Early this morning my fellow pilgrims and I passed through the town of Killorglin in County Kerry. Killorglin is known for the infamous King Puck. Each year the town hosts a fair in his honor that seems to center mostly around excessive drinking. As were passing through the town, I gave a hat tip to King Puck knowing that there was a more important king whom we would be centering our attention on, a man known as the king of the beggars.
On the main street of Dublin stands a statue in honor of the man who bears the street’s name, Daniel O’Connell. O’Connell lived in Ireland at a time when Catholics did not enjoy the religious freedoms many of us today take for granted. In his book King of the Beggars, Sean O’Faolain describes their situation:
So the people set out on their long journey with but one possession, a not inconsiderable inheritance, their religion. They had not, under the heavens and on the earth, on single other weapon; not land, for they were allowed by law to own none; not schools, for they were allowed by law to enter none; not position, for they were allowed by law to accept none; not so much as a gun, for they were allowed by law to possess none; not so much as a horse, for unless it was worth less than five guineas (and what animal was worth so little!) they were allowed to possess none. They had no churches, even after the great Volunteer Reform of ’82 they could not build a steeple, so that to this day all the older churches in Ireland are without one. Neither had they any episcopacy, or other church organization, except what they were able to preserve underground, and they had for nearly a hundred years to smuggle their priests from abroad. They had, in a word, with that one exception of their faith, nothing, neither a present, nor a past, nor a future. They had no parliament, no vote, no papers, virtually no books , no leaders, no hope.
As I learned more today about the times in which Daniel O’Connell lived, I was reminded once again of how easy it is to take our freedom of religion for granted. It is only a little over 200 years ago that Catholics in Ireland had no such freedom and due in large part to Daniel O’Connell that they gained rights that would have seemed impossible at the time. More important is the fact that he shunned violence in his quest for justice.
I worry that we in the United States are rapidly moving in a direction where religious freedom is no longer granted. We seem to be slowly giving our freedoms away, forgetting the price that was paid for them. The time has come for us to stand up for those freedoms, but we must do so in a manner that is worthy of the Christian faith. Daniel O’Connell is an excellent example of what this looks like. When arrested, he wrote to his supporters, knowing they would be tempted to turn to force and violence in their attempt to gain their right to live as Catholics:
Be you, therefore, perfectly peaceable. Attack nobody. Offend nobody. Injure no person. If you respect your friends, if you wish to attack your enemies, keep the peace, and let not one single act of violence be committed.
As we celebrated the Eucharist today in what was O’Connell’s private chapel, I prayed for two things. First that my fellow Catholics (and those of other Christian denominations and faith traditions) will see the need to raise their voices to defend religious freedom in our nation and that we do so in a spirit of peace, willing to suffer if necessary to achieve what it is we seek.