In June 2003, I visited Ireland for the first time. Being 100 percent Irish, I had for a very long time wanted to visit the land of my ancestors. And as I was touring the country, I was duly impressed by all of the predictable Irish experiences: the graciousness of the people, the beauty of the landscape, the neat stone churches and cobblestone streets, and even a few pubs. But the object that provoked the greatest sense of wonder in me was something I never would have predicted.

I was touring a village church in County Clare with some Irish relatives of mine, when in the back of the church they showed me what can only be described as a “wheelbarrow chapel.” It was a wooden-framed chapel mounted on a platform of about 4-feet-by-8-feet, with wheels and handles more or less like those of a wheelbarrow.

I had never seen such a thing before, so of course I asked my relatives what the purpose of this unusual chapel was. They told me the story of a time, during the English occupation of Ireland, when the celebration of Mass was strictly forbidden. The penalty for those caught attending Mass was the seizure of their food vouchers. The vouchers were government-issued coupons redeemable for what was basically the only food available in Ireland at the time. Lose the vouchers, and your family lost its food: a very simple, and a very severe, penalty.

But the people of this village, like so many people throughout Ireland, were good enough to treasure spiritual food more than physical food. And so they built the wheelbarrow chapel. Late at night, the townspeople would pull the chapel down to the seaside — the only place that offered even a reasonable degree of secrecy. There, under the cover of darkness, a local priest would step up into the cramped chapel and celebrate the Mass in sotto voce, a voice so low as to approach a whisper, for the villagers huddled around their tiny new parish church.

The penalty for those caught attending Mass was the seizure of their food vouchers. The vouchers were government-issued coupons redeemable for what was basically the only food available in Ireland at the time. Lose the vouchers, and your family lost its food: a very simple, and a very severe, penalty.

We can only imagine the contrast between the intensity of the prayers of the Mass as they welled up in the hearts of those people and the soft murmuring of their actual vocal responses. And we can only imagine the devotion with which they received the Bread of Life, knowing it was at the risk of losing their only earthly bread.

Stories of celebrating Mass under conditions of persecution are many and riveting. Persecution was such a regular part of life in the early Church that there was a name used for the hidden nature of the Mass: the disciplina arcani, or “discipline of the secret.” And this need to “go underground” has been a recurring theme throughout the centuries, even down to our own age in places where practicing the Catholic faith is forbidden. The late Jesuit priest Servant of God Fr. Walter Ciszek, who was a prisoner in Soviet prisons and Siberian labor camps from 1940-63, tells the story of a rare opportunity he had to celebrate Mass while in the Dudinka prison camp.

In his book, With God in Russia, Fr. Ciszek writes:

That first night, they brought us a half liter of soup apiece and two hundred grams of kasha, plus hot water. We wolfed it down. Then everyone collapsed on the plank bunks like a company of dead men. After years in prison with little exercise, this first day of hard work had been torture. My muscles were too numb even to ache; every sinew felt like a piece of twine that had been unwound and shredded into string … Toward the end of the first week in Dudinka, Fr. Casper came looking for me in the barracks one night. Some of his Poles had told him there was another priest in the camp. He found me before I had a chance to look him up and asked me if I wanted to say Mass. I was overwhelmed! My last Mass had been said in Chusovoy more than five years ago. I made arrangements to meet him in his barrack the next morning as soon as the six o’clock signal sounded.

The men in Fr. Casper’s barrack were mostly Poles. They revered him as a priest, protected him, and he tried to say Mass for them at least once a week. They made the Mass wine for him out of raisins … the altar breads from flour “appropriated” in the kitchen. My chalice that morning was a whiskey glass, the paten to hold the host was a gold disc from a pocket watch. But my joy at being able to celebrate Mass again cannot be described.

Today, many people seem to prefer flashy church services with high levels of emotional intensity to Holy Mass. So, it is a good time for us to see with fresh eyes the beauty and the genius of the Mass. In the Mass, the most powerful mysteries of God are communicated to mere mortals. And this communication of divine gifts happens by means of a ritual …

  • beautiful enough to be fittingly celebrated in the majesty of St. Peter’s Basilica, but also simple enough to be celebrated in a wooden chapel mounted on a wheelbarrow on the beaches of Ireland;
  • grand enough to be celebrated by hundreds of thousands of people at every World Youth Day, but also brief enough to be memorized, so that devout priests could write the prayers down from memory and celebrate with only a few huddled prisoners in a Soviet labor camp;
  • contemporary enough to be celebrated here in the Archdiocese of Detroit in 2019, but also traditional enough that we do — in substance — the very same thing done 2,000 years ago by the Lord Jesus, the night before He would die for our salvation.

“Do this in memory of me,” Jesus told His apostles that night. And the gift, and the mystery, and the duty of the Mass have been handed down from generation to generation of Catholics ever since, down to this very moment, when we gather not merely to remember what Jesus did, but to do what He did, and to do this in the kind of remembrance of Him that makes Him present to us once again, in a way that is more perfect, more complete than any other way we find Jesus present in our world.

Today, of course, we face, not the swords or guns of persecutors, not the fear of capture or starvation, but only a little inconvenience, the need to give up just a little time. The sacrifices required for us to attend Mass are so small that those who have been persecuted would certainly pray, and perhaps would even weep, for us, if they knew how easily our generation is distracted from what is essential.

Today, of course, we face, not the swords or guns of persecutors, not the fear of capture or starvation, but only a little inconvenience, the need to give up just a little time. The sacrifices required for us to attend Mass are so small that those who have been persecuted would certainly pray, and perhaps would even weep, for us, if they knew how easily our generation is distracted from what is essential.

As we celebrate the Solemnity of Corpus Christi this year, may we who enjoy the privilege of celebrating Holy Mass in peace and freedom never be tempted to use words like “boring” to describe it, or to think of other things as more important. Instead, may our hearts burn with thanksgiving for the awesome gift of celebrating Mass, of receiving Jesus’ Body and Blood, and, to use the words of St. Paul, of “proclaim(ing) the death of the Lord until he comes,” the death that, at each of our parish altars, brings us new life.

Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.