Féile Naomh Pádraig 2013 An t-Easpag Dónall Mac Eoin: Good Shepherd Church, Belfast

21 Mar 2013

Féile Naomh Pádraig 2013 An t-Easpag Dónall Mac Eoin

Good Shepherd Church, Belfast

Patrick is a name known all around the world. If you go to cathedrals in everywhere from many states in the US (including New York) and Thunder Bay (Canada) to Karachi in Pakistan, Melbourne and Auckland (NZ), you’ll see St Patrick honoured. He may well not have been Irish – but wherever his spiritual children have gone, his name has been at the top of the list. It is no wonder that, in many world cities, famous buildings and sites will be illuminated in green today to celebrate March 17th.

And, of course, here we have Patrick portrayed in different ways, depending on what version of the present suits us

  • In bishop’s gear and dominated by green – as if he had any sense of Irish nationalism on an island of many little kingdoms; Or
  • in much less traditional catholic garb, as founder of the other large Christian tradition in Ireland and with no connection to Rome;
  • or as a fore-runner of the Guinness-swilling leprechaun.

We have different ways of remembering St Patrick’s Day – or Paddy’s Day – as it is increasingly commonly known in the widening secular circle. But for part of you – as what is probably the minority of people in this country who will be in church today – what might Patrick say to us in this rapidly changing time and in this momentous last month for our Church?

Firstly, as the in church Europe is now embarking up the re-evangelisation of the Western world, Patrick might tell us that he came to share the message of Jesus with the people of Ireland and to make sense of that Good News in a way that the locals would understand, without in any way selling the Gospel short. He would understand many of our problems. He came at a time of some crisis for missionaries to Ireland. Palladius had come to this country some decades prior to Patrick and had left, apparently without the Irish achieving much. Perhaps some said that our ancestors were incapable of hearing the Gospel. Perhaps that is why Patrick suggests that Christians on the Continent criticised Patrick for his stupidity and foolhardiness.  But his Confessions tell us that Patrick knew what St Paul meant in our second reading today – I believe that nothing can outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. Patrick himself wrote “tirelessly I give thanks to my God who kept me faithful in the day of trial so that I can offer sacrifice to him, the living sacrifice of my life to Christ”. He would tell us – and Pope John Paul II did in Galway in 1979 – that every new generation is a new continent to be conquered for Christ. As Pope Francis will keep telling us, any real renewal for church has to begin with knowing the three persons of the Trinity – the Father who made us in love, the Son humbled himself even to accept death on a cross, and the Spirit who makes of our bodies his Temple as we seek to continue Jesus’s healing mission to the world in all its pain, violence and fragmentation. Paul and Patrick will tell us that any passion for the renewal of the Church has to be based, not merely on changing externals or liturgical practices, but in an ever deeper knowledge of Jesus and his salvation. And that any of the vital ecumenical developments can spring up only as we come closer together in Christ.

Secondly, all the great missionaries and reformers – from Paul, through Patrick and Francis of Assisi or Ignatius of Loyola to the prophetic voices of our own times – preached Christ crucified. As St Paul explained it, this message was to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness (1 Cor 1:24). It seems clear from the scriptures that those who speak the Gospel message can expect to be laughed at. An uncomfortable presentation of Jesus’ message is not welcome. As Jesus himself discovered in his temptations, there are always voices who say that you should not expect too much from people, that you have to be sensible and relevant. But there will be no renewal in Church if we go down the route of watering down the radical nature of the Gospel message, changing teaching on sexuality, poverty, forgiveness or truth just because it clashes with some of current social norms. The great missionaries and prophets were convinced that God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.  (1 Cor 1:25). Real re-evangelisation will take places by imitating Jesus who was able to preach uncomfortable truths in a way that did not alienate people but touched their hearts and generated hope. Certainly there were many who were not able to hear God’s wisdom in Jesus of Nazareth. But Jesus sought to love people into the infinite love of God rather than offering an insipid brand of palatable pious thoughts. We know from the Gospel of the woman caught in adultery that Jesus did not minimise the wrong that had been done –  but sought to allow healing and hope to seep into a situation, fraught with condemnation and hatred. Only the truth about Church or politics will set us free – even if that truth is very uncomfortable.

Pope Francis, like Jesus, will challenge all of us when it comes to simplicity of life and priority for the poor and disadvantaged. Do the poor and those on the margins see us churchgoers as generous, caring brothers and sisters who are fired by the love and compassion of Jesus? Our diocesan Living Church renewal process has prioritised the need to be welcoming. Bu that cannot just mean subcontracting concern for the poor to the St Vincent DePaul Society and letting them do it in our name, without the rest of us having to get our hands dirty with helping. The Gospel is a call to give from our hearts and not just from our purses. The relics of St John Bosco were among us just a fortnight ago. He was clear that education for the poor was a Gospel priority. Excellence was not something to be keep and protected for and by the comfortable.    As we seek to seek to restructure or educational provision here, the great saints and missionaries of our Church will keep telling us that the Gospel message has to be preached in all its strength so that it comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. A self-centred Catholic parish or school is a poor witness to the Gospel, no matter what pious works it does or worthy words it may speak. Patrick would be very ill at ease with a Church that was too concerned about in house maintenance and little about mission. The Irish Church needs to be dragged away from any self-pitying focus on itself its achievements or its problems, and rediscover that original missionary courage to speak of Jesus, whatever the cost. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. (1 Cor 1:25)

And thirdly, this week we have a sense that Pope Francis will seek to change the structures with which the Church as organisation is managed. As in any civil service structures tend to perpetuate themselves. But the Petrine ministry exists to serve mission and to promote the search for unity while acknowledging the variety of gifts that the Spirit gives. That means avoiding the modern individualist and un-scriptural temptation to sink into a fragmented incoherent series of little cells where everybody becomes their own pope. Renewed structures will be there to reshape how we are church so that we can discern together God’s way forward for his people in this new environment. That is an enormous task. It is only a work of grace that can balance the communal search for the truth with the dignity of the individual.

These are challenging days for all who claim to be descendants of the mission of St Patrick. In these last two weeks of Lent we might find opportunities to reflect on

  • whether we, like St Paul, can say that we look on everything as so much rubbish if only we can have Christ and be given a place in him;
  • whether we are prepared to accept the Gospel, particularly the hard bits that would make us change our way of living in our way of relating to the poor and disadvantaged; and
  • whether we are actively working to rebuild a way of being church that reflects the Gospel passion of our founding apostle Patrick.

If we do, we will have celebrated well the heritage of St Patrick. If not, we risk reducing him to the level of a hollow cultural shibboleth – and wasted one more opportunity to hear the Gospel of Jesus in all it power.