrusted with the tradition of Lough Derg is to ask ourselves: How can we be faithful to its tradition and show solidarity with those faithful pilgrims who would normally be here but are currently prevented from making the pilgrimage?”
In normal times pilgrims cross over daily from the beginning of June until the close of the season on 15th August, and they keep the continuity of the vigil prayer from day to day.
For many of them it is a family tradition that connects the generations and they come, not only from across the island of Ireland but from far beyond, as pilgrims who want ‘to do Lough Derg’.
Talking about undertaking this prayerful witness from 1st June, Fr La quotes a well-known evening hymn The Day Thou Gavest Lord Is Ended, which includes the line: “the voice of prayer is never silent”.
He added: “I hope that – in some humble way – I can be that voice of prayer on Lough Derg until the pilgrims can return.
“This is not any heroic act on my behalf.
“It is a small prayerful witness on behalf of pilgrims who would otherwise be here themselves.
“It is also a token of assurance to those who have sent their petitions and prayers to Lough Derg, that these will be placed before God through the intercession of St Patrick.
“Many of these prayers speak of the struggles, the challenges and the loss that people have been experiencing during this time of the Covid-19 pandemic, and of their trust that God is with them, to see them through.
Fr La continues with the announcement of a historic opportunity that Lough Derg will offer over three days from 27th to 29th June this year.
“Pilgrims who will not be able to come to the Island this season are invited to do Lough Derg from wherever they are, alongside the Prior and some members of the Lough Derg Pastoral team who will take their shoes off to do the full pilgrimage over that weekend.
The Prior explains: “We are inviting pilgrims to do Lough Derg from afar. This happened on two occasions almost a century ago.
“In 1921 about 250 detainees at a prison camp in Ballykinlar in Co Down sought permission to perform the pilgrimage exercises there in the camp.
“Two years later the same request was made by 194 Republican internees on board the prison ship Argenta moored in Belfast Lough.
“On both occasions, because of the exceptional circumstances, the Prior granted permission to do Lough Derg from afar.”
He smiles as he clarifies that this time too it will not be a virtual pilgrimage, but it will involve the full pilgrimage exercises, wherever the pilgrim may be.
Registration will be open on the Lough Derg websites from Wednesday 3rd June.
Lough Derg is hoping to welcome pilgrims later in the summer when present restrictions have been eased and people can return with confidence.
Fr La concluded: “We have begun our preparations for reopening and once we have assessed the public health requirements and the Church guidelines we will be in a stronger position to make an announcement on the date the Island programmes will resume.”