By FATHER JOHN C. KIERNAN, Special Contributor | Published March 11, 2004
At this time of the year many native Irish are amused by the shenanigans that take place to supposedly “honor Saint Patrick.” The hoopla of the parades, the false myths propagated on greeting cards, and the extended hours for serving liquor often give the wrong message. To set the record straight, we should consider the life and deeds of the “real” Saint Patrick.
With modern research we can examine the life of the patron saint of Ireland who lived in the first half of the fifth century. One such probe has been completed by Thomas Cahill in his 1995 book, “How the Irish Saved Civilization.”
Cahill’s work shows that Christianity and education emanating from Ireland in the fifth and sixth centuries brought about the conversion of Europe. The man responsible was St. Patrick.
Back around 400, Patrick was captured in his native England and taken as a slave to Ireland. There he tended sheep and cattle on the Mourne Mountains, located in present-day Northern Ireland. The isolation and hopelessness of his situation forced him to continuous prayer.
“Tending flocks was my daily work, and I would pray constantly during the daylight hours. The love of God and the fear of him surrounded me more and more—and faith grew and the Spirit was roused, so that in one day I would say as many as a hundred prayers and after dark nearly as many again, even while I remained in the woods or on the mountain. I would wake and pray before daybreak—through snow, frost, rain—nor was there any sluggishness in me because then the Spirit within me was ardent.”
One night Patrick heard a voice say to him: “Your hungers are rewarded; you are going home.” With that, he ran away. He traveled south, then boarded a ship which took him to Europe. Eventually, he arrived back at his home in England.
Several years later Patrick was ordained a priest and bishop. He had experienced in a dream the native Irish calling on him to return: “We beg you to come and walk among us once again.” At that time, there was little or no Christianity in Ireland. At about the age of 47, the missionary Patrick left the comfortable and safe environment of Roman England to begin evangelizing the pagan Irish. He never returned home, eventually becoming “more Irish than the Irish themselves!”
In his lifetime, Patrick securely established Christianity in Ireland. The Church was organized, bishops ordained, and thousands converted and baptized. He preached the Gospel relentlessly and with great success. He was also “the first human being in the world to speak out unequivocally against slavery,” noted Cahill. To gauge the success of Patrick’s missionary work, consider that within 100 years of Ireland’s conversion, Irish missionaries had fanned out all over Europe carrying on the vision of their spiritual father. Evidence of this are the many cities that were founded as monasteries by Irish monks like Luxeuil, Liege, Regensburg, Salzburg, Vienna, Saint Gall, Bobbie … just to name a few. The astonishing decorated Irish manuscripts of the early medieval period are today the great jewels of libraries in England, France, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Italy and even Russia. These attest to the faith and learning brought to Europe by the Irish missionaries.
The vigor of this pioneering faith is often attributed to the fact that Patrick and the early Christians of Ireland chose to be different. They chose the Christian way without influence or advantage from government or king. To this day, the Irish are steadfastly tenacious about their faith and have a continuing long and glorious tradition of sending forth missionaries to “the ends of the earth.”
Patrick’s deep Christocentric spirituality also lives on. Like Saint Francis of Assisi (who died in 1226), Patrick appreciated God’s goodness in all situations, peoples and places. The prayer traditionally attributed to Patrick speaks volumes of his faith in Christ and how he saw the presence of Christ reflected in others.
I arise today through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to see before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to secure me—
against snares of devils,
against temptations and vices,
against inclinations of nature,
against everyone who shall
wish me ill, afar and near,
alone and in a crowd…
Christ be with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me, Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ where I lie, Christ where I sit,
Christ where I arise,
Christ in the heart of everyone
who thinks of me,
Christ in the mind of everyone
who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone
who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me,
Salvation is of the Lord…
Salvation is of the Christ.
May your salvation, O Lord,
Be ever with us. Amen.
By knowing Patrick’s missionary achievements, his success in preaching against the evils of pagan Ireland, and his love for Christ, we come to know the “real” Patrick. Thus the patron of Ireland is a model for all Irish and their kin to emulate. Our celebration therefore should, at least in part, reflect the facts of his spiritual life and his achievements.
At this time we ardently need Patrick’s inspiration and saintly aid. A deadly struggle has continued for 40 years in Northern Ireland. This northeastern six-county area is still governed by England, to the chagrin of many people in Northern Ireland and universally in the Irish Republic. Still the majority of Northern Ireland citizens are Unionists who want to maintain strong ties with Britain from where their ancestors emigrated.
Over the years there has been woeful discrimination against the minority Republican-minded body in the North, especially in housing and job opportunity. Protest marches in the 1960s became violent resulting in years of sectarian slaughter.
The conflict in Northern Ireland, locally referred to as “the struggles in the North,” is further complicated by religion. The vast majority of Unionists are Protestants; Republicans are traditionally Roman Catholic. Hence a lot of people naively conclude that the issues are primarily religious. Not so. Indeed, all the mainline religious leaders have repeatedly pleaded together for an end to violence and for constructive reconciliation. Sadly, inflammatory demagoguery and terrorists acts have often voided attempts to resolve the political standoff.
I suggest that we consider again the person and convictions of our spiritual father, Patrick. He led the Irish people from paganism to Christianity; from slavery to freedom.
He must continue to feel the same anguish of soul for his adopted people as he did when he wrote these lines:
“In sadness and in grief, shall I cry aloud
O most lovely and loving brethren
whom I have begotten in Christ,
What shall I do for you?”
Father John C. Kieran is the pastor of St. Pius X Church, Conyers.