St Patrick’s Day message from Bishop Donal Murray, Bishop of Limerick

18 Mar 2009

16 March 2009

St Patrick’s Day message from Bishop Donal Murray, Bishop of Limerick

“The message of Patrick is that there is a hope which is deeper and stronger than any crisis.”

Modern travel and communications have blunted the pain of exile. Still, around St Patrick’s Day, we tend to become nostalgic about home.  We sing the traditional hymn to St Patrick, “On Erin’s green valleys, look down in thy love.”  And the further one is from the green valleys, the greater the resonance those words.

But in another way, our world intensifies the pain of exile.  It is, as this year’s Trócaire Lenten campaign reminds us, a world full of displaced persons and refugees, victims of war and oppression.  Even our own society, people can feel like exiles – marginalised, alienated, strangers who do not feel that they belong.

During his own life, Patrick looked on the green valleys of Ireland with the eyes of an exile: “How deeply would I have loved to go [home to Britain] like a son going to his homeland… God knows how I yearned for it, but I am tied by the Spirit” (Confessions, 43).  He said several times that he had come “to the very ends of the earth”. In other words he saw himself as living “at the back of beyond”!

And yet, in Ireland, Patrick found, and helped to create, a new sense of belonging, a new sense of being at home.  He witnessed a huge transformation; “How does it happen that a people who in their ignorance of God always worshipped idols and unclean things have become a people of the Lord and are called children of God?” (Confessions, 41).

That is perhaps expressed most clearly in his anger at the soldiers of Coroticus.  He was outraged that his Christian converts were being captured and sold into slavery by other Christians. “Perhaps they do not believe that we have received one and the same baptism, that we have one and the same God as Father.” (Letter par 3).

Patrick’s sense of exile and his belief in the Good News which makes us all children of the one Father, lived in the Church he founded in Ireland in the “green martyrdom” of exile for Christ. This was the missionary thrust that led Columbanus and Gall, Kilian and Fergal, and the centuries long list of the Irish men and women who preached the Good News in Europe and throughout the world.  They fulfilled the command given to Jeremiah: “Go now to those to whom I send you… Do not be afraid of them for I am with you to protect you” (Jer 1:7,8).

The transformation that came about through the mission of Patrick in Ireland was a profound enrichment of Irish culture – poetry, music, high crosses, place names, music and metalwork – all of these became expressions of a new sense of who we are.

This is not just about something that happened nearly sixteen hundred years ago.  In recent months we have experienced the unsettling realisation that we are living in a newly unfamiliar world, where expectations have been overturned and nothing seems certain.  It is a new kind of exile and it calls for a new sense of belonging and new sense of direction and meaning.  And that sense of belonging has to be broad enough.   If it is confined to our own particular ethnic or social or religious or cultural groupings, if it is trapped in our own comfort zones, it will simply not be big enough to address the issues we face.  We need a hope big enough to speak to the vulnerability which was always the truth about human life, but which is being experienced with particular intensity today.

The message of Patrick is that there is a hope which is deeper and stronger than any crisis, any sense of alienation, any fear.  It is stronger even than death.  That is the hope Patrick preached, the hope that inspired generations of Irish people: “Jesus Christ… defeated death and was received into heaven by the Father… we look for his coming (Confessions, 4).

The feast of Saint Patrick is rightly a day for celebration, but it is also a challenge.  Patrick’s life of exile and of separation from his own people was fuelled by the need to be a witness to the Gospel:
“How can people believe in a God of whom they have never heard? (Rom 10:14).

St Patrick himself told us how he wanted us to remember him. His hope for those who came after him was that we would be fired by the same determination in bringing the Gospel to our world. And we live in a world which is in particular need of inspiration and hope. His hope, addressed to future generation was :”Would that you would reach our to greater things and to better [than I have done] because ‘a wise child is his father’s glory’”  The question for us is whether that hope still lives in us and sets us on fire.

+Donal Murray

Further information:
Martin Long 0861727678