Homily by Bishop Noel Treanor on the Feast of Saint Patrick

17 Mar 2020

Saint Peter’s Cathedral, Belfast 

As we commemorate St Patrick and his mission among our fifth century ancestors, the readings from the Word of God present the centrality of mission for the faith inspired life. As followers of Christ we share in his mission of salvation primarily as recipients and then as messengers of God’s plan of salvation. Faith in God, revealed in Jesus Christ, constitutes each believer as “a light to the nations” (Acts 13.47) and as one who with fellow Christians supports the unfolding of salvation in human affairs and history.

Like Jeremiah (Jer. 1.4-9), and St Patrick in the opening words of his Confession we feel incapable, undeserving and even unworthy both as recipient and co-workers of God’s plan of salvation. In Patrick’s word in his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, we often feel like saying : “I am unworthy to help either God or people”.

Some who describe themselves as “not religious” or “not particularly religious” think of leaving the work of faith to clergy, religious or “religious people”, whilst underestimating the great good they themselves do for the neighbour, thus enacting one of the two central commandments (love of God and love of neighbour) of Christ, the Son of God. The opening words of St Patrick’s Confession – “I, Patrick, a sinner, the most rustic and least of all the faithful, the most contemptible in the eyes of a great many people” –  speak across the centuries as a dynamo of spiritual hope and encouragement for all, especially the self-doubting.

In the face of this Coronavirus pandemic, for the weeks and months ahead the human family will need, the inner spiritual power of that hope and trust in God to carry us as individuals, communities and societies through the uncharted and treacherous waters of this global crisis. Like St Patrick, imbued by a faith he grew into during his experience of deprivation and slavery on Slemish hill in our diocese, our efforts to assist others will be aided and enhanced by cooperation with many of other world-views, as was Patrick’s legendary experience with the chieftain Dichiu in the area of Saul, also in this diocese.  Times and conditions of great need unveil the innate goodness of humanity and the generosity of spirit in our society. Of this we see in these days ample and humbling evidence all around us – in our hospitals, public service, neighbourhoods, police, social workers, carers, to mention but a few.

In times such as these many among us, whether believer or not, may share that mysterious experience which St Patrick describes in his Confession (C. 25 142 ff) : “On yet another occasion I saw a person praying within me. I was as it seemed inside my body and I heard him over me, that is, over the inner man. There he was, praying with great emotion. All the time I was puzzled as I wondered greatly who could possibly be praying inside me. He spoke, however, at the end of the prayer, saying he was the Spirit. In this way I learned by experience and I recalled the words of the apostle (Paul) : The Spirit helps the weakness of our prayer; for we do not know how to pray as we ought; but the Spirit himself pleads for us with sighs unutterable that cannot be put into words. Again : the Lord, our Advocate pleads for us”.  Scholars of varying disciplines have commented these lines. They do however catch an experience, often subliminal, more common than admitted, of the human spirit and consciousness.

In these unfolding times may the Holy Spirit praying within us enable us to tame panic with calm and understanding for all who lead and guide us.

May God’s Holy Spirit keep us alert to the needs of the afflicted, the elderly, solitary and vulnerable in our neighbourhoods and communities.

May that same Holy Spirit keep us awake and alert to the mission of such vital Christian outreaches to the needy as, the St Vincent de Paul Society and Trōcaire, especially during this Lenten season.

On this feast of St Patrick 2020, as we move into this unknown future as a local Church community, we are all painfully aware that from tomorrow until further notice, Mass will be celebrated for the people in our Churches by the priests without the presence of a congregation.  We encourage all housebound and indeed families to unite with the celebration of the sacred liturgy via radio, television, and modern technology, where possible.
As time goes by the pastoral directives and guidelines will be updated in accordance with guidance from the Public Health Agency and other authorities.

Should the present crisis last for a prolonged period, guided by the Holy Spirit we may have to envision exceptional provisions for the pastoral and sacramental care of both the living and the bereaved.
In trials such as we are now experiencing, we rediscover that redemption is primarily the work of God. That unconditional gift, redemption, is  the heart of the Christian life and a mystery beyond human control and comprehension.

Now and in all times, may we say with Patrick in the closing lines of his Confession :  “if I have accomplished any small thing … it was the gift of God”.