Sunday, 17 March 2019

Seeking the real St Patrick

Address given at Ballingarry on Sunday 17th March 2019, St Patrick's Day

Today we remember St Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, whose feast day this is.
In the secular world, this is a day for us to celebrate all that is right and true and beautiful in our communities and in the homeland we share, whatever else may divide us. Many of us I’m sure, wear a shamrock with pride, take part in or attend St Patrick’s Day parades, and raise a glass to toast our nation. It’s allowed, you know, even if you’ve pledged to abstain during Lent, as the Prayer Book marks only weekdays in Lent as days of discipline and self-denial! Some no doubt will over-indulge and get up to all sorts of ‘shamroguery’, but we shouldn’t be afraid to join in decent, patriotic celebration.

But as Christians I suggest we should go further. We should seek to find the real St Patrick behind all the picturesque and fanciful legends that have grown up about him over the last 1500 years. And we should reflect on what St Patrick’s life and mission has to say to us in Ireland today.

Much of what I was told about St Patrick as a child is not true – it is much later legend.
Patrick did not teach about the Trinity using the trefoil leaf of a shamrock, charming though the story is. The story first appears in writing in 1726, though it may be somewhat older, much later than Patrick’s time.

Patrick did not banish all the snakes from Ireland. That story is first mentioned by Gerald of Wales in the 13th Century, although he didn’t believe it himself. The truth is that Ireland was separated from Britain by rising sea levels after the last ice age, which prevented snakes from reaching Ireland from Britain.

Patrick was not the first to convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. The narrow seas between Britain and Ireland were a trading highway in Roman times. Archeology shows that many Irish settled on the west coasts of Britain, and no doubt British Christians settled here. Irish chroniclers tell us that Pope Celestine consecrated a Gaul named Palladius to be the first bishop for Irish Christians in 431, a little before St Patrick. And there are traditions that there are other Irish saints who preceded Patrick, including St Kieran of Seir Keiran, Co Offaly, St Declan of Ardmore, Co Waterford and St Ailbe of Emly, Co Tipperary.

Most of what we know about the real St Patrick comes from his own writings.
The main source is his Confessio, or Confession, in which Patrick gives a short account of his life and mission.

Patrick tells us, ‘My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae.’ We do not know exactly where Bannavem Taburniae was, but it may have been in Cumbria, Strathclyde in southwest Scotland, or Wales. So Patrick came from a Christian family of Romano-British clergy. As such his native language would have been primitive Welsh, and no doubt he would have been educated in Latin.

Patrick tells us he was taken prisoner by an Irish raiding party, along with thousands of others, and taken as a slave to Ireland, where he was put to work as a shepherd. There his love and awe of God grew and grew, until after 6 years captivity a voice in a dream urged him to run away and escape back to Britain, which he did.

After his return to Britain, Patrick felt called to ordination. There is a tradition that he studied in Europe, principally at Auxerre in modern France, where he was ordained by St Germanus.

In another vision, Patrick heard the voices of the Irish among whom he had lived calling to him, ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.’ Acting on this vision he returned to Ireland as a missionary.

Patrick was aware of the work of other Christian missionaries in the south and east – he was not alone. But his focus seems to have been in the north and west, where the Christian faith had not yet arrived.

Patrick gives little detail of his work, but tells us that he baptised thousands of people, ordained priests to lead the new Christian communities, converted wealthy women, some of whom became nuns, and converted the sons of kings. No doubt those he encountered were attracted by his distinctive spirituality, expressed in St Patrick’s Breastplate, the famous hymn attributed to him, some verses of which we shall sing in a moment.

But his mission was not always easy, for he tells us he met opposition. He was, beaten, robbed, put in chains and held captive. But Patrick rejoices that ‘the sons and daughters of the leaders of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ.’

Patrick was a modest man. He finishes his Confessio with these words, addressed to us, to you and me: ‘I pray for those who believe in and have reverence for God. Some of them may happen to inspect or come upon this writing which Patrick, a sinner without learning, wrote in Ireland. May none of them ever say that whatever little I did or made known to please God was done through ignorance. Instead, you can judge and believe in all truth that it was a gift of God. This is my confession before I die.’

What can we as Christians today take from the life and mission of the real St Patrick?
St Patrick was passionately dedicated to sharing with the pagan Irish his Christian faith, which he saw as a blessing and gift from God. He echoes the words of Tobit (13:1b-7) in today’s 1st reading: ‘Bless the Lord of righteousness, and exalt the King of the ages. In the land of my exile I acknowledge him, and show his power and majesty to a nation of sinners.’ I suggest we should be more like St Patrick, eager to share our faith in the public square in our own times, when so many seem to find it difficult to do so.

St Patrick knew all about economic and social oppression from an early age. He challenged these evils and faced persecution for it. To quote from St Paul’s words in today’s epistle (2 Corinthians 4:1-12), he was ‘afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed’. When we in our times encounter such oppression, we should confront it as St Patrick did, and persevere against those who seek to perpetuate it, even if it costs us.

In today’s reading from John’s Gospel (John: 4:31-38), Jesus tells his disciples, ‘Look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting. The reaper is already receiving wages and is gathering fruit for eternal life, so that sower and reaper may rejoice together … I sent you to reap that for which you did not labour. Others have laboured, and you have entered into their labour.’ St Patrick reaped a harvest sown by others, as he was not the only nor the first Christian missionary to come to Ireland. In later times the Irish Church found unity around his bishopric of Armagh. In the same way, Christians of different traditions in Ireland today should seek unity in our diversity. We should rejoice in the truly important things that we have in common, rather than cling to the little things that separate us. Only then can we gather in the fruit for eternal life that Jesus desires us to reap.

I shall finish in prayer.
Hear us, most merciful God,
for that part of the Church
which through your servant Patrick you planted in our land;
that it may hold fast the faith entrusted to the saints
and in the end bear much fruit to eternal life:
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

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