St Patrick’s Cathedral
St Patrick’s Day 2019, 6pm
Dublin Council of Churches
Ecumenical Celebration of St Patrick’s Legacy
We do not lose heart:
The life and Faith of St Patrick bridging 1500 years
Fr Pádraig McCarthy
Corinthians 4:1-16a: “It is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry; therefore we do not lose heart…
Luke 18:1-7a: “Jesus told them a parable about the need to pray always and not to lose heart…”
- “Pádraig is ainm dom!” This is how Patrick introduces himself at the opening of his “Confessio”, his telling of the story of the great deeds of God in his life.
We celebrate his feast day on 17 March, the day recorded in the manuscript Book of Armagh in Trinity College Dublin. The scribe Ferdomnach wrote about the year 807 AD. Following the written text of the Confessio, on Folio 24v, we find these words in Latin:
“Huc usque volume quod Patricius manu conscripsit sua: septiam decimal martii die traslatus est Patricius ad caelos.”
“Thus far the volume which Patrick wrote with his own hand. On the seventeenth day of March Patrick was transferred to the heavens.”
- We reflect here on what inspired Patrick not to lose heart in all the difficulties he faced; how his hope strengthened him.
I will address two sides to this hope.
The first side is intended to encourage and settle us.
The second side is intended to unsettle us!
The first side of hope
- The St Patrick’s Festival this year has the theme of Storytelling.
Storytelling is a strong part of Irish tradition, but also of other traditions. This Cathedral of St Patrick is an example of story in stone, exemplified by Dean Jonathan Swift whose resting place is here.
- Well known are many stories of St Patrick. He himself tells of his capture and his escape, his many difficulties faced, the dream which brought him back to the people where he had been a slave.
There are many other stories told of him: the Paschal Fire at Slane, 40 days of prayer and fasting on Croagh Patrick; shamrock; snakes.
- Go beyond those, and consider what stories did Patrick himself hear?
Growing up, he may have heard many stories of the glories of Rome.
it seems certain to me that he also heard other kinds of stories, especially since his father was a deacon and his grandfather a priest.
He tells us that he had little interest in religious matters, but he would certainly, while young, have had experience of Christian celebrations. The Resurrection was celebrated annually as a particular feast from at least the middle of the second century. About the year 380, perhaps not many years before Patrick was born, a remarkable woman named Egeria from northern Spain went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and wrote an account of the Holy Week celebrations there. A central story of that Passover at which Jesus died was the story of the people of Israel being freed from slavery in Egypt and being set free, crossing a sea and travelling through a wilderness to the promised land. Even if it meant little to Patrick hearing it as a boy, his own experience of slavery and being set free are central to his story. He tells in the Confessio that he too crossed a sea, although it seemed at first he was prevented from going. Then he and the sailors travelled through a wilderness without food, and God provided food in answer to his prayers.
- A striking dimension of his writings is that Scripture provides a language for him to recount his own story. Daniel Conneely, in his book The Letters of St Patrick, (An Sagart, 1993) indicates 440 quotations and allusions from Scripture.
Clearly what he knew of this was a source of great strength for him not to lose heart in the face of his capture, slavery, escape, opposition, betrayal by a friend, imprisonment, and the difficulties of his work, and in his experience with the soldiers of Coroticus to whom he wrote two letters, the second of which we have. The remarkable thing is that he is so full of heart as we see in the Confessio:
Par 3: “That is why I cannot be silent about such great blessings and such a gift that the Lord so kindly bestowed in the land of my captivity.”
P34: “I’ll never stop giving thanks to my God, who kept me faithful in the time of my temptation.”
P46: “The Lord was merciful to me a thousand thousand times.”
P62: “You can judge and believe in all truth that it was a gift of God. This is my confession before I die.”
The second side of hope
- The first side of hope comes through strongly in the Confessio. There is another side which may seem contradictory: the grief and anger he expresses so clearly in his letter to the soldiers of Coroticus. They took newly baptised Christians prisoner, killed some, and sold others into slavery. His anger is understandable.
Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus Par. 4:
“I don’t know which is the cause of the greatest grief for me: whether those who were slain, or those who were captured, or those whom the devil so deeply ensnared.”
I think of this in the light of a saying (attributed to St Augustine, who lived about a century before Patrick, and from whose Confessions Patrick quotes): “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are Anger and Courage: Anger at what we see to be wrong in the world, and Courage to take action that it does not remain so.”
Patrick’s anger flows from his love and concern for those who suffered such great injustice, and for those who were responsible.
- This finds a strong echo in the epitaph which Dean Jonathan Swift wrote for himself, and which you can see in Latin on the wall of this cathedral:
Here is laid the Body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Sacred Theology,
Dean of this Cathedral Church, where savage Indignation can no longer
lacerate the Heart.
Go forth, traveller, and imitate, if you can, this strong Champion of Liberty.
Swift, in his own gifted way, was driven by that “savage indignation” at the injustices and the failures to live as Christians which he saw in his own time.
- What would Patrick make of our celebration here today?
He would, I think, take heart that we are here together – not so much that we remember him, as that we celebrate the great deeds of God in our lives as he did in his.
What would be find difficult to understand or accept?
Here perhaps we are on dangerous ground: to name the elephant in the cathedral. He would grieve at our divisions; that for 1100 years after his time, whatever the problems, Christians in Ireland were united. Now for 500 years we have been very much divided, and we have a history of injustice and violence.
It is good that we have the Dublin Council of Churches. We should grieve, we should be angry that we need the Council.
- Why am I, why are we, not angry – or angrier – at our divisions?
Jesus prayed that we be one as he and the Father are one.
As long as we are divided, we are living in sin. Have we become too comfortable with the divisions?
- Swedish student Greta Thunberg (16) spoke about climate change at Davos in January. We can apply her words to our situation.
Now is not the time for speaking politely or focusing on what we can or cannot say. Now is the time to speak clearly.
Adults keep saying: We owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful.
I want you to panic! I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.
I want you to act as you would in a crisis.
I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”
I want you to go home unsettled! Not satisfied at our celebration, but feeling Swift’s savage indignation at our disunity. Indignation arsing from Love, and Hope, and Justice.
Go forth, traveller. Imitate Patrick. Imitate Swift.
And never lose heart.