[This is the text of a sermon I delivered at Glenstal Abbey on St Patrick’s Day 2018 at the invitation of the former abbot, Mark Patrick Hederman. It was a privileged opportunity to try to make the historical figure of St Patrick real and relevant to a contemporary believing audience. An excellent new film on the life of St Patrick is now on Netflix and worth watching.]
“I saw in a vision of the night a man coming as if from Ireland, whose name was Victoricius, with countless letters, and he gave one of them, and I read the beginning of the letter containing the “Voice of the Irish” and as I was reading the beginning of the letter aloud I imagined I heard, at that moment, the voice of those very people who lived beside the Wood of Foclud, which is near the Western Sea, and they cried out as if from one mouth, “We request you, holy boy, that you come and walk once more among us.” (Confessio 2.115)
Towards the end of his life Bishop Patricius Magonus Sucatus, a Roman citizen born around the turn of the fifth century in Britain, sat down to write an account of his life. His name Patricius “the noble one” reflected the aspirations of his father Calpurnius, a Roman civil administrator and deacon, his mother, Concessa, and perhaps also those of his grandfather Potitus, a priest, in the town of Bannavem Taburniae, a small enclave of the Roman Empire in western Britain, probably in the area of the Severn estuary in modern-day Wales.
Patrick’s father had a country estate nearby where, when he was fifteen years old, he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland as a slave. In his dream years later he returns to the Wood of Foclud, the area in north Mayo around Killala, where he worked as a slave and farm hand.
This was the turning point of his life where in his greatest despair and misery, he encountered a living Presence that sustained and strengthened him. He recalled how he constantly prayed fervently in snow, frost, and rain, on the mountain, and in the forests.
And he learned to listen to a voice that was not his own. He trusted the voice that told him six years later that the time was ripe for his escape. He made his way across the country to the east coast where he found passage on a ship bound for Gaul, modern-day France.
And then began his long period of training and formation, first as a monk for a number of years (probably on the island of Lérins off the southern coast of France), before his ordination to the priesthood and then his elevation to the episcopate. After many years abroad, he returned home to Britain to his family.
But things had changed, he had changed. Nothing could be the same again. But what prompted him to return to Ireland? To return to the place where he had been a slave? It was at home that he received the vision to return to Ireland and because he was living in and attuned to Truth he trusted that this was a divine commission.
At this time it was not the norm to preach Christianity outside the borders of the Roman Empire so what Patrick chose to do in returning to Ireland was highly unusual – it was a maverick move.
For the Romans and Greeks of the ancient world, the further you lived from the centres of their civilization the more barbaric and morally corrupt you were. But by Patrick’s mission to Ireland, he turned this idea on its head. Jesus’s mandate to his Apostles after his Resurrection in Jerusalem, to preach the message of salvation to the ends of the earth had now been fulfilled.
Ireland, the remotest part of the known world at that time, had now come to play a key role in salvation history. Ireland was no longer liminal, but central to the fulfillment of the Church’s universal mission that had begun in Jerusalem. Patrick knew this.
He knew that once the Gospel had been preached here at the ends of the earth, this would inaugurate the Eschaton or the Second Coming of Christ, the final stage in history.
Like Saint Paul, he was willing once again to become a slave and relinquish his Roman citizenship so that others would be saved. Patrick dedicated the rest of his life to preaching, baptizing, and establishing the nascent Church in Ireland. At the end of his life he could do nothing less but look back and marvel at the way the Spirit had shaped his life:
“I was like a stone that lies in deep mud, and He Who is powerful came and in His pity He raised me up and assuredly to be sure lifted me upward and placed me on the highest wall and therefore I ought forcefully to shout out for something that should be handed back to the Lord also for His benefits so great here and for eternity.”
Jesus’s promise to his apostles that he would work with them and accompany them in His work was made manifest in Patrick’s life, a child like the prophet Jeremiah, through whom the Lord spoke his word to the nations. Today, or in the next days, I encourage each one of you to view the website www.confessio.ie which has the two surviving writings of Saint Patrick. When you read these writings you hear the authentic voice of a man who had a direct encounter and experience of a Presence that animated and gave meaning to his whole existence.
More than 1,500 years later this same Presence is available and accessible to each one of us – a Presence that seeks us out, that continually beckons and beguiles us, despite our failings and unworthiness.
Today, let us give thanks to Saint Patrick for his witness and to all our ancestors in the faith, for all those Irish men and women who have in turn left their homeland and families in order to spread the good news of salvation to the ends of the earth.
Let us pray that we, his heirs in faith, may be strengthened by his example and that the Church in Ireland may find inspiration through the authenticity of his witness which was animated and guided by love.
Tá rian na Naomh ar thír na hÉireann,
Rian geal Phádraig, soiscéal Dé.
Buíoch sinne, muintir Phádraig;
Leanaimis i gcónai é.
The mark of the saints is on the land of Ireland,
The mark of bright Patrick, Gospel of the Lord.
Let us be grateful, Patrick’s people,
We follow him always.
(from Afreann Phádraig – Pat Ahern).