Secretly, I have always hated St Patrick’s Day. It was my father’s birthday. He was called Paddy after our national saint. After he died when I was five, we marked it each year with a visit to his grave.
No cake. No candles. No presents. Just fresh flowers to replace the ones from the previous visit. Each visit was emotionally crippling. Generally, a gentle rain fell. It was indeed right and fitting.
With each passing year my sorrow has increased as I reflect ruefully on all the might-have-beens.
This unhappy association of ideas has been an impediment to a healthy attitude towards St Patrick on my part. It is time to change that.
St Patrick was the Greta Thunberg of his time. The invocation of the elements in his most famous prayer, Breastplate, reveals a belief in the sacramental universe, a sense of kinship with nature, a humility about the human condition and a sense of not being alone in the universe.
In his Confession, he wrote: “After I reached Ireland I would even stay in the forests and on the mountain and would wake to pray before dawn in all weathers, snow, frost, rain; and felt no harm and there was no listlessness in me – as now I realise, it was because the Spirit was fervent within me.”
This passage clearly illustrates his primary place of prayer was in the world of nature and highlights the presence of a divinity in the world, eternally co-creating. Humankind and creation were not just God’s playthings, but partners in His creative project.
One beautiful story that illustrates Patrick’s love of nature happened in Armagh when he saw a fawn in distress. His companions wanted to catch and kill the tiny animal, but he would not allow them. He took it on his shoulders and carried it and reunited it with its mother on a hill, the site of the present Catholic cathedral.
Patrick had no time for people who acted sanctimoniously or who loved pomp. He felt humility was the bedrock of the Christian church. Many centuries before the word “inclusion” entered the vernacular, Patrick was a practitioner of it.
In his letter to Coroticus, a king in southern Scotland, who had taken some of Patrick’s newly confirmed Christians as captives, we see a different side to Ireland’s patron saint. Patrick was irate because Coroticus, who professed to be a Christian, treated extremely badly these fellow Christians he had enslaved.
He pulls no punches in his criticism of Coroticus, and quotes liberally from the scriptures to justify his position. Moreover, the letter was an open one.
Patrick was eager it would be read out in public. It was addressed to the soldiers, but Patrick wanted it to be read in the presence of Coroticus.
Patrick went even further. Not alone were Coroticus and his soldiers guilty, but anyone who colluded with them or supported them in any way shared their guilt: “You must not associate with them, or seek any favours from any of them. It is not right to eat or drink with them. Such fraternising must not take place until they make amends to God.”
Patrick was not afraid to be sharply critical of society. He had the courage of his convictions and never hesitated to speak out: “Let anyone laugh and revile me who wants to. I will not keep silent nor will I conceal the signs and wonders which have been shown me by the Lord.”
He wants us to believe that being aloof ultimately involves complicity. His words are the perfect antidote to indifference. We speak when we do not speak. We act when we do not act.
Patrick was unequivocally taking the side of the downtrodden, the oppressed and the marginalised, regardless of the personal cost or threat to his physical well-being.
Can the same be said of his followers in Ireland today? Whose side are we on? What price are we willing to pay for championing unpopular causes or standing up for what we know to be right?
While there is a remarkable generosity today towards organisations like the Peter McVerry Trust and Focus Ireland, are we, like Patrick, willing to really put our comfort on the line?
Patrick challenges his followers to rediscover their prophetic role, a quality of life that attempts to give renewed heart to the Christian life by a radical commitment to simplicity, sharing and intimacy. With his deep environmental concern, his passion for social justice, his humility and his bold moral courage, Patrick has many important messages for us today. Please come back, St Patrick.
Dr John Scally lectures in religions and theology at Trinity College Dublin