I ask myself the question, how much has the modern celebration of St. Patrick’s day actually got to do his bringing the faith to Ireland? Today we see Patrick represented on Parade Floats in billowing green vestments, swinging a crozier around his head. Is there a danger that this will pass into the realm of fairy tale along the lines of the departure of the snakes from the coasts of Ireland to drown in the sea? I notice today that people are more inclined to say ‘Paddy’s Day’ or even ‘St. Patty’s Day’ and dress up in oversized green furry top hats and fake beards saying ‘Top o’ the morning.’ Here’s a secret… We Irish never say that!After dinner yesterday, I noticed someone left in a box of Shamrock for us. It is told that St. Patrick used the petals of the Shamrock to illustrate the relationship of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was a simple and ingenious way of explaining that there are three persons in the one God, like there are tree leaves on the one stem, the mystery of the Holy Trinity. Today in Ireland, the fact that March 17th is the Religious Feast Day of our National Patron is not central to the minds of many people I would argue.
Historically, the story of the bringing of the Christian faith to Ireland began before Patrick. Pope Celestine III appointed Palladius to go on a mission to the people of the Western Isles. Bishop Patrick came later on in the year 462 and it had more success, in a sense the wind was at his back. He lit a flame of faith in the people which has been passed down from generation to generation. Over the centuries that flame was a fire and at other times it was just a flicker. During the Penal Laws when the Political System tried to extinguish the Catholic faith altogether, the flame still burned. When Daniel O’Connell secured Catholic Emancipation in 1829 there was a resurgence of the Catholic Faith in Ireland. Remember, Patrick just lit the candle as it were, ordinary people have passed it on down through their families. As powerfully as Patrick handed on the Christian faith, and as generously as Irish missionaries travelled overseas with that faith, ordinary men and women passed it on too. Mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers brought their children to the church and told the children about Jesus Christ and it continues to this day. I see parents come to ask for their children to be baptized and I see grandparents bring them to the church to light a candle and say a prayer.To quote Archbishop Fulton Sheen speaking in 1974; “I believe that we are now living at the end of Christendom. It is the end of Christendom, but not of Christianity. What is Christendom? Christendom is the political, economic, moral, social, legal life of a nation as inspired by the gospel ethic.” If you look around at what is happening currently in modern Ireland, I believe this is happening now and any attempts to ask why are being met by some with dismay, disagreement and even ridicule.
St. Patrick brought the faith to Ireland. The Irish monks brought the faith all over Europe. For generations; Irish religious; nuns, brothers, and priests travelled to developing countries to make a difference to the lives of the people there armed not just with the gospels but with teaching, nursing, medical, and other professional skills. But fundamentally this wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for the generosity of mothers and fathers telling the stories of Jesus Christ to the children. The future of the faith in Ireland will be smaller perhaps, but people will choose to be part of it. The flame burns still.