In his St Patrick’s Day message to the people of Ireland at home and abroad, Archbishop Eamon Martin encourages those who are struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic to find in St Patrick the courage and resilience to go on.
For the second year running, celebrations of the Feast of Saint Patrick are curtailed by Covid-19 restrictions. The traditional parades, parties, an rince, na seisiúin and the usual big sporting events have had to be cancelled or postponed. Even the White House presentation of the bowl of shamrock has gone virtual!
Down the centuries many customs, myths and paraphernalia have grown up around Saint Patrick and the celebration of his feast day at home and abroad. But perhaps, paradoxically, the restrictions this year are opening up an opportunity for us to focus a little more on Saint Patrick himself, and even rescue the real Saint Patrick from the legends and distractions surrounding him.
If you want to find the true story of Patrick, and get an authentic understanding of who he was, the best place to look is in his own words which are preserved for us in two ancient writings – Saint Patrick’s Confession, and Saint Patrick’s Letter to Coroticus. You won’t find any mention there of green beer, snakes or even shamrock – but you will discover the testimony of a real person who dedicated his life and energies to spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ.
You will read about a young man who was seized from his family home as a teenager and trafficked to Ireland where he worked as a slave until he escaped back to his homeland. You will learn that even though Patrick had been raised in a Christian home and family, he says he had little knowledge or understanding of the true God. It was only while he was isolated and alone in captivity, minding flocks in the cold and rain on the hills and valleys of Ireland, that he found strength and courage in prayer and grew to know God’s love and protection in a powerful and personal way.
You will discover that much later in Patrick’s life he heard the “voice of the Irish” calling him to come back and walk once more among them, and he returned to Ireland as a priest and bishop to share the joy of the Gospel with the people who had once held him captive. His writings relate his struggles and trials as a missionary, the dangers and opposition he faced not only from those who resisted the spread of Christianity, but also from those within the Church who argued that Patrick had a questionable past and was unlearned and unfit to be a bishop.
But even though he accepted his sinfulness, his lack of proper education and preparation for the mission, Saint Patrick never doubted that God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – was with him, shielding him from danger and falsehood, and ultimately guiding him, every step of the way.
Although it is not contained in Saint Patrick’s own writings, the traditional prayer which we know as St Patrick’s Breastplate, harmonises with the picture of the saint which we pick up in his own writings.
Patrick prayed: Christ on my right hand; Christ on my left hand; Christ all around me.
Thinking today of those in our country and beyond who are struggling during the pandemic – either from contracting the virus themselves, or having to isolate; those in hospital and intensive care; those whose jobs or livelihoods have been threatened; those who are exhausted from caring and worrying – I pray that they will find in Saint Patrick the courage and resilience they need to go on, surrounded, as he was, by the love and protection of God.
Patrick prayed: Christ behind me; Christ before me.
Thinking about Ireland, north and south, at this pivotal moment in our shared history, a time when we look back one hundred years: to separation and partition on this island and all that has happened to divide, grieve and polarize us; thinking at the same time about the achievements and progress of Irish people, and about the possibilities for lasting peace and reconciliation, for harnessing the beauty and uniqueness of our land, and for building relationships that will bring us closer together rather than divide us – I pray that we will find in Saint Patrick a source of courage, shared identity and values and the resilience we need to face with confidence new possibilities for today and tomorrow on this island.
Patrick prayed: Christ in the heart 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.
Thinking about Family on this feast of our patron saint – about those who are with us at home, those who are far away or in hospital or care, or otherwise unable to join us – I pray that our hearts and lips, our eyes and ears will be as open as Saint Patrick’s were to the cry of the poor, the lonely and isolated, the bereaved, the stranger and exile among us; the prisoner, the homeless and the hungry. I pray that we, like Saint Patrick will bring faith to life and life to faith. May we be missionaries of God’s love, forgiveness, healing, mercy and joy everywhere we go, this day and always.
Picture: Archbishop Eamon Martin is the Catholic Primate of All-Ireland and Archbishop of Armagh. (CNS photo/Paul Haring).