Saint Patrick’s Day Mass – March 17, 2021
Some years ago while on retreat at Mount Savior Monastery in upstate New York, I came upon a book entitled How the Irish Saved Civilization. I’m certain that not a few of you are quite familiar with this publication. While not a theological reflection, suffice it to say that foundational to the book’s premise is the looming figure of Patrick, the saint whose memory we honor this day.
Thomas Cahill, the book’s author, wrote that Ireland of the early fifth century was a brooding, dank island whose inhabitants, while carefree and warlike on the outside, lived in fear of sudden death and the insubstantiality of their world. Cahill asserted, however, that the Bishop, Patrick, provided “a living alternative” to the struggling people of Ireland. He was a serene man “in whom the sharp fear of death has been smoothed away.” The Christianity he proposed to the Irish people succeeded because it took away dread from the magical world that they had previously embraced and gave them hope in the loving and forgiving God revealed in Jesus Christ.
But how did Patrick accomplish do all of this? While his accomplishments are the stuff of legend, in reality they were the result of one thing: prayer. Patrick wrote this in his confessions: “God showed me how to have faith in him forever, as one who is never to be doubted. He answered my prayer in such a way that… I might be bold enough to take up this holy and wonderful task, and imitate in some degree those whom the Lord had destined to be heralds of His Gospel.”
You see, Patrick understood well the words from St. Luke’s Gospel proclaimed just a moment ago, “Do not be afraid.” And he wasn’t. Like Peter, James and John and all of those who first heard the voice of Jesus call their names, Patrick left everything, embraced the life and mission of the Lord and imparted to the people of Ireland the gift of faith in the living God.
That’s what the grace of God did in the life of Patrick and the legacy that lies at the heart of our celebration today.
What a powerful legacy for us, brothers and sisters, as we look for a way forward in the midst of these difficult days that have robbed us of our security, health and well-being. Patrick’s relationship with God assures us that when we – like the saint whom we honor this day – finally accept the reality that we are not in control of our world, let alone our lives, it is then that we are able to trust in something other than ourselves. It is only then that we are able to turn to the power and presence of God for our life and salvation.
Patrick, however, understood something else that flowed from his relationship with God that we would do well to embrace. God’s transforming grace never simply brings us to a place of peace. It demands something of us in return. Yes, God’s grace imparts to us a sense of meaning, purpose and peace. It does so only, however, when we are humble enough and selfless enough to trust beyond ourselves – to embrace the work of the gospel – and to pattern our lives on the life of Jesus.
Saint John Paul II captured this reality best when he visited Ireland in 1979. Listen to his words: “For all that we learn from Saint Patrick, what I really want you to realize is this: that God counts on you: that he makes his plans, in a way, depend on your free collaboration … and on the generosity with which you follow the inspirations of the Holy Spirit.”
My brothers and sisters, the words of Saint John Paul II and of this prayerful celebration witness joyfully to the true legacy of Saint Patrick – a legacy that affirms nothing less than the strength, power and love of Christ at work in our lives. … In trusting deeply in the providence of God and in bringing that love concretely to every human heart in need and that longs to be treated with respect and dignity – far more than in the green that we wear or in the shamrocks that we carry this day – we discover the finest tribute that we can offer in gratitude for the blessing of Patrick, the great saint of Ireland.