The wisdom of Sirach, which we heard in today’s first reading, says of the man who devotes his life to the Lord’s Law that his memory will not disappear and that his name will live through all generations. You can see why the Church chose such a reading for today’s feast of Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland. His memory will not disappear, and his name will live through all generations. Patrick’s name certainly lives today. Wherever there are Irish people, and indeed in many places where there aren’t any Irish people at all, crowds will be celebrating his festival. All over the world there will be a lot of partying…. And indeed, a fair amount of drunkenness too. There’ll be green rivers and fountains, green beer in the pubs and green milkshakes in McDonalds. Is seachtain na Gaeilge í seo freisin, agus déanfaidh a lán daoine iarracht an ‘cúpla focal’ atá acu a úsáid.
In Kilrush, County Clare, people are attempting to get into the Guinness Book of Records today, by having the greatest number ever of ‘Saint Patricks’ in one place. They’ve acquired two hundred Saint Patrick costumes - green robes and pointy green hats – not from a local supplier, but from a manufacturer in the Far East. St Patrick’s Day festivities seem to get sillier with each passing year. And of course, most of them have very little connection with Saint Patrick…
But it’s not as if the Church has made such a good job of commemorating Patrick over the years either…. With or without a shamrock, he’s nearly always depicted with Roman vestments, a mitre and a crozier. And he’s always wearing green, of course. More like a prince-bishop on his way home from the Council of Trent than a pioneering evangelist from over a thousand years earlier! Just as he was kidnapped as a youth, and just like medieval biographers twisted and embellished his story for their own purposes of ecclesiastical politicking, so in modern Ireland, Patrick was ‘kidnapped’ again, and turned into a kind of idealised model of Irishness – Catholic, Nationalist, and Irish-speaking. Which is ironic really, when you consider he was in fact a Roman citizen from Britain who wrote in Latin…
The way Patrick has been ‘packaged’ in recent generations isn’t particularly attractive. So, should Christians give up on Patrick altogether, and let the paddywhackery and shillelaghs and green beer take over altogether? I certainly don’t think we should. But first, let’s banish the snakes from our collective imagination, and tear the saccharine holy pictures from our prayer books, and try to get in touch with the real Patrick. For in Patrick, we encounter a wonderful faith-filled and humble pastor, and through him, we can draw closer to Christ, the bright sun whose light never dims.
Take the very first line of Patrick’s last testament, the short book called the Confession:
Ego Patricius, peccator rusticissimus et minimus omnium fidelium…
Mise Pádraig, peacach róthútach, an té is lú de na fíréin go léir…
I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful…
It’s a disarming opening. For me, Patrick’s most attractive characteristic is the fact that he was so genuinely humble. Humility pervades the entire book, from his account of his youth, his kidnap and exile, on through the events of his work as a bishop in Ireland.
In recalling the events of his life, including both great success and great suffering caused by the opposition and jealousy of others, Patrick is never either self-satisfied or self-pitying. He is humble. And not in a sickly, falsely-modest way… To use the language of St Benedict, Patrick climbed the ladder of humility and came to trust so fully in God that he reached that perfect love which casts out fear.
But, his spiritual descendants, the Christians of Ireland – and the Catholics of Ireland in particular – along with the Irish diaspora, have often missed the point and given in to pride. The spread of the faith in Ireland, and its transmission to the ends of the earth by Irish missionaries and emigrants down the centuries have too often been seen in triumphalist terms. Though immersed in the rhetoric of republicanism, Patrick’s spiritual children have often turned the faith brought by him and his contemporaries into a sort of surrogate ‘Empire’. First there was the Roman Empire, spreading into most of the known world. Centuries later, along came the Irish Catholics to complete the job… And, instead of praising God for bringing fruitfulness to the tiny mustard seed we heard of in today’s Gospel reading, we praised ourselves for the achievement of growing such a huge tree.
|St Patrick by Aidan Hart|
I never cease to be amazed at the opening words of Patrick’s Confession. What a wonderful way for a bishop to begin his life story: I, Patrick, a sinner…. the least of all the faithful. In these days when the Church in Ireland is still reeling from the effects of terrible sins against children, compounded by the inaction of church leaders, the Apostle of Ireland cries out to all who are called to leadership in the Church today. And to the rest of us too… Lest we be tempted to be overly impressed by ourselves or our roles, Patrick calls us to keep our feet on the ground… to be humble… to know and acknowledge our fragility. Institutional and personal pride and unfounded self-satisfaction are surely at the root of many of our Church’s faults in responding to and reaching out to those who have been hurt by its personnel. Patrick can teach us a better way.
Orthodox Christians who honour Saint Patrick give him the title ‘Enlightener of Ireland’.
As Irish Christians, we need to be enlightened anew. We need to learn again the way of humility. As we gather around the altar of God, to celebrate the Eucharist, Patrick reminds us that our achievements or attainments are not our own. Just as humble at the end of his Confession as he was at the start, he declares quite simply that absolutely everything he ever had or achieved was the gift of God. And so he closes:
Et haec est Confessio mea antequam morior.
Agus sin í m’fhaoistin roimh bás dom.
And this is my Confession before I die.
That lesson is his final word and his legacy to us who honour him today. And so, in humility and in gratitude, let us hasten to offer our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving and bless God for his graciousness towards us.