17 March: St Patrick, Patron of Ireland

17 March: St Patrick, Patron of Ireland

1st Reading: Amos 7:12-15

Amos is called by God to be a prophet

Amaziah said to Amos, “O seer, go, flee away to the land of Judah, earn your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s sanctuary, and it is a temple of the kingdom.” Then Amos answered Amaziah, “I am no prophet, nor a prophet’s son; but I am a herdsman, and a dresser of sycamore trees, and the Lord took me from following the flock, and the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’

Responsorial: from Psalm 138: 1-3, 7-10, 13-14, R/v 9-10

2nd Reading: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8

Paul’s pastoral care of the Thessalonians

You know, my brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

Gospel: Luke 5:1-11

After the haul of fish, Jesus calls the fishermen to follow him

As Jesus was standing beside the lake of Gennesaret, and the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he saw two boats there at the shore of the lake; the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. He got into one of the boats, the one belonging to Simon, and asked him to put out a little way from the shore. Then he sat down and taught the crowds from the boat.

When he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” When they had done this, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break. So they signalled their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus” knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” For he and all who were with him were amazed at the catch of fish that they had taken; and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” When they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

(Alternative Readings for today)
1st Reading: Sirach 39:6-10

Filled with the spirit of understanding

If the great Lord is willing, he will be filled with the spirit of understanding; he will pour forth words of wisdom of his own and give thanks to the Lord in prayer. The Lord will direct his counsel and knowledge, as he meditates on his mysteries.

He will show the wisdom of what he has learned, and will glory in the law of the Lord’s covenant. Many will praise his understanding; it will never be blotted out.His memory will not disappear, and his name will live through all generations.

Nations will speak of his wisdom, and the congregation will proclaim his praise.

2nd Reading: 2 Timothy 4:1-8

I have fought the good fight

In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Gospel: Matthew 13:24-32

Growing together until the harvest

Jesus put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”


Sowing the good seed

As an eighteen-year-old, Patrick found himself in a tragic condition. He was a wretched slave, far from home and made to herd animals out on a cold mountainside in Antrim. He now had plenty of time for looking at nature and somehow it was there that he encountered God for the first time. Oh yes, Patrick’s father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest, but as a youth Patrick had not bothered with religion while growing up in the comfort of Roman Britain. Only after his life was turned upside down by those Irish slave-raiders did he find a new depth in his heart. Whatever it was about the land and scenery of Ireland, it produced a mystical spirit in this captured Roman. For him, nature became the sacrament of the presence of God. Maybe it was the barren mountains, or the awesome beauty of the coastline, or the turning of the seasons. For whatever reason, he learned to treasure the beauty of the land, and realize that God was very near.

One day Patrick felt the call (like Peter, Andrew and the others), to follow Jesus Christ and spend his life sharing Christ with others. He too became a fisher of men – and women, among the people of Ireland. As he tells it in his Confessions, he did it very successfully, to his own amazement. For he calls himself a sinner, without learning, a stone lying in the mud. But the Lord by his grace raised up that stone, and set it on the very top of the wall, to hold the structure together. Patrick could easily see the words of the prophet Amos applying to himself: “then the Lord said to me, ‘Go, prophesy to my people Israel.’” In Patrick’s case, the call was to return to the land where he had been taken as a slave, but with the mission to bring the men and women of Ireland the glorious liberty of the children of God.

In the Confessions there are many echoes of St Paul’s writings, for Patrick admired the teaching and example of the great apostle from Tarsus. Not least, his zealous pastoral care for the Irish people mirrors how Paul worked among the Christians of Thessalonica. Patrick’s refusal to accept gifts of gold and silver from his converts imitated St. Paul’s reluctance to make financial profit from preaching the Gospel. Also, his love for his converts made Patrick vow to stay on in Ireland for the rest of his life. How well he followed the way of St Paul: “we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.”

Patrick’s Loricum or Breastplate has the famous Celtic prayer, focussed on union with Christ: “Christ be with me, Christ surround me, Christ be in my speaking, Christ be in my thinking, Christ be in my sleeping, Christ be in my waking, . . . Christ be in my ever-living soul, Christ be my eternity.” As Patrick prayed for the Irish people on the mountain in Mayo which bears his name (Cruach Phádraig), let’s pray for each other on his feast-day:

“May you recognize in your life the presence, the power and the light of Christ. May you realize that you are never alone, for He is always with you; that your living soul connects you with the rhythm of the universe. And may the road rise up to meet you and the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and the rain fall soft upon your fields. And, until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.”

Traits of our national apostle

We cannot take Saint Patrick’s claim about his ignorance at face value. Calling himself an illiterate sinner was meant to highlight the glorious workings of God’s grace in him. The writing style of the Confessio is not that of an ignorant man. He was aware of the Scriptures and of the Church Fathers and of late Roman literature. Patrick’s work evokes the style of the much longer Confession of his African contemporary, St Augustine. Both were pastoral theologians of great insight, deeply aware of the presence of Christ in their lives. Can we apply the strengths of St Patrick to our own times? What is needed from us to keep the Christian flame alive in today’s Ireland. Maybe we might weave some passages from St. Patrick’s Confession into the homily. (For a version of the Confessions of St Patrick, click here). Among the qualities of our apostle to develop in the homily are these:

Prayerful man of the Spirit : “And again I saw Him praying in me, and I seemed to be within my body, and I heard Him above me, that is, over my inward self, and there He prayed with great emotion. And all the time I was astonished, and wondered, and thought with myself who it could be that prayed in me. But at the end of the prayer He spoke, saying that He was the Spirit; and so I woke up, and remembered the Apostle saying: The Spirit helps the infirmities of our prayer.”

Converted sinner, man of God : “I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many … But the Lord opened my unbelieving heart that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance, and watched over me before I knew Him… comforted me as would a father his son. So I cannot be silent, nor should I be, about the great benefits and the great grace which the Lord has deigned to bestow upon me in the land of my captivity.” He was deeply grateful for the work of grace within him.

His obvious love of the Bible . He shows great familiarity with the most recently available translation of the Bible (St Jerome’s Vulgate) and often quotes or alludes to the text of Scripture. This reverence for the Bible marked the Irish church in the following centuries, and resulted in important early Irish commentaries, as well as lovely manuscript copies of the Gospel, like the Book of Kells.

Dedicated pastor . “For I am much God’s debtor, who gave me such grace that many people were reborn in God through me and afterwards confirmed, and that clerics were ordained for them everywhere, for a people just coming to the faith, whom the Lord took from the utmost parts of the earth.” His resolve to remain with the Irish, until his death. “Even if I wished to leave them and go to Britain, and how I would have loved to go to my country and my parents, and also to Gaul in order to visit the brethren and to see the face of the saints of my Lord! God knows that I much desired it! But I am bound by the Spirit, who witnesses against me that if I do this, I shall be guilty. And I am afraid of losing the labour which I have begun, no, not I, but Christ the Lord who bade me come here and stay with them for the rest of my life, if the Lord will, and will guard me from every evil way that I may not sin before Him.”

At considerable cost, Patrick left behind the comforts of Roman Britain to fulfil his mission as a wandering preacher in Ireland. He learned the Irish language and the local customs, respected their religious ideals and gave new meaning to their traditional high-places (like Croagh Patrick) and holy wells. In modern mission practice, radical inculturation is seen as essential to gaining a people’s heart for Christ.

Patrick’s distinctive spirituality grew out of his personal experience of Christ, of his mission to Ireland of the needs of the newly evangelized. (One can link his Christ-centred “Loricum” with the spirituality of his great apostolic mentor, St. Paul, as expressed in today’s noble passage from Philippians. Like Paul, Patrick regarded faith as not just knowledge but as a life filled with Christ. Faith is not simply a matter of ‘knowing’ the teachings of Christ and of the Church. It is a ‘sensing of the presence of Christ and a response to that presence. This is an aspect of Patrick which we could do with retrieving in our hectic, electronic-dominated age. Patrick grew to realize that the faith into which he was baptized as a child was more than a belief system which filled the head. It was a relationship with God, an awareness of the presence of the person of Christ sharing his life at every moment.

Patrick affirms the worth of each human being. His Confession invites us all to some measure of conversion, on this his feast day. His message was to draw people together in the spirit of the Gospel. This task is still an urgent one. Even in our prosperous society, the mantra of limited resources is used to hide the unequal provision of health care, education and employment. Our society is coarsened by injustice as much as by violence and murder. It is time to revive Patrick’s vision of the value of the individual, even those who hate and oppose us.

Thoughts on St Patrick (by Joe O’Leary)

Night after night on the cold hillside he watched over the sheep, wakeful while they slept, and among those misty green valleys his thoughts took on a serious cast. Son of a deacon and grandson of a priest, he had paid no attention to religion. The shock of being yanked from his home by pirates at sixteen and made a slave in this mysterious green land had created an inexplicable turmoil in his heart, and now amid the silence of the damp hills a quite new thought was forming, a sense of being protected by a gracious presence. He would weep, not from homesickness but what was it? repentance? For what? For slighting a precious gift that these strange pagans knew nothing of, the story of Christ and the holiness of his sacraments.

As the language become easier for him he began to murmur to his fellows the name of Christ, and to teach them Latin using the few prayers he knew. It was astonishing how eagerly they devoured this lore, as if recognizing in it some long-expected divine spark. The name of Rome and the name of Christ held a magic for them, as signals from a world beyond their familiar rites and fields. It pained him that he could explain so little of the faith that now glowed ever more warmly in his own heart. He pieced together his scanty catechism: a good God, creator of everything, angered by sin, yet sending his Son to die for our sins and ascend gloriously into Heaven; a Holy Spirit coming down in tongues of fire; a Last Judgement to bring down the proud and exalt the lowly. Put into the new language, this took on a fresh power, seeming to rise like a mighty tide.

Back home after escaping, he was dogged by a sense of something missing. Could it be those damp hills, those green valleys? They had become, in his six years of captivity, the very landscape of his soul. Was he missing the boisterous drinking companionship with the pagans? But what was he to them or they to him? Wasn’t he lucky to escape back to freedom and civilization? Still something pressed obscurely on his heart, and it came to bursting point in a haunting dream: “a man seemed to come from Hibernia and gave me a letter headed ‘the Voice of the Irish.’ I trembled on reading that inscription, and then a multitudinous murmur flooded my mind, voices from the wood by the Western sea: ‘We implore you, holy youth, come and walk among us again.’” His parents’ shock when he said “I want to go back to Ireland” was allayed when he spoke of his need first to study in Europe.

Years later, Patrick looked out on the huge crowd gathered for Easter on the hill of Slane, humbled at their goodness and faith and cheered by their welcome. The years of study had given him the words and ideas he needed to explain the faith to them. He chose from what was taught in Auxerre and Lérins only what he knew would nourish their minds and touch their hearts: not the complex controversies about the soul of Christ and the procession of the Holy Ghost, but the simple essence of these doctrines: the living God, one in three and three in one, and the blessed Saviour, born of Mary, risen to new life.

He had learned more from the Epistles of the Apostle Paul, the supreme missionary, meditated on day in and day out, than from any of the professors. Once or twice among the thronging Mediterranean peoples in the great port of Marseille he would thrill to the sound of a never-forgotten language, the voice of the Irish. Joyfully embracing the seafarers, he reshaped his thought in a vivid perception of their need. Greeks and Libyans and Spaniards suddenly seemed old and decadent beside the Irish, with their open countenances and their sharp, enquiring minds, fresh and bracing as the dawn. They spoke his language and he theirs.

His return to Ireland, armed with a mission and papal backing, but still a stranger like the scared boy of so long before, was a moment of risk and blind trust. But everything had gone so well! His life’s labours, his struggles worthy of St Paul, had exhausted him, but he could lay down his shepherd’s staff without any misgivings, for the Faith had taken hold. The carefully selected seed had borne fruit a hundredfold or a thousandfold, and the Irish had developed their own ways of spreading the story of Christ to future generations and to foreign lands.

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