Chapter Sermon on the Solemnity of St Patrick
Today, major international landmarks will be lit up green in honour of Ireland’s primary patron: Niagara Falls, Ground Zero – even the Great Wall of China. This reminds us that Ireland has exported Christian values to the whole world, yet the spotlight of the festivities has drifted, somewhat, from St Patrick’s legacy. All the same, if we were to listen, his witness remains urgently pertinent to twenty-first century Catholicism.
At Vigils we heard St Patrick likening his ministry in Ireland to that of the great catch of fish in the Gospel. St Luke records the disciples’ amazement at the sudden abundance of fish, so much so that they fell down before Jesus in unworthiness. Jesus transformed a bleak situation into a vehicle for grace, heralding the beginning of their Apostleship.
It was the same with St Patrick who heard the voice of God in the midst of desolation, and, just like those disciples, had nothing else to do but ‘…leave everything and follow Him.’ When, to use his own words, he ‘was almost a beardless boy’, Patrick was captured from his home in Britain by Irish slave traders and put to solitary work in the hills of a foreign land for six years, tending cattle. It would have been frightening, desolate and lonely – an unlikely, even contradictory, place to find the beginnings of the incomprehensible grace that was to follow. His place of exile became a kind of monastic cell, where he prayed and listened for the voice of God, and it was here that God made known to Patrick the possibility of his escape.
Just like for those fishermen on Lake Gennesaret, the now-liberated Patrick couldn’t know where his new life would take him, but he was willing to leave everything and return to the country of his captivity because he saw that it was God, and not he, who was working in him. To use his own words: ‘I do not know how to provide for the future. But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall.’
What might St Patrick make of us, now, the Christians of twenty-first century Ireland? Whilst we assume that he may not be so gratified by green Empire State Buildings and Walls of China, it is certain that he would tell us to return to the startling humility of Christ, which is fundamental to Christian Apostleship. Patrick was a man willing to make changes – and to change; are we so willing to step into the unknown? He chose to return to those who had wronged him and held him captive, to work for Christ in the face of opposition – sometimes opposition from fellow Christians. When do we choose to give to those who wrong us, who hold us back?
Patrick was able to say with the Apostle: ‘It was our God who gave us the courage to proclaim…in the face of great opposition.’ Patrick knew that the humility must be truly ours, so that we can welcome the courage, which is Christ in us. Our Patron’s response to God was to become His completely, to face ridicule from his own countrymen for his decisions, to baptize thousands of heathens and to ordain clergy everywhere, never asking for payment. ‘His gift’ he wrote, ‘was that I would spend my life… serving in truth and with humility to the end.’ Indeed, with these tools he kick-started the very conversion of heathen Europe. Yes, Ireland’s Apostles overflowed the continent with their simple monasteries, their lives of humility and their excessive imaginations. They, like Patrick, dared to dream. Yet they did so from inside Christ’s exhortation to serve one another.
These tools of an ancient Christian are what can save the twenty-first century Church from apathy, from our own selfishness, from a world of useless idols, from what Pope Francis calls ‘the plague of clericalism’, from the pursuit of power and dominance which – however excessive or muted – continues to cause trauma to the Body of Christ. We ask the blessing of Patrick on our lives, that we may live as he did, serving in trust and humility, ever amazed at God’s abundant goodness. For as he wrote: ‘So be amazed, all you people great and small who fear God! … listen and examine this carefully. Who was it who called one as foolish as I am from the middle of those who are seen to be wise and experienced in law and powerful in speech and in everything? If I am most looked down upon, yet he inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me.’
Br Rafael Duckett