17 March 2010

Saint Patrick: faithful to his call

Saint Patrick’s window in the south nave of Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford, designed by Catherine O'Brien of the Sarah Purser Studio (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2009)

Patrick Comerford

Saint Patrick’s Day, 17 March 2010

9 a.m., The Eucharist:

Tobit 13: 1b-7; Psalm 145: 1-13; II Corinthians 4: 1-12; John 4: 31-38.

May I speak to you in the name of + the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen.

We know very little about Saint Patrick. We cannot even say for sure where he was born. But whether he came from England, Scotland or Wales, we do know that Saint Patrick was not from Ireland.

Saint Patrick is generally recognised as the patron saint of Ireland, although he shares this honour with Saint Brigid of Kildare and Saint Columba or Colmcille.

We remember him in Ireland today because 17 March is said in tradition to be the day on which he died in the year 461. His grave is said to be beside Down Cathedral in Downpatrick – by the name of it, it certainly sounds like the place where Saint Patrick was laid down in his grave.

Countless other places around the island claim him as their own. There are cathedrals named after him in Armagh, Dublin, Killala (Co Mayo), Trim (Co Meath) and Cashel (Co Tipperary) – although, surprisingly, Downpatrick Cathedral, where he is said to be buried, is not named after him at all.

The pilgrim places named after Saint Patrick include a lake in Donegal, a mountain in Mayo, and he is associated with an island off the coast of Skerries, where his name is perpetuated in Holmpatrick Parish. As well as countless churches, he has also given his name to hospitals, schools and colleges – and a detention centre.

Yet, despite his popularity, we know very little about Patrick, his life or his work, and there is no contemporary evidence to link him with any known church building – not even Saint Patrick’s Cathedral.

As late as 613, an important letter from Saint Columbanus to Pope Boniface IV is silent about Patrick, and says that Irish Christianity “was first handed to us by you, the successors of the holy apostles,” apparently referring to Palladius only, and ignoring Patrick.

Patrick only came to be revered as the patron saint of Ireland in the eighth century. Indeed, his feast day was not marked in the universal calendar of the Church until the 17th century, and this day did not become a public holiday in Ireland until 1903. Why – even though there have been Saint Patrick’s Day parades in Boston since 1737 – the first Saint Patrick’s Day parade in Ireland did not take place until 1931.

Most of the other details of his life come from later hagiographies – from the seventh century on, and these we cannot accept uncritically. Even the dates of his life cannot be fixed with certainty. And if there are no snakes in Ireland it is because of the Ice Age, not because of Patrick’s episcopal crosier. Legend credits Patrick with teaching the doctrine of the Trinity by showing people the shamrock – but this too is legend, and an inadequate, if not heretical way, of teaching about the Trinity.

Those myths are plentiful. So uncertain are we about the details of his life that some argue there were two Patricks, and that we should try to separate and disentangle their stories.

For real, historical evidence, all we know about Patrick comes from two documents – his Confession and his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus – the only two of Patrick’s writings to have survived. They tell us that Patrick was the son of Calpornius, a deacon, and the grandson of Potitus, a priest. He was brought up in a Latin-speaking Roman family in Britain – probably on the west coast of England.

When he was about 16 he was abducted and taken to Ireland by slave-traders. He lived here for six years His faith grew in captivity, and he prayed daily. After six years of slavery and prayer, he heard a voice telling him that he would soon go home, and that his ship was ready. He fled his master, travelled to a port 300 km away where he found a ship and made good his escape, returning home to his family in his early 20s.

After ordination, he returned to Ireland – traditionally in the year 432 – as a missionary bishop in the north and west of the island. But he was not the first missionary bishop in Ireland – Bishop Palladius was sent by Pope Celestine I to Ireland as the first bishop to Irish Christians in the year 431. And even Palladius was not the first priest in Ireland at this time – he has been sent to Ireland to counter the Pelagians and to minister to and to consolidate Christian communities already existing in Ireland.

Meanwhile, Patrick had another vision calling him back to Ireland, with “The Voice of the Irish” crying out, “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”

Back in Ireland, Patrick had no easy time. Charges were laid against him by his fellow Christians and he was put on trial. He does not say explicitly what those charges were, but it seems he was accused of financial impropriety and of becoming a bishop in pursuit of personal gain.

Whatever jealous rivals from the more settled Christian community in Ireland thought of him, Patrick was an amazing missionary even by today’s standards. He says he “baptised thousands of people,” he ordained priests to lead the new Christian communities, many of the wealthy women he converted became nuns in the face of family opposition, and he even succeeded in converting the sons of kings too.

His refusal to accept royal gifts and patronage placed him outside the normal ties of kinship, fosterage and affinity. Left without protection, he was beaten, robbed, put in chains, and once even faced possible execution. But he was unbowed and continued to challenge the traditional order, and traditional privileges, to face up to the superstitions and enslaving nature of the old religion, and to excommunicate slave-traders.

Tradition says he died on 17 March 461. But some historians that say he died much later, perhaps as late as 493. With so little historical evidence and so little about Patrick that we can be certain about, what can we say about him in the context of this morning’s Gospel reading?

The context of that Gospel reading is so relevant. It comes after the dialogue at the well between Christ and the Samaritan woman. The disciples have stood back, and have failed to engage in the conversation.

Now the woman has abandoned what she was doing, left her water-jar behind, and has gone back to her city where she tells the people of Sychar: ‘Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’ The people are fascinated, leave the city and make their way to Christ.

Meanwhile, the disciples are arguing. They are more interested in the old order, their ritual cleanliness, their purity, than in joining that woman in mission. When they rebuke Jesus, he reminds them that they are in the middle of a great mission opportunity.

Perhaps Paladius and his colleagues were good at consolidating the Church in Ireland, but failed to notice the great mission field around them. When Patrick seizes that opportunity, I can imagine those more interested in maintenance than mission felt threatened and so he ended up on trial.

When Patrick listens to God’s call, it is the beginning of his ministry and his mission. He seizes new opportunities for mission, and we have benefited ever since. And so on this day I give thanks for Patrick the bishop and missionary, so humble that he left little evidence about himself, so faithful to his call that he risked his liberty and his life, so energetic in his mission that the Church he founded is here to this day, calling us too to ministry and mission.

And now, may all we think, say and do be the glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.


Almighty God,
in your providence you chose your servant Patrick
to be the apostle of the Irish people,
to bring those who were wandering in darkness and error
to the true light and knowledge of your Word:
Grant that walking in that light
we may come at last to the light of everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Post Communion Prayer:

Hear us, most merciful God,
for that part of the Church
which through your servant Patrick you planted in our land;
that it may hold fast the faith entrusted to the saints
and in the end bear much fruit to eternal life:
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Blessing:

Go gcoinní síocháin Dé,
a sháraíos an uile thuiscint,
bhur gcroí agus bhur n-aigne
in aithne agus i ngrá Dé,
agus a Mhic Íosa Críost ár dTiarna;
agus go raibh beannacht Dé Uilechumhachtaigh,
an tAthair, an Mac, agus an Spiorad Naomh,
in bhur measc agus go bhfana agaibh go buan.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Eucharist in the Institute Chapel on Saint Patrick’s Day, 17 March 2010. The icon of Saint Patrick is in Saint George's Orthodox Church, Orlando (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

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