St Patrick’s ‘lived faith’ still resonates in the Church today

Our patron saint left a great legacy

The St Patrick’s Day festivities on television including the greening of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, the Sydney Opera House and the London Eye, seemed strangely unrelated to the legacy of the man, who is said to have come here to County Antrim some 1,500 years ago.

We live in Ballymena, a few miles from Sliabh Mis or Slemish mountain. It is a place where our boys played, climbed and explored, racing each other up and down the mountainside – fleet of foot they could get from the top to the bottom in 20 minutes.

When you stand on the top of Slemish on a clear summer day and look across the glens, the mountains and valleys of Antrim and Down, it is a profoundly beautiful place. When the rain and mist come down, or when the snow and ice settle on its broad shoulders it is beautiful still, from the

perspective of one who can return to the warmth and comfort of a modern home. How must it have been for the boy Patrick, snatched from his home and kept in slavery as a shepherd for the sheep which grazed, sure footed, on its bare slopes? He must have been so cold, so afraid and so lonely, abandoned in a strange land among a people who spoke an alien tongue. Yet his faith in God grew, and he wrote of God: “he watched over me before I knew him, and before I learned sense or even distinguished between good and evil, and he protected me, and consoled me as a father would his son.”

Alien Ireland

Having escaped, Patrick chose to return and to spend his life in this same alien land, dying here.

Patrick and the other great early Irish saints, including MacNissi, whom Patrick is said to have baptised at Kells just a few miles from here, Brendan, Columbanus and Brigid, left us a great legacy – the legacy of Christianity. It involves an enduring call to each of us to holiness, to a real relationship with Jesus Christ and through him with God. That call to holiness requires that we live our lives in through and for the God whom we love, and who first loved us.

Over the centuries since Patrick’s death millions of Irish men and women of God have taken up the call to labour in the vineyards of the Lord. The people of this tiny island made a magnificent contribution to the spread of Christianity across the world.

Most of us have seen the pictures of young men and women who went out to the foreign missions to serve, knowing that it was most unlikely that they would ever see home again, and that their likely end would be from yellow fever, blackwater fever or malaria in some hot, dusty, lonely distant place.

Young men and women who left home in their early 20s and were dead just a few short months or years after reaching their mission. Yet their combined efforts led to so much which was beneficial to the people whom they served.

We can be proud of them, and grateful to them and to all those who followed them. It is not easy to go and live in an alien culture in a country in which one cannot speak the language, where there is no respite from the heat, the dust, the insects and the snakes. Yet in those far places there is often beauty beyond compare, and such goodness, that those who go often find themselves receiving far more than they could ever give.

Here at home too, Christians worked to enable education, to free people from the shackles of poverty and discrimination, to build hospitals and social care centres, to provide housing and shelter and food and it was all done in the name of the Lord. Much was achieved by ordinary men and women doing heroic things for God. That generosity is still needed.

Pope Francis wrote recently in Evangelii Gaudium about what is wrong in our world: “human trafficking, the narcotics trade, the abuse and exploitation of minors, the abandonment of the elderly and infirm, and various forms of corruption and criminal activity take place. At the same time, what could be significant places of encounter and solidarity often become places of isolation and mutual distrust. Houses and neighbourhoods are more often built to isolate and protect than to connect and integrate.”

Patrick was the victim of human trafficking all those years ago. There is nothing new in the world. What we are called to do is to live the Gospels so that in each of our limited spheres of activity – our homes, our work, our school, our church we try to be alert to suffering and loneliness and injustice and do what we can to make things better. And we have to accept that we may never know what we have made better, or whom we have helped.

God's creatures

Part of our job, Francis said, is to protect what God has given us. “It means protecting all creation, the beauty of the created world….it means respecting each of God’s creatures and respecting the environment in which we live. It means protecting people, showing loving concern for each and every person, especially children, the elderly, those in need, who are often the last we think about. It means caring for one another in our families: husbands and wives first protect one another, and then, as parents, they care for their children, and children themselves, in time, protect their parents. It means building sincere friendships in which we protect one another in trust, respect, and goodness. In the end, everything has been entrusted to our protection, and all of us are responsible for it!”

Pope Benedict wrote in his final address as Pope, of how it was for him over the years: “the Lord has given us many days of sunshine and light breezes, days when the fishing was plentiful, but also times when the water was rough and the winds against us, just as throughout the whole history of the Church, when the Lord seemed to be sleeping. But I always knew that the Lord is in that boat and I always knew that the boat of the Church is not mine, not ours, but is His. And the Lord will not let it sink. He is the one who steers her, of course also through those he has chosen because that is how he wanted it. This was and is a certainty that nothing can tarnish. And that is why my heart today is filled with gratitude to God, because He never left—the whole Church or me—without his consolation, his light, or His love.”

Patrick wrote in very similar words of his faith at the end of his life.

“I fear nothing, because of the promises of Heaven; for I have cast myself into the hands of Almighty God, who reigns everywhere as the prophet says: ‘Cast your burden on the Lord and he will sustain you [Psalm 55:22].’”

In all the fun of St Patrick’s Day it is important to remember these great truths.