Saint Patrick’s Day – Readings

Commentary on Jeremiah 1:4-9; Acts 13:46-49; Luke 10:1-12,17-20

I have set you as a light to the pagan nations,
so that you may bring my salvation
to the end of the earth. (Is 49:6)

There can be few national saints whose feasts have become so hyped up as that of St Patrick. It is difficult to think of any national patron saint whose day is celebrated so widely or on such a grand scale. Wherever the Irish have gone, they have brought St Patrick’s Day with them. What is even more extraordinary is that celebrations overseas often went far beyond what was done in Ireland itself. This is especially true of the United States. The massive parade down Fifth Avenue in New York and the celebrations in cities like Chicago far outstripped anything that went on in Dublin. It is only in recent years that Dublin has been trying to catch up on its fellow-Irish overseas. This has also meant, unfortunately, the over-the-top commercialisation of the feast not to mention the traditional over-indulgence in you-know-what that is so strongly associated with the Emerald Isle.

The result is that the person in whose honour the day is celebrated is almost entirely forgotten. What used to be primarily a religious celebration, a ‘holyday of obligation’ in fact, has become overwhelmingly secularised.

However, for those who still honour the day by joining in a Eucharistic celebration the suggested Scripture readings give plenty to reflect on. They also urge us to look back on the person who is supposedly at the centre of the day – Patrick – and the meaning of his life for our country and for each one of us.

It is often said that God writes straight with crooked lines. This could certainly be said of Patrick. Being kidnapped by Irish raiders from his home somewhere in Britain and finding himself keeping body and soul together as a shepherd on an Irish mountain did not seem a promising start to any life. And yet, it was possible that on those long days on the mountain he first began to think of sharing his Christian faith with the people around him.

Somehow, after some six years, he escaped back to Britain. He himself tells us that at this time a voice, which he believed to be from God, told him to leave Ireland. After his return to Britain, another revelation told him to return to Ireland as a missionary. During some 15 years of formation he was ordained a priest and then sent to Ireland to work among the Christians there and to evangelise those not yet converted.

And it was in Ireland that he spent the rest of his life tirelessly working in many parts of the country. Over a period of more than 30 years he made Ireland a Christian country. In the course of time, it would be the fruit of his work, monks from Ireland, who would bring the Christian faith back to a Europe devastated by the invasions of the so-called ‘barbarians’.

It was Patrick, too, who from the very beginning gave a peculiarly Irish stamp to Christianity in the country. His years as a shepherd had made him familiar with Irish language and culture. In introducing Irish people to the Christian message, he incorporated much of traditional ritual rather than totally eradicating native beliefs as ‘superstitious’. For instance, he used bonfires to celebrate Easter because the Irish honoured their gods with fire. He superimposed a sun, an important symbol in Celtic culture, on to the Christian cross, creating what we now know as the Celtic cross. This way of behaving is what we now call ‘inculturation’.

Perhaps the Church in Ireland today could learn something from his approach. The old, traditional ways of presenting the Gospel are no longer affective. There have been deep cultural changes in Ireland in recent times and the message of the Gospel has to be presented in ways that speak to Irish people today. It is not good enough simply to condemn people for being ‘materialistic’ and ‘consumeristic’. In presenting the Gospel vision we have to begin by taking people where they are and not where we think we would like them to be. If we want people to change, the evangelisers will have to change first. Communication is not about speaking; it is primarily about being heard and understood. And, hopefully, accepted because what we say make sense and gives meaning to life.

The Scripture readings for today beautifully describe the calling and mission of Patrick. The First Reading speaks of the vocation of the prophet Jeremiah but it fits Patrick’s situation so perfectly.

“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you;
before you were born I set you apart,
and appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Patrick, too, must have had the same reaction at the prospect of being asked to bring the Gospel to a people with totally different religious traditions. “I said, ‘Ah, Lord Yahweh! I do not know how to speak; I am a child!’” But God would provide the missionary with what he needed to fulfil his task.

“Yahweh replied, ‘Do not say, ‘I am a child’. Go now to all those I send you; and say what I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to protect you – it is Yahweh who speaks!’
Then Yahweh stretched out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’” And with what success Patrick spoke the words the Lord had given him!

The Gospel speaks of Jesus sending 70 disciples out on a mission. They are to do exactly the same work that Jesus was doing – proclaiming the Kingdom, healing the sick, the blind, the deaf, the lame and liberating people from the power of evil influences. They were to go to all the places where Jesus himself would later visit. In Patrick’s case, the Lord came through his presence, through his teaching and through his pastoral healing.

For today’s missionaries too, it is precisely through them that Christ and his message is brought to every corner of the world.

Jesus makes some further comments which are as relevant today as they were then. He reminds his disciples that there is a huge harvest but not enough people to bring it in. “Ask the Lord to send labourers into his harvest.” It is a prayer that is all the more urgent in the Ireland of today, not to mention many other places as well. Ireland, like much of Europe, is now a missionary field waiting to be harvested.

“I am sending you like lambs among wolves.” The work of the missionary is not an easy one, as Patrick himself knew very well. It is difficult to understand how Jesus’ message of truth and love, of justice and compassion and the unconditional acceptance of every single person as a brother or sister would not meet with the enthusiastic approval of people. And yet, as Patrick himself well knew, the message of the Gospel can come up against the most vicious opposition. The history of Christianity carries a long list of people, men and women, who gave their lives in trying to share this message of truth, love and fellowship.

Finally, the missionary will travel light, taking only the absolute minimum. Property and unnecessary possessions limit the freedom the missionary needs to be fully available to those he wants to serve.

Patrick knew all about this and he lived this Gospel passage to the full. It is largely because of him that we are having this Eucharistic celebration today. Let us express our profound thanks to him and to all those who followed in his footsteps to bring the Gospel into our own lives. But it does not stop there. There is now a huge need for the message of Christ and his Gospel to be made known all over our country. Surely the best way to honour Patrick is to learn from him and follow in his footsteps and, as far we can, to make his mission ours.

Let us finish with a short passage from Patrick’s famous ‘Confessions’. Let us make his prayer our own:

I bind to myself today
God’s Power to guide me,
God’s Might to uphold me,
God’s Wisdom to teach me,
God’s Eye to watch over me,
God’s Ear to hear me,
God’s Word to give me speech,
God’s Hand to guide me,
God’s Way to lie before me,
God’s Shield to shelter me,
God’s Host to secure me,
Against the snares of demons,
Against the seductions of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against everyone who meditates injury to me,
Whether far or near,
Whether few or with many.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort,
Christ in the chariot seat,
Christ in the poop,
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

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