Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland
Today is my fifth Saint Patrick’s Day in Ireland. Silverstream Priory is not very far from the famous Hill of Slane where, in 433, Saint Patrick kindled the Paschal Fire in defiance of the Supreme Monarch of Island and the druids.
Hail, glorious Saint Patrick, dear saint of our Isle,
On us thy poor children bestow a sweet smile;
And now thou art high in the mansions above,
On Erin’s green valleys look down in thy love.
Hail, glorious Saint Patrick, thy words were once strong
Against Satan’s wiles and an infidel throng;
Not less is thy might where in heaven thou art;
O, come to our aid, in our battle take part.
In the war against sin, in the fight for the faith,
Dear saint, may thy children resist unto death;
May their strength be in meekness, in penance, their prayer,
Their banner the cross which they glory to bear.
Thy people, now exiles on many a shore,
Shall love and revere thee till time be no more;
And the fire thou hast kindled shall ever burn bright,
Its warmth undiminished, undying its light.
I Have Taught You
Like Moses, Saint Patrick, having announced the Gospel to the people of Ireland, was able to say, “Behold, I have taught you statutes and ordinances, as the Lord my God commanded me. . . . Keep them and do them; for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people'” (Dt 4:5-6). The gift of the true faith imparted by Saint Patrick brought with it a sacred responsibility, one that the Irish people honoured down through the centuries, even in times of persecution and cruel repression.
Many People Were Reborn in God Through Me
Saint Patrick himself was conscious that God had used him to do great things. In his Confession, he writes: “I am very much God’s debtor, who gave me such grace that many people were reborn in God through me and afterwards confirmed, and that clerics were ordained for them everywhere, for a people just coming to the faith, whom the Lord took from the utmost parts of the earth.” By preaching, baptizing, ordaining priests, and consecrating virgins, Saint Patrick changed the face of Ireland. He did not blush to apply to the Irish people the prophecy of Hosea: “I will have mercy on her that was without mercy. And I will say to that which was not my people: Thou art my people. . . . And in the place where it was said: ‘You are not my people’: it shall be said to them: ‘Ye are the sons of the living God'” (Hos 2:23-24; 1:10).
Monks and Virgins of Christ
Saint Patrick, conscious of his own weakness, was in awe of the power of the grace of Christ. “How,” he asks, “did it come to pass in Ireland that those who never had a knowledge of God, but until now always worshiped idols and things impure, have now been made a people of the Lord, and are called sons of God, that the sons and daughters of the kings of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ?” The psalmist expresses Saint Patrick’s wonder before the work of grace in the hearts of a great number: “He has not done thus for any other nation” (Ps 147:20).
I took this photo from the road in front of Saint Patrick’s Chapel in Gowell, County Leitrim, where my grandmother Margaret Mary Gilbride Kirby received her First Holy Communion in 1909. In the distance is the wild and reputedly mystical Hill of Sheemore, about which my grandmother often spoke. Five years ago I climbed the Hill of Sheemore together with my good friend John Flynn. The view from the Cross at the summit is magnificent.
The Missionary Born of the Monastery
Irish Christianity was, from the beginning, monastic in temperament and in organization. The Church was barely established when already monasteries sprang into life. Succeeding generations saw a spectacular growth: there came to be monasteries of over three thousand monks, centres of learning, monastic universities of a sort, drawing students from all over the continent. From the sixth to the twelfth centuries, these same monastic centres of learning were seedbeds of missionary work. Irish monks poured into France. Germany, Belgium, and Italy welcomed them. Saint John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI both presented their visions of a Europe infused with the love of Christ, of a “new civilization of love.” Efforts toward the rechristianization of Europe can draw inspiration from the ideals of the Irish missionaries of the so-called Dark Ages. The Irish model is a good one: the missionary is born of the monastery. Prayer, asceticism, and scholarship come to fruition in the implantation of the Gospel and in the renewal of the churches.
And here you see my Dad, 89 years old this year. Dad has marched faithfully for decades in the New Haven, Connecticut Saint Patrick’s Day Parade.
The Passion of the Church in Ireland
The faith received from Saint Patrick came, in time, to be sorely tested. The eighteenth century saw the enactment of repressive laws penalizing Catholics: Catholics were prohibited from voting; were not permitted to purchase land or lease it for more than thirty-one years; it was illegal to teach the Catholic religion to children and adults; it became illegal for Catholic priests to remain in Ireland or enter Ireland from abroad; it became illegal to harbour or otherwise assist Catholic priests. Only in 1829 did the British Parliament grant a decree of Catholic Emancipation, making it possible for the Church to emerge from the underground. But another trial was to follow, The Great Hunger that claimed over a million lives. Those who could escaped the famine; wave after wave of impoverished Irish emigrants found a home in America, bringing with them their greatest possession: the Catholic faith. Out of the horrors of The Great Hunger God brought a great good: were it not for the exodus of the Irish at the time of the famine there would be very few English-speaking Catholics in the world today.
New Penal Laws?
Strangely, there seems to be among some in Ireland today, a militantly secularistic ideology bent on the repression of the Catholic Faith in public life. Will we see the enactment of a new set of Penal Laws imposed not by an anti-Catholic oppressor from without but, instead, by Irish upon Irish? Or will we see instead a great Catholic reawakening, and a joyful rallying around the Most Holy Eucharist, the Mother of God, and fidelity to the teachings of the Church?
Transmit the Faith
Moses’ words to the children of Israel become Saint Patrick’s words addressed to us: “Keep thyself therefore, and thy soul carefully. Forget not the words that thy eyes have seen, and let them not go out of thy heart all the days of thy life. Thou shalt teach them to thy children and to thy grandchildren” (Dt 4:9). The transmission of the faith is more urgent today than ever before. Saint Patrick and those who followed in his footsteps teach us that the surest way of holding fast to the faith is by transmitting it. Deep in the heart of every Christian is a monastic impulse and a missionary impulse. Like Saint Patrick, may we rise today to both of them.