Today cities, towns and villages throughout the country are crowded, many people wearing shamrock or badges and celebrating our National Day with parades, floats, costumes of various designs – all to remember our Irishness. Public buildings in different cities of the world are lit up in green, some rivers are coloured green and the Taoiseach has been to the White House with a bowl of shamrock. Wherever there are Irish people, and indeed in many places where there aren’t any Irish at all, crowds will be celebrating.
Let us enjoy the parades and the festive spirit but these are not the real reason for this day. St. Patrick and his legacy of faith to the people of Ireland is the reason for the celebration even though many today won’t even think about him except as a caricature or a figure on a float. This day is about remembering the arrival of the Christian faith on our shores and the expansion throughout Ireland – and in the years that followed, a faith which was brought by Patrick’s successors to be a light in the darkness of many parts of pagan Europe and Britain.
We’re all familiar with the story of St. Patrick – slave, shepherd, bishop – Apostle to our forefathers. We know how he was treated not just as a slave but what he suffered afterwards in the course of his evangelization – the hardship, the rejection, the duplicity, the opposition and eventually, in God’s time, the gradual acceptance by the people of his message.
Patrick tells us he had two constant companions during those years, hunger and nakedness and when he was alone he had no one to turn to for help but God. He found God in his loneliness and it was his faith in God that strengthened him in the hardships of his ministry as he said in his Confessions:
“from the time in my youth that I came to know him, the love and reverence for God grew in me, and so far, with the Lord’s help, I have kept faith.”
He went on to state his commitment to his people and his faith in God:
“I spend myself for you, so that you may have me for yours. I have travelled everywhere among you for your own sake, in many dangers, and even to the furthest parts where nobody lived beyond, and where nobody ever went to baptise and to ordain clerics or to bring people to fulfilment. It is only by God’s gift that I diligently and most willingly did all of this for your good.”
As Patrick neared the end of his life he could see how Ireland had been affected by his teaching. Violence decreased, the slave trade came to a halt during or shortly after his lifetime. Christianity had touched the deepest needs of the Irish people. Right up to the end, the work of evangelisation was dangerous but through his ordinations and conversions, Patrick succeeded in setting a light in the darkness of a pagan population. He planted the seed and that seed continued to bear fruit in every century and in every corner of the world as Irish missionaries answered the call, “make disciples of all the nations”.
Generation after generation of our people passed on that simple faith and trust in God of Patrick. Whether it be in the rural hardship or the grinding poverty of the cities; the status of serf or urban slave under landlords or the wrenching heartbreak of emigration, they felt the closeness of God even in their darkest hour as they echoed the words of Patrick, that man of faith, of prayer and total commitment:
Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
Now the glory of a powerful Church of past centuries has dimmed and we see how times have changed – much of the time we are faced with half-empty churches, by negativity and indifference towards the Church and our beliefs but the seed of faith passed down through generations from Patrick is still there even when faced with rejection, or failure. It perseveres through our personal faith, the faith that God has blessed us with – a faith that shows itself by the way we live, not by what we say, a faith that is passed on through the witness of our lives in the streets, the shops, the hospitals, the business centres.
We know the brutality that walks our streets, the crazed culture of drugs, the communities where people are afraid to sleep at night because of inhuman criminals, the selfishness of a consumer society. It’s so different from a society that was immersed in the sentiment of “Faith of our Fathers”.
But while our churches may be half empty our hearts must be full of compassion, full of hope, hearts open to the cries of the distressed, the homeless, the abandoned ones of our society, our fragile brothers and sisters who are desperate to find the caring eyes and the words of hope, young and old; may our arms be open to the victims of what is so often a selfish and cruel society. Let there be no condemnation in our eyes or our voices just acceptance of our broken brothers and sisters. Let our witness as peace-bearers bring hope to a world that is torn apart by conflict and divisions, by selfishness and greed – not the witness proclaimed from the churches that have dominated our skylines for generations but the Gospel proclaimed in living in our communities, interaction with others on the streets, the shops, the offices, the hospitals – not talking about the Word of God that St. Patrick planted in our land but living it.
Perhaps we won’t see the fruits of it in our lifetime. Patrick probably saw very little of the fruits of his work, but he responded to God’s call and we are being asked to do the same in our own way in our time.
Today we thank God for St Patrick and the gift of faith which he brought to this land and we ask him to continue to intercede before God for us.
Naomh Padraig, Aspal Éireann, guí orainn.
Edited from a homily delivered by Fr Edward O’Connor SMA on the occasion of the Feast of St Patrick to the SMA community at the SMA House, Blackrock Road, Cork.