ST PATRICK’S CATHEDRAL, ARMAGH
ST PATRICK’S DAY MASS
HOMILY BY CARDINAL SEAN BRADY
ARCHBISHOP OF ARMAGH
TUESDAY, 17 MARCH, 1998, 12.00noon
I am very happy to see so many young people here today. I thank the Order of Malta, the Girl Guides and the Boy Scouts for coming here in uniform to honour St Patrick so faithfully each year.
What has St Patrick to say to young people? Quite a lot I think and if the adults will forgive me for doing so, I will try to pick out a few things from the life of St Patrick which hopefully will be of interest to you young people, but also say something to your parents as well.
Practically all that is known for certain about Patrick comes from his writings. These are two open letters – one is called his Confession – not a confession of sins but a confession of thanks to God for all his graces and favours. The second is a Letter to Coroticus condemning him and his soldiers for the murder and the destruction they carried out on people he had just baptised. Patrick calls them fellow citizens of the devil – strangers to him and his God because of their terrible crimes. I suggest that you try and get the writings of Patrick and read them for yourselves – you will find it well worthwhile.
I am going to divide up Patrick’s life into four chapters. The first chapter covers the first sixteen years of Patrick’s life. It is the chapter that many of you are in now. Patrick was born in Britain – probably near Carlisle. I told that to two young men yesterday. They were unaware that Patrick came from Britain. His grandfather was a priest and his father was a deacon – which is next to being a priest. So I would say there was fair amount of religion in that house. By the age of 16 it would appear that Patrick was getting a bit fed up with religion. Let us listen to what he says himself:
“I had neglected the true God. For we cut ourselves off from God and did not keep his commandments.”
That is the first chapter. We don’t know a lot except that Patrick felt he had cut himself off from God.
Then disaster struck. Patrick was barely 16. He was taken captive and carried off into slavery in Ireland along with a great number of people. Patrick saw it as punishment for his carelessness as regard his religion.
“It was well deserved”, he says. God revealed his being to him through His wrath. He scattered us among foreign peoples. Try and imagine the scene, Patrick snatched away suddenly and without warning. No chance to tell his parents or pack a bag or say good bye. How did it happen? As they were on their way home from school? Or playing on the beach? Or working in the fields? We simply do not know. No way of writing a letter or telephoning or sending word to say he was alive and safe!
It was a terrible experience. But for those who love God all things, even the greatest disasters can be turned to good. That is exactly how Patrick came to see this disaster.
They had made me aware of my unbelief, he says, so that I might recollect my offences and turn with all my heart to the Lord. That is exactly what Patrick did. He turned to the Lord with all his heart. Night and day Patrick turned to the Lord in prayer on the hills of Antrim. Patrick discovered that he was not alone. He found and came to know and love a God who took pity on him as a father pities a son.
During those six years Patrick built up a great friendship with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. “More and more the love and fear of God came to me until I was praying up to a hundred times every day and in the night nearly as often.”
This second chapter of Patrick’s life ended with his escape. After a lot of exciting adventures Patrick returned home. His family wanted to know if they could trust him now as a son never to leave them again.
The third chapter deals with the question which every young person must face. What am I going to do with my life? What does God want me to do with my life? Because the one mighty motivation force in all his work was the love of God. Patrick decided to be guided by that love. As we might expect Patrick’s love of people was just as great. After his escape from captivity his heart was never at rest for he had seen the misery of a pagan people. The voice of the Irish rang in his ears calling him to come again and to tell them the good news that their names are written in Heaven.
And come he did, this time to voluntary captivity. Patrick could not believe what was happening to him. It was all God’s doing. He owed everything to God, so he could praise God’s name not only when things went well but also in times of stress.
Whether he receives good or evil, Patrick returns thanks equally to God. Patrick compares himself to a stone buried deep in a drain. God came and found him and raised him up and put him sitting on the top of ditch.
The fourth and final chapter is being celebrated around the world today. It is the fact that thanks to Patrick, Ireland became a Christian country. Here in Armagh we celebrate with special joy. For Armagh is Patrick’s special Church. The saint himself was its first bishop. The conversion of the Irish to Christianity was a work of extraordinary distinction.
It was carried out by a man who through prayer and suffering was united very closely to God. Patrick never allowed suffering to drive a wedge between him and God. Instead suffering was the bond which united Patrick even more closely to Jesus Christ in his passion and death.
Patrick met with great success. Obviously people listened to him and believed what he told them. They knew he spoke the Words of Life.
But Patrick met also with great suffering. He was deeply hurt at the treachery of a friend. He felt intensely the loneliness of exile and of separation from family and friends. With very few words he shows how hurt he was that his work should be criticised. He resents untrue and malicious rumours about his work, that he had no real authority to teach and that he was only in it for the money, so to speak.
HIS MESSAGE TODAY
People have tried to imagine the kind of letter Patrick would write to us today in Ireland. He would probably begin by asking us all not to be taken in by the rumour that he had banished all the snakes. He would point out the dangers that still beset us all. He would probably tell us all to pay more attention to what he actually did and said and to try and imitate that in our own lives. He would tell us not to be flaunting his name about without really embracing his message and without living it in our own lives.
Since we all know that the search for peace in Northern Ireland is now at a very critical and important stage Patrick would have something to say to all of us on that topic as well. He would probably remind us of what he wrote to Coroticus that those who murder “are strangers to me and to my God”. He would join in condemning those who plan and prepare the instruments of murder – the arsenals of arms, the bombs and the mortars.
Because Patrick was above all else a humble man, he would never dream of proposing himself as a model of reconciliation. He was a strong determined and independent man but his strength and his determination were rooted in a deep conviction of his own nothingness, but he knew he had been chosen by God in whom he placed all his trust.
So God gave him the gift of forgiveness. Patrick forgave the Irish the wrong they had done him and so he had the freedom to come back and begin a glorious new chapter of his life. There was a Pan European Ecumenical Assembly in Austria last year. Its theme was: ‘Reconciliation – Gift of God and Source of New Life’. Patrick exemplifies that theme exactly.
Today we ask the help of Patrick that an agreement may be reached in the peace process, that an end may be found to the ancient hostilities and that the process of reconciliation may begin in earnest. I am convinced that the conditions now exist to bring about a whole new chapter in the life of these Isles.
What a prize that would be. What a real Millennium project! What a celebration of the Great Jubilee of the birth of Jesus Christ. Let us ask St Patrick to intercede for us that it may come to pass and grant the peacemakers the light to see and the strength to do what will lead to lasting and just peace.
Patrick has been remembered ever by a grateful people. One great honour they have never ceased to pay to him. Throughout the world the sons and daughters of Patrick have carried his name and his memory: for the land which he hallowed has never ceased to send forth men and women whose hearts are aglow with the same fire which burned in Patrick’s breast, men and women who remember the slave of Christ who heard the voice of children who were without a shepherd and who dwelt by the western sea.
Dochas linn Naomh Pádraig
Aspal mór na hÉireann
Iarr’mid ort a Phádraig
Guigh orainn-ne Gaela,
Dia linn lá agus oiche
‘S Pádraig Aspal Éireann.