ST PATRICK’S DAY – 17 MARCH 2002
HOMILY GIVEN BY CARDINAL SEÁN BRADY
IN ST. MALACHY’S CHURCH, ARMAGH
Every new generation is another continent to be won for Christ. This weekend a group of young people arrived in Armagh to play their part in winning the young people of Armagh, of this generation, for Christ. Like St Patrick, they believe very much in the power of prayer. The first thing they did on arrival, at St. Catherine’s College yesterday morning, was to spend a long time in prayer. They then proceeded to distribute leaflets in the City and outside St. Malachy’s Church.
Those leaflets invite young people to join them on a weekend retreat, next weekend, Palm Sunday weekend, in St. Catherine’s. They are hoping to get at least 40 young people for the retreat. If they do so it could be the beginning of something great for this City. Therefore they ask the help of your prayers and your fasting for the success of the weekend.
I am sure that each one of us knows some young person who could benefit immensely from such a weekend. That young person may be one of you, here at this Mass. If we do, I think we should do all in our power to persuade them to sign up, to go along to listen to this call of God to come apart and spend some time with Him. They will certainly not regret it for I am quite certain that it is that same Holy Spirit, which guided these young people to our City as guided Patrick to Armagh in the first place. It is certainly the same Good News, which they bring – namely the Good News of Jesus Christ – Jesus Christ who was crucified for love of us and raised from the dead for our sake.
At the end of his Confessions, Patrick tells us that the only reason that brought him back to Ireland was the Gospel and the promises it contained. Those same promises are put before us in today’s Mass. Let us hear them again. Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies, he will live. Your brother will rise again”. There is no doubt about it that those are fantastic promises. But, every generation has got to make a choice – to put its faith in Jesus and in his promises or to put its faith in the idols of the age.
Please remember that an idol can take many forms. An idol is a false God. Anything that gets too much devotion, anything that gets first place in my life, the place that should be given to God, that is an idol, a false God. So, whatever keeps us up so late on a Saturday night that we are not able to get up or not willing to get up for Mass on a Sunday, whether it is devotion to the pub culture or the pop culture – that is an idol. Whatever keeps us so tired that we are not able to listen to the Word of God that may very well be an idol.
One of the stories about Patrick that captures the imagination, especially of young people, is that he banished the snakes from Ireland. We talk of a snake in the grass to indicate some danger lurking nearby which poses a threat. Every generation must identify and banish its own snakes. If, for example, the hunger for pleasure is so strong in my life that it occupies first place – that it comes before everything else – surely that is a snake in the grass that poses a severe threat to the prospect of my eternal happiness. That definitely is a snake, which must be banished. Remember pleasure is not the same as happiness – it is something quite different.
The arrival of these young people in Armagh this weekend caused me to wonder how did Patrick begin when he got here. Did he stop people in the street and ask for a moment? Did he visit homes? He certainly did not have St. Malachy’s Church. But he did have the very strong belief that he had something vitally important to tell. Maybe he met someone who was heartbroken at the loss of a mother or a brother and said to them the words of Jesus, ‘your brother will rise again and if you believe you too will see the glory of God’.
I wonder did Patrick begin by telling his own story and telling of his own close shave with disaster – the disaster of losing his faith – that at the age of sixteen he himself was not exactly Gospel greedy. Indeed far from it – like many of his peers, Patrick had forsaken God. Didn’t keep His commandments. They were not obedient to their bishops; he used to warn them for their own good.
One day the bubble burst, disaster struck. Patrick was carried off as a slave to Ireland along with lots of others. In time Patrick came to see it as a case of getting what you deserved. Listen to his own words, “God brought to bear upon us the wrath of His anger and scattered us among many peoples”. But, like the Prodigal Son in the Gospel, Patrick came to his senses. He said, “the Lord opened my unbelieving mind so that even at that last hour I should remember my sins and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God”.
The result was that Patrick had a conversion experience – God had mercy on his youth. He says, “He kept me safe and comforted me as a father would his son”. The fact is that in exile, Patrick had been robbed of the presence of his natural father but he discovered God as a real and powerful father.
In exile he learned a powerful lesson – yes he had been deprived of his freedom. It was a terrible wrong. A horrible injustice but in the process he saw that because of his own carelessness and laziness earlier he had been running the risk of suffering a far greater loss – the loss of his faith in God. “I did not know the true God,” he says. The result is that God stepped in a saved him from that far greater disaster. So, what appeared at first appeared to be the worst of bad news, namely his capture and imprisonment, in reality turned out to be a real favour.
You all know that Patrick escaped and eventually got home to Britain to his family. Then he came to the conclusion that God was calling him to go back to Ireland. He knew he had something valuable to offer the Irish people. He also met a lot of difficulties and obstacles. Some people cast up the sins of his life and told him he wasn’t fit for the job. Others reminded him that he was a foreigner, a stranger. The Lord came powerfully to his aid he says, when he was being walked upon and did not allow him to fall into disgrace. It appears that they had dragged up something he had admitted doing, as a boy of fifteen years of age. In any case Patrick weathered the storm and found his way back to Ireland as a priest – a bishop – to bring the Good News of Jesus Christ. It certainly was not all plain sailing. Patrick came to see it all as a great gift from God – the fact that he came to know God so clearly and to love him so much that he was prepared to forsake his homeland and his family.
These were very dear to him – his homeland in Britain. He tells us that he would have loved to pay them one last visit but he could not run the risk of being found guilty of betraying the task, which God had given to him. He just simply could not take the time off. There was far too much important work to do here in Ireland. Yes, he says, we were bound to spread our necks so that a great multitude and throng should be caught for God and that everywhere there should be clergy to baptise and exhort a needy and a thirsty people. As a result he says “In Ireland they, who had never had knowledge of God, have lately been made a People of the Lord and are called Children of God. Their sons and daughters flock to become priests and religious”.
Well, peoples’ needs do not change. The people of this generation are still needy and thirsty – thirsting for knowledge of God. You may have read recently that there is only one young man being ordained a priest in Northern Ireland this year. That is true. It is not a very good sign. Patrick tells us that in his days one obstacle he had to deal with as regards vocations was that very often they had to join up without their parents’ consent. Indeed, he says, they had to suffer both persecution and false reproaches from their families but nevertheless they came in great numbers. So today as we face this crisis in vocations, let us look at our own attitude, our own faith in the message brought by Patrick and of the need for priests to baptise and celebrate the Eucharist and hand on the Good News.
I recently went into a junior class in a primary school and one little lad greeted me with these words. “I know who your friend is. Who’s that? I ask. God he said. I answered, “I hope so”. One thing is certain, Patrick was a friend of God. He came to Ireland to help all of us to know God and to become his friend and to praise God’s goodness all the days of our lives.
His legacy is his gift of faith but also his immense humility and honesty. He begins his writings “I am Patrick, a sinner”. He alerts us to the temptations he had to endure from the Devil, “For he is strong”, he says, “who daily strives to subvert me from the fidelity and chastity I have undertaken”.
I think every Armagh person should know the Confession of Patrick inside out. It is a Confession of grace – a confession of faith rather than a confession of sins. Could I suggest that you try and get your hands on it and read it for yourselves. Could I leave you with its final words “One more time let me briefly set down the theme of my Confession. I testify that I never had any reason other than the Gospel and its promises, for ever returning to the land from which, in an earlier time, I had barely made good my escape from captivity. Now this is my prayer:
That if I have accomplished or brought to light any small part of God’s purpose, none shall ever assert the credit is due to my own uneducated self but regard it rather as a true fact to be firmly believed that it was all the gift of God and that is my confession before I die”.
St. Patrick, pray for us that we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.