Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta


St. Patrick ‘Used All He Had’ To Spread Faith In God

By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published March 22, 2007

What does St. Patrick have to say to his spiritual descendants today?

Father Frank McNamee said the missionary who converted Ireland to the Christian faith “used all that he had, while respecting a people and yet challenging a people in the Way of our Lord.”

With the personal knowledge of one from County Galway who left his home to become a priest for Georgia, Father McNamee gave the homily at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Mass at the Cathedral of Christ the King March 16.

Father McNamee implied that the patron of Ireland is a great example in faith today both for the Irish people, experiencing prosperity but a decline in religious vocations, and those of Irish ancestry.

Disastrous experiences did not stop the work God gave Patrick because he had learned through suffering to rely on God and was truly humble.

“He was a burdened man, a man who was always struggling, a man who was conscious of limitations, especially his sinfulness, and he never thought of himself as a saint at all,” the priest said of Patrick.

Taken as a teen into captivity from his native country, probably Wales, to Ireland, Patrick first had to undergo his own repentance and “tremendous conversion,” Father McNamee said.

In his confessions, he says, “I did not know the true God.” But God “watched over me before I got to know him.”

When he realized “the state of his own soul” he became “a man of deep prayer” while he was a slave, tending to cattle and sleeping outside. According to his confessions, Patrick in these years developed a close friendship with God.

“I used to rise for prayer in the snow, in the frost and in the rain. … The spirit was fervent then within me,” Patrick wrote.

Providentially, he learned the Irish language. “God’s plan was working in Patrick’s life even though he did not know it,” Father McNamee said. When he returned as a missionary he knew the language of the people and their culture.

After escaping from Ireland, he returned to England and France, becoming a priest and bishop, and then came back to Ireland with the Gospel around 432 AD.

“How was Patrick able to convert Ireland so successfully, so easily? Before Patrick came to Ireland there was a strong belief here in all kinds of gods, the pre-Celtic peoples of Ireland worshipped the sun with shrines. … Patrick tapped into these pagan beliefs and taught the people the true faith about the true God.”

He understood the Irish clan system, Father McNamee said, and knew that if the chief became a Catholic, the rest of the clan would follow. He placed the Christian imprint upon the Irish culture, baptizing people in wells that had been considered sacred in pre-Christian beliefs and supplanting the spring rite of lighting a fire with the lighting of the new fire of Easter. Shrines to gods and goddesses became Christian shrines.

“Patrick used every means possible to spread the word of God,” Father McNamee said. “He worked night and day to bring the faith all over Ireland. He preached with authority and acted with miracles. He was what we would now describe as a charismatic person. He didn’t just come quietly into a town. When he came, he and the faith were noticed. Bringing the Irish to know the true God could be described as his vocation.”

“What kept Patrick going during the many trials he experienced was his close friendship with God. He drew strength from the living God. He was humble; there was no pride in him. He realized that it was God working through him. He concludes in his confession that he did nothing; it was God who did it all.”

But what God did through Patrick is still rippling through the generations.

“All of us are here today because of this man, Patrick’s, example of faith. Millions join with the people of our place of birth to celebrate this day,” the Irish-born priest said. “Through this man, Patrick, millions upon millions have come to know the True God.

“Even as a nation at times, we struggled, as a nation our people were persecuted for the faith, many sacrificed their lives. Many left Ireland to bring the Gospel to people who had not heard of the One True God. And like Patrick, desired to return home but never did, realizing what they were about—making known the One True God.”

St. Patrick’s Day is poignant for those who remember Ireland as their homeland, he said. The feast day provides a spiritual connection with friends, parents, those who taught the faith.

“And today with pride we thank God for our faith and for St. Patrick,” Father McNamee said. “We pray today for the place of our birth and with the challenges that lay before all of us and the people of Ireland that we, like Patrick, never lose sight of the One True God.”

In prayers of intercession, Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory remembered “the many priests and sisters who came from Ireland in the image of St. Patrick to bring the faith to Georgia.”

A special guest, Pat the Cope Gallagher, Irish Minister for Transport, read a message from Irish President Mary McAleese.

Other guests at the Mass were Ann Gallagher, wife of the minister, Owen Duffy, his private secretary, Breandan O Caollaí, deputy consul general of Ireland, and his wife Carmel Callan and their daughters, and Marie Reilly.

“The Irish here and those of Irish ancestry are more Irish than the Irish,” Pat the Cope Gallagher said after the Mass. “Their interest in Irish music and dance is phenomenal.”

While there are strong economic and cultural ties between Ireland and those of Irish descent in the United States, he emphasized that there is most importantly a spiritual connection.

Missionaries came from Ireland to many parts of the world, including Georgia, he said. “They are all St. Patricks in their own right.”

Barbara Gunning Johansen, a parishioner at Christ the King since 1939, remembered the faith of her late parents George and Gladys Gunning, which shaped the world in which she and her six siblings grew up.

Her paternal grandparents and maternal grandfather were of Irish descent, she said.

“It’s very much in us. It’s that faith (which) permeated our entire household growing up, and we have taken that out. We got it at home. It was the way we were raised. It was mommy and daddy’s faith and it was incredible.”

The Mass, sponsored by the Hibernian Benevolent Society and coordinated by Rose Begley, was followed by an Irish reception of homemade scones, soda breads, tea and coffee, and the fast footwork of young Irish dancers.

The feast was provided by Begley and a group of about six women, including Ellen McDermott Anastasio, Lilly O’Neil and Mary McGuinness, who baked dozens of scones and various styles of breads. The event is planned for three months.

“We’re her leprechauns,” one of the women said of Rose Begley. “You have to have energy to do this and patience. She has patience with all of us. … We look forward to this every year.”