Saturday, 12 March 2016

The Life of Saint Patrick and his message for us
today: 2, Saint Patrick’s writings and his message

Saint Patrick depicted in a window in the south porch in Saint Bartholomew’s Church, Ballsbridge, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Readers Retreat,

The Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

12 March 2016.

9.15 a.m.: Saint Patrick’s writings and message


The myths and legends about Saint Patrick that encrust Saint Patrick’s Day have not been there for that long. But those legends and myths have been there long enough to mean that anyone who questions them or tries to get to the truth about Saint Patrick, to talk about the real man behind the story, is dangerously close to a folk concept of heresy.

We help to massage those myths and legends in churches and cathedrals throughout the Church of Ireland with our stained glass windows depicting Saint Patrick with mitre and crozier, standing on the head of a snake.

The dates of Patrick’s life are the subject of conflicting traditions. His own writings provide nothing that can be dated more precisely than the 5th century. Even though Patrick quotes in his writings from the Acts of the Apostles as they are rendered by the early fifth-century Bible-version known as the Vulgate, these quotations may have been added later to replace other quotation from an earlier Bible-version and can therefore not be used securely to fix dates for Saint Patrick or his writings.

For example, the Letter to Coroticus implies that the Franks were still pagans at the time of writing. Their conversion to Christianity is dated to the period 496-508.

Two Latin works survive which are generally accepted to have been written by Saint Patrick. These are the Declaration or Confession (Confessio), and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus (Epistola), from which we have the only generally accepted details of his life.

The Confession is the more biographical of the two works. In it, Saint Patrick gives a short account of his life and his mission. However, most available details of his life are from subsequent hagiographies and annals, and these are now not accepted without detailed criticism.

In his writings, Saint Patrick shows his learning as he uses the Scriptures and scriptural allusions to make his arguments. The language he uses has been described as a popular or vulgar form of Latin from the 5th century, similar to that in Gaul at the time. But there is a level of sophistication in Saint Patrick’s thoughts and in the literary structure of his writings.

He tells us this much about his family in his Confessio:

My father was Calpornius. He was a deacon; his father was Potitus, a priest, who lived at Bannavem Taburniae. His home was near there, and that is where I was taken prisoner (Confessio 1).

Where was Bannavem Taburniae? Although we can suppose that it was near the west coast of Britain, but we do not know its exact location.

The Latin term that Patrick uses for the family home, uillula suggests the family had reasonable economic means and was of a particular social class.

Patrick’s reference to his father Calpornius as a deacon and to his grandfather Potitus as a priest (patrem habui Calpornium diaconum filium quendam Potiti presbyteri) (Confessio 1) implies a family background of married clergy. Calpornius’ dual role in church life (deacon) and civic life (decurion) was not unusual in the late 4th or early 5h century Roman empire, when the clergy were fast becoming the administrative in the provinces.

Patrick insists in his Epistola that he ‛was born free, in that I was born of a decurion father’ (Epistola 10). Indeed, for a man to be ordained, it meant he was a freeman.

He says that after his six years of slavery in Ireland he returned to Britain, where his family “welcomed me as a son, and they pleaded with me that, after all the many tribulations I had undergone, I should never leave them again” (Confessio 23).

Later, during his time as a missionary in Ireland, he was conscious of being cut off from his family and friends and he wondered about leaving the Irish and returning home:

I could wish to leave them to go to Britain. I would willingly do this, and am prepared for this, as if to visit my home country and my parents. Not only that, but I would like to go to Gaul to visit the brothers and to see the faces of the saints of my Lord. God knows what I would dearly like to do. But I am bound in the Spirit, who assures me that if I were to do this, I would be held guilty. (Confessio 43)

Patrick’s acknowledgement of these feelings of homesickness makes for a very human portrait in his Confessio. At the same time, he is a man committed to his mission, which he believes he received from God:

And I fear, also, to lose the work which I began – not so much I as Christ the Lord, who told me to come here to be with these people for the rest of my life. (Confessio 43)

Was Saint Patrick celibate or was he married with a family of his own?

In the 5th century, many bishops were married. But from the late 4th century, a shift was taking place in Christian attitudes towards sexuality so that marriage and saintliness began to be seen as incompatible.

Church Fathers at the time, such as Jerome, argued that those dealing with heavenly things should be celibate, while those who were married could deal with earthly things. Saint Augustine had already adopted a monastic and celibate form of life along with his monks. Patrick does not tell us whether he was ever married or not but, given that in his writings he mentions with approval “monks and virgins of Christ” (monachi et virgines Christi) (Confessio 41; Epistola 12), praises women who have remained virgins (Confessio 42), and speaks of ‘the chastity of genuine religion’ that he has ‛chosen to the end of my life for Christ my Lord’ (Confessio 44), we may presume that Patrick was celibate.

In his writings, Patrick describes himself as rusticissimus (Confessio 1) and indoctus (Epistola 1), a simple country person and one unlearned. Yet, as the son of a Romano-Briton family of moderate wealth, he would have had a Roman-style education in the basic skills such as reading, writing and public speaking.

Saint Patrick’s Confessio

Seamus Murphy’s sculpture of Saint Patrick in the corridors of Saint Patrick’s College, Maynooth, Co Kildare (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

What do we find in Patrick’s Confessio, more than 1,500 years after it was first written?

We can understand the Latin term confessio in the Christian tradition in three basic ways:

1, confessio peccatorum, confession of sins;

2, confessio fidei, confession or testimony of faith;

3, confessio laudis, confession of praise.

All three understandings of confessio are found in Patrick’s writing.

The opening line of the Confessio announces who the writer is and how he sees himself: Ego Patricius peccator rusticissimus (Confessio 1), “My name is Patrick. I am a sinner, a simple country person.”

Referring to his slavery in Ireland and his lack of faith at the time, he says:

It was there that the Lord opened up my awareness of my lack of faith. Even though it came about late, I recognised my failings. So I turned with all my heart to the Lord my God (Confessio 2).

His confession or testimony of faith appears in his inclusion of a formal creed concerning the Trinity: ‘This is the one we acknowledge and adore – one God in a Trinity of the sacred name’ (Confessio 4).

Saint Patrick writes in his Confessio that the time he spent in captivity was critical to his spiritual development. He explains that the Lord had mercy on his youth and ignorance, and afforded him the opportunity to be forgiven of his sins and converted to Christianity.

Saint Patrick recounts that he had a vision a few years after returning home:

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: ‘The Voice of the Irish’. As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea – and they cried out, as with one voice: ‘We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.’

It seems Saint Patrick wants at the outset to proclaim the orthodoxy of his Christian beliefs.

Why?

Had these beliefs been called into question?

Throughout his writings, Saint Patrick goes out of his way to attribute any success that his mission has had to God and to the workings of God’s grace:

For that reason, I give thanks to the one who strengthened me in all things, so that he would not impede me in the course I had undertaken and from the works also which I had learned from Christ my Lord. Rather, I sensed in myself no little strength from him, and my faith passed the test before God and people. (Confessio 30)

I am greatly in debt to God. He gave me such great grace, that through me, many people should be born again in God and brought to full life. Also that clerics should be ordained everywhere for this people who have lately come to believe, and who the Lord has taken from the ends of the Earth. (Confessio 38)

Why did Saint Patrick need to write this confession, declare his faith, and give an account of God’s dealings with him?

Saint Patrick writes that he was subjected to criticism from others, including those whom he acknowledges as his seniors:

One time I was put to the test by some superiors of mine. They came and put my sins against my hard work as a bishop. (Confessio 26)

The charge brought against Saint Patrick referred to something that had happened in his past and that had been disclosed through a betrayal of confidence on the part of a close friend:

They brought up against me after 30 years something I had already confessed before I was a deacon. What happened was that, one day when I was feeling anxious and low, with a very dear friend of mine I referred to some things I had done one day – rather, in one hour – when I was young, before I overcame my weakness. I do not know – God knows – whether I was then 15 years old at the time, and I did not then believe in the living God, not even when I was a child. In fact, I remained in death and unbelief until I was reproved strongly, and actually brought low by hunger and nakedness daily. (Confessio 27)

Saint Patrick felt the pain of his friend’s betrayal long afterwards, and the memory of it was still fresh with him as he wrote his Confessio:

But I grieve more for my very dear friend, that we had to hear such an account – the one to whom I entrusted my very soul. I did learn from some brothers before the case was heard that he came to my defence in my absence. I was not there at the time, not even in Britain, and it was not I who brought up the matter. In fact it was he himself who told me from his own mouth: ‛Look, you are being given the rank of bishop’. That is something I did not deserve. How could he then afterwards come to disgrace me in public before all, both good and bad, about a matter for which he had already freely and joyfully forgiven me, as indeed had God, who is greater than all? (Confessio 32)

These circumstances seem to have prompted Saint Patrick to write his Confessio. Yet it is more than a mere apologia. It is a testimony to Saint Patrick’s personal faith and trust in God, to whom he attributes the entire success of his mission in Ireland.

Saint Patrick shows he is conscious of his own shortcomings, but his dogged perseverance and trust in God’s help kept him:

So I am first of all a simple country person, a refugee, and unlearned. I do not know how to provide for the future. But this I know for certain, that before I was brought low, I was like a stone lying deep in the mud. Then he who is powerful came and in his mercy pulled me out, and lifted me up and placed me on the very top of the wall. That is why I must shout aloud in return to the Lord for such great good deeds of his, here and now and forever, which the human mind cannot measure. (Confessio 12)

Saint Patrick may be referring to his conversion and his new-found faith during the hardships of his slavery, or to the criticisms of his seniors back in Britain. Either way, he is convinced that his humiliations have been the fertile seed-ground for the effective working of God’s grace in his life.

He goes on to challenge his critics:

So be amazed, all you people great and small who fear God! You well-educated people in authority, listen and examine this carefully. Who was it who called one as foolish as I am from the middle of those who are seen to be wise and experienced in law and powerful in speech and in everything? If I am most looked down upon, yet he inspired me, before others, so that I would faithfully serve the nations with awe and reverence and without blame: the nations to whom the love of Christ brought me. His gift was that I would spend my life, if I were worthy of it, to serving them in truth and with humility to the end (Confessio 13)

Saint Patrick sums up his reasons for writing as follows:

In the knowledge of this faith in the Trinity, and without letting the dangers prevent it, it is right to make known the gift of God and his eternal consolation. It is right to spread abroad the name of God faithfully and without fear, so that even after my death I may leave something of value to the many thousands of my brothers and sisters – the children whom I baptised in the Lord. I didn’t deserve at all that the Lord would grant such great grace, after hardships and troubles, after captivity, and after so many years among that people. It was something which, when I was young, I never hoped for or even thought of. (Confessio 14-15)

His Confessio highlights Saint Patrick’s growth in faith and trust in a personal and loving God as the inner source of his strength, especially through his many difficulties, and as the author of whatever success his mission has accomplished.

He records his fervour in prayer as a young man while in slavery in Ireland; his later spiritual experiences, with an example of severe temptation as he was sleeping one night (Confessio 20).

He records his escape from slavery (Confessio 21-22), how he later heard God’s call to walk again among the Irish (Confessio 23), and his experience of the Spirit praying within him (Confessio 25).

Saint Patrick’s spiritual journey provided the inner strength for his mission, which had its difficulties:

It was not by my own grace, but God who overcame it in me, and resisted them all so that I could come to the peoples of Ireland to preach the gospel. I bore insults from unbelievers, so that I would hear the hatred directed at me for travelling here. I bore many persecutions, even chains, so that I could give up my freeborn state for the sake of others. If I be worthy, I am ready even to give up my life most willingly here and now for his name. It is there that I wish to spend my life until I die, if the Lord should grant it to me. (Confessio 37)

Although Saint Patrick uses the verb “to confess” (confiteri) a number of times in the opening sections of his Confessio, it is only close to the end that he uses a form of that actual noun when he writes:

Again and again I briefly put before you the words of my confession (confessionis). I testify in truth and in great joy of heart before God and his holy angels that I never had any reason for returning to that nation from which I had earlier escaped, except the gospel and God’s promises. (Confessio 61)

His closing request at the end of his Confessio appeals to those who believe in and revere God:

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. (Confessio 62)

Saint Patrick’s Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus

Saint Patrick preaching in the court of King Laoire … a carving on the ‘Comerford Pulpit’ in Carlow

Much of Saint Patrick’s Confessio offers us a retrospective view of things: he probably wrote it in his later years, as an old man. From this it may be assumed that his Epistola was written at some earlier period in his mission in Ireland, although we do not know precisely.

The Epistola, or Letter, is shorter than his Confessio. It has been given a number of titles, including Letter to Coroticus and Letter Excommunicating Coroticus, for it is a letter of excommunication addressed to Coroticus and his soldiers.

Coroticus and his soldiers had attacked a number of Saint Patrick’s newly baptised converts and had carried them off into slavery. Roman imperial rule was decaying, especially in Britain as the Roman legions were withdrawn, and it was a period marked by disorder.

It seems from the Letter that the marauders led by Coroticus included some who were nominally Christian, Otherwise, why would Patrick want to or need to excommunicate them?

Saint Patrick condemns the crime of Coroticus and his soldiers as a rejection of God’s gift of life and as a rebellion against God. They are to be treated as apostates. The crime is compounded because their victims are fellow Christians.

Saint Patrick’s declaration of excommunication implies that the culprits have, in effect, excommunicated themselves by their actions. (Epistola 16)

Although Saint Patrick pleads that he is merely a sinner and untaught, he stresses his credentials as a bishop from the outset of the letter. It is with the prestige of this office that he condemns the actions of Coroticus:

I declare that I, Patrick – an unlearned sinner indeed – have been established a bishop of Ireland. (Epistola 1)

When Saint Patrick speaks of Coroticus (see Epistola 2), he uses a Latin form of the name. The identity and origin of this Coroticus have been debated. Some say he was the c ruler of the Strathclyde region in what is now Scotland, Others identify him with Ceretic, a Welsh ruler.

Locating him in Strathclyde agrees with a chapter-heading in Muirchú’s 7th century Life of Patrick in the Book of Armagh. This reads: De conflictu sancti Patricii aduersum Coirthech regem Aloo (“Of Saint Patrick’s stand against Coirthech, king of Ail”)

The placename is said to refer to Dumbarton on the Clyde, in a region close to the Picts.

Saint Patrick then groups Coroticus and his soldiers with specific other evildoers:

I cannot say that they are my fellow-citizens, nor fellow-citizens of the saints of Rome, but fellow-citizens of demons, because of their evil works. By their hostile ways they live in death, allies of the apostate Scots and Picts. They are blood-stained: blood-stained with the blood of innocent Christians, whose numbers I have given birth to in God and confirmed in Christ. (Epistola 2)

Saint Patrick sees the “apostates” as renegade Christians (Epistola 15). Along with Coroticus and his forces, they bear the brunt of Patrick’s fury because:

freeborn people have been sold off, Christians reduced to slavery: slaves particularly of the lowest and worst of the apostate Picts. (Epistola15)

Saint Patrick describes how some of the victims of Coroticus and his soldiers suffered an even worse fate:

The newly baptised anointed were dressed in white robes; the anointing was still to be seen clearly on their foreheads when they were cruelly slain and sacrificed by the sword of the ones I referred to above. (Epistola 3)

Saint Patrick says he acted immediately on hearing the news of the tragedy, but to no avail:

On the day after that, I sent a letter by a holy priest (whom I had taught from infancy), with clerics, to ask that they return to us some of the booty or of the baptised prisoners they had captured. They scoffed at them. (Epistola 3)

Perhaps then the Epistola is Saint Patrick’s second communication to and about those guilty of the crimes. This second letter is no longer a plea to spare prisoners, but communicates his judgment on Coroticus’ crimes against newly-baptised Christians. He is forthright expressing his judgment:

So I do not know which is the cause of the greatest grief for me: whether those who were slain, or those who were captured, or those whom the devil so deeply ensnared. They will face the eternal pains of Gehenna equally with the devil; because whoever commits sin is rightly called a slave and a son of the devil. For this reason, let every God-fearing person know that those people are alien to me and to Christ my God, for whom I am an ambassador: father-slayers, brother-slayers, they are savage wolves devouring the people of God as they would bread for food. It is just as it is said: The wicked have routed your law, O Lord – the very law which in recent times he so graciously planted in Ireland and, with God’s help, has taken root. (Epistola 4-5)

In addressing his judgments to the guilty, Saint Patrick is also using the occasion to warn the innocent, allowing them to “overhear” what he says to Coroticus and his soldiers:

Therefore I ask most of all that all the holy and humble of heart should not fawn on such people, nor even share food or drink with them, nor accept their alms, until such time as they make satisfaction to God in severe penance and shedding of tears, and until they set free the men-servants of God and the baptised women servants of Christ, for whom he died and was crucified. (Epistola 7)

Saint Patrick laments and grieves over the loss of the newly baptised members of his Church, and declares:

Greedy wolves have devoured the flock of the Lord, which was flourishing in Ireland under the very best of care – I just cannot count the number of sons of Scots [Irish Gaels] and daughters of kings who are now monks and virgins of Christ. (Epistola 12)

This reference to “monks and virgins of Christ” (monachi et virgines Christi) also occurs in the Confessio, where Saint Patrick praises the great number of people, both men and women, who have embraced the monastic life despite opposition from relatives (Confessio 41-42).

Saint Patrick leaves the ultimate fate of Coroticus and his soldiers to God:

So where will Coroticus and his villainous rebels against Christ find themselves – those who divide out defenceless baptised women as prizes, all for the sake of a miserable temporal kingdom, which will pass away in a moment of time. Just as a cloud of smoke is blown away by the wind, that is how deceitful sinners will perish from the face of the Lord. The just, however, will banquet in great constancy with Christ. They will judge nations, and will rule over evil kings for all ages. Amen. (Epistola 19)

Saint Patrick urges repentance by those guilty of the crimes and warns them of dire punishments in the absence of any repentance. He speaks as a bishop, defending his people. But he also reflects on his sense of isolation and the criticisms being directed against him, which may seem to detract from any authority he wishes to speak from (Epistola 10-11). Perhaps it is this gnawing anxiety that prompts him to add greater weight to what he has said by appealing, ultimately, to the authority of God himself:

I bear witness before God and his angels that it will be as he made it known to one of my inexperience. These are not my own words which I have put before you in Latin; they are the words of God, and of the apostles and prophets, who have never lied. Anyone who believes will be saved; anyone who does not believe will be condemned – God has spoken. (Epistola 20)

What these two writings tell us about Saint Patrick

A statue of Saint Patrick on the Hill of Tara (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

These two works give us only a limited overview of Saint Patrick and his personality. But they reveal his relationship with God and his humble acknowledgement of God’s grace at work in his life, from his conversion as a slave to his mission as a bishop.

He is a man who knows adversity and suffering but who is resilient and who perseveres in his trust in God. He is hurt by the accusations against him, feels betrayed and believes he has been undermined in the eyes of his superiors.

The Letter to Coroticus portrays a Saint Patrick who is robust in his pastoral concerns.

It is worth pointing out that there are no references to the shamrock, no indication of snakes being driven out of Ireland, and no naming of the mountain where he tended animals as a slave. The Hill of Slemish and Croagh Patrick are not named, and Lough Derg is not mentioned either.

Nor is there any allusion to the Paschal Fire on the Hill of Tara near Slane, Co Meath. There is no reference to King Laoire either.

All of these elements in the popular stories about Saint Patrick come from later writings, stories and traditions. Over time, the cult and status of Saint Patrick took on such proportions that we depend less on historical narrative and more on hagiography for these folk talks and legends.

Let me consider some of the things Saint Patrick did not do and some of the things Saint Patrick was not, and ask some questions that these raise:

1, Saint Patrick was not an Irishman. It might be an anachronism – or more correctly a prochronism – to describe him as such. But you can get my point when I say Saint Patrick was an Englishman. We like to think of Christianity being brought from Ireland by wandering Irish monks on their peregrinations through Europe in the Dark Ages. But Saint Patrick came from a Christian society that had arrived in our neighbouring island generations beforehand with the Romans.

Considering we are marking the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising this year, perhaps Saint Patrick’s family background challenges Irish people to be more generous in Anglo-Irish relations. Certainly Saint Patrick’s family background should put to shame people in Ireland who still use denigrating and derogatory phrases such as “Brits” that smack of racism. Saint Patrick reminds us that being English and being Irish is about as close as you can get in nationalities.

When it comes the readings at our closing Eucharist in the Chapel this afternoon, our first reading [Tobit 13: 1b-7] may remind us that the good news of God’s kingdom is not for one, confined or limited group of people, but for all nations, throughout all ages.

2, Saint Patrick did not teach about the Trinity using the shamrock. That is legend. And if he did use the shamrock, he was perilously close to the heresies of either tritheism, at one extreme, or modalism at the other. When we see one leaf, we do not see the whole shamrock, when we see two leaves we do not see the whole shamrock. The Father is fully God, the Son is fully God, the Holy Spirit is fully God, but they do not work independently of each other, and cannot be torn apart and shredded, or held up as one God, each on their own like little idols or totems.

But the Trinitarian challenge from Saint Patrick must force us to ask many questions. If we do not have a Trinitarian faith, how can we enter into the dance with the Trinity, the perichoresis (περιχώρησις) of the Trinity?

We can end up making our own gods, in our own image and likeness, rather than entering into a relationship with the God who makes us in God’s image and likeness.

What are our idols today?

For example, did we destroy our economy in Ireland in the past decade because we made little gods of our money, our banking system and our quest for growth that benefitted a few at the expense of the many?

3, Saint Patrick did not expel the snakes from Ireland. The incident is not mentioned by Saint Patrick in his own writings and does not appear in the stories about him until the 11th century. But, in the building of the nation myths, Saint Patrick was seen to need a legend parallel to Saint George slaying the dragon and Saint Marcel delivering Paris from the monster.

Saint Paul in the epistle reading at our closing Eucharist, calls on us to renounce the shameful things and to turn our backs on cunning practices, to be conscientious and truthful [II Corinthians 4: 2].

But what snakes and dragons do you want to see expelled from Ireland?

The greed that fed the Celtic Tiger?

That racism that so discriminates against foreigners and refugees that it would be happy to have a present-day Patrick work in oppressive conditions that would be today’s equivalent of the slopes of Slemish, or reject the newcomer that comes with enthusiasm to share the Christian message … from Nigeria, Latvia, Lithuania or Romania, or perhaps just from England?

You might respond, “But we already have Christianity in Ireland!”

But do we?

And if so, do we take it to heart?

And do we want to share it, with enthusiasm?

The first reading this afternoon is going to remind us that we are all children of exile and calls on us to turn to God “with all your heart, and with all your soul” [Tobit 13: 6].

4, Saint Patrick was not the first person to bring Christianity to Ireland. His role was as a co-ordinator and as a figure of unity – as bishops should be – to reap what others had sown, but that sower and reaper could rejoice together in a shared Irish Christianity, in one Church together [see John 4: 35-38].

Are we still committed to bringing Christianity together, to the visible unity of the Church?

Or, are the lines we are going to say in the Creed this afternoon, “we believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” just another tradition, something we are committed to but not willing to do very much about?

How did you react to the election of Pope Francis I three years ago, on 13 March 2013?

Do you remember how he asked the people gathered in Saint Peter's Square to pray for him before he blessed them?

Were you positive enough in your reaction to pray for him too, to ask God to bless him in his new ministry, his new tasks, his new mission?

And I could go on … Saint Patrick did not wear a mitre and green liturgical robes – certainly not in Lent – he probably never carried a crozier, he did not turn the people of Skerries into goats, he did not fetch water from a well in Nassau Street, and he certainly did not build Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin … nor, for that matter, Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

But please do not take me as one over-enthusiastic revisionist historian, nor as someone who wants to tear apart some of the cherished concepts that help to hold together our shared identity with all its diversity.

Legends apart, let me summarise some of the positive things about Saint Patrick that have been underlying his story.

Saint Patrick was enthusiastic about sharing the Christian message. If I said that the Christian message is not at the heart of the Festivities in Dublin next week, you might tick me off for being a killjoy. But we are less than joyful and increasingly reticent about sharing our faith in the marketplace today, something for which the disciples themselves are admonished in the Gospel reading this afternoon [see John 4: 34-38].

Saint Patrick was a unifying force for the varying strands of Christianity in Ireland. That was why he was sent on his mission to Ireland. But so often every one of the Churches in Ireland is so insecure in its identity, that we cling too often to the little things that make us different instead of rejoicing in the truly important things that we have in common.

Saint Patrick knew what economic and social oppression were from an early stage in his life. Saint Patrick challenged the established order of the day. Yet he too was afflicted but not crushed, perplexed but not driven to despair, persecuted but not forsaken, struck down but not destroyed [see I Corinthians 4: 8-9].

Like Christ with the Samaritan woman at the well, who provides the context and the setting for this afternoon’s Gospel reading [John 4: 31-38, see John 4: 1-42 for the full context], Saint Patrick was affirmative of the women who came to him with their questions about religion, but who had been marginalised and who had been kept out of religious society and debate. Indeed, so affirmative was Saint Patrick that his detractors accused him of being beguiled by them.

As the son of a deacon and the grandson of a priest, Saint Patrick could hardly uphold the rigours of clerical celibacy, or for that matter some of our moralising and negatively judgmental attitudes towards sexuality and gender today.

Saint Patrick is a pastorally sensitive and healing figure. I was reminded of this aspect of his character when I saw how Pope Francis is a pastoral Pope, sensitive to the needs of the people, preferring God’s preferential option for the poor rather than power and authority, not turning away single mothers who bring their children to baptism, embracing HIV + patients on their deathbeds in hospitals. It has been said he is following in the humble footsteps of Saint Francis of Assisi. I pray and I hope. And I pray and I hope too that he follows in the footsteps of Saint Patrick, the real Saint Patrick.

Previous reflection, 1, Who is Saint Patrick?

Next reflection, 3, Celtic Spirituality. Is there something there?

(The Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This is the second address at a Diocesan Readers’ Lenten retreat on 11-12 March 2016.

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