Rejoice, and be glad, because God blessed this land with St Patrick!
Around the year 400, there were few Christians in Ireland. The message of Jesus was not unknown – it had spread through Roman Britain – but we have little evidence that the Irish people had accepted it. Then, a remarkable change took place. St Patrick was able to write in his Confession,
How has this happened in Ireland? Never before did they know of God except to serve idols and unclean things. But now, they have become the people of the Lord, and are called children of God. The sons and daughters of the leaders of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ!
Not only that, but noble women were insisting on becoming nuns even though their parents strongly opposed it! Both St Patrick and these noble women faced slander and lies in the face of his calling. Patrick also found that his enemies would confront him with the sins of his youth. He didn’t deny that he hadn’t lived a perfect life; indeed, he tells us, that’s why he wrote a Confession.
Patrick persevered. In the past, he had been a sinner; now he lived with integrity, refusing to take even a penny for baptisms and ordinations. By the middle of the 500s, the Catholic faith was present across Ireland, with the great monasteries of Clonmacnoise and Glendalough firmly established, and St Columba setting out to take the faith to the Scots.
What, then, can we learn from St Patrick?
First, the Catholic faith can quickly become strong in a place where it was once weak, or absent.
Second, in order to plant the faith we must behave with integrity and sincerity. We do not deny the sins of the past, but we hold ourselves to higher standards now and in the future.
Thirdly, when St Patrick preached the message of Jesus, he was planting something brand-new, which had not been seen in Ireland before; a great network of monasteries, convents, and priests to serve the people.
We, however, find ourselves in the same position as the apostles out fishing in today’s Gospel. We’re doing something very familiar, but it doesn’t seem to be working. “Lord, we have worked all night but caught nothing!” Our Catholic Church was strong in Ireland, within living memory, but now it’s falling apart!
Patrick offered his people an attractive new church. We, however, are known as a tarnished old church. Priests and people have let us down. Our leaders nationally, and internationally, have tolerated shocking bad behaviour which ought not to have been allowed. Maybe some of us spoke up, but like Amos in our first reading, the religious leaders did not want to hear our voice. In the big things, we put our priests on a pedestal and pretended they could do no wrong – but at the same time, when it came to the little things, we rushed to criticise. If a priest, tired from his day’s labour, snarled an unkind word in an unguarded moment, that could be all over town in a trice! Did not Our Lord Jesus warn us about being people who would strain out a gnat while swallowing a camel?
Dare we to hope that what happened in St Patrick’s day could happen again? Could the Catholic Church become strong once again in Ireland? Indeed it can – but not if what we have to offer is the kind of church which has been tried and rejected. Patrick came not to plant the church but to preach the Gospel. And what is the Gospel? Pope Francis has summed it up for our generation in this way: “Jesus Christ loves you, died for you, and walks with you to enlighten, strengthen and free you!”
The great thing about the Catholic Church is that we are a wide community, where there is room to do things in different ways. We are large enough for one Catholic to become a military officer, and another to become a conscientious objector. We are large enough for one religious order to promote care for homeless people or prostitutes while another works diligently to promote the Latin Mass. We don’t always pin down our teachings – for instance, while many Christians in the west believe Our Lady did not die, many in the east believe that she ‘fell asleep’ in the Lord before her body was taken into heaven. When Pope Pius XII made the Assumption a dogma binding on all Catholics, he deliberately didn’t settle this – he just said we must believe Mary’s body went to heaven “at the end of her earthly life”.
Sometimes we put things at the centre which shouldn’t be at the centre. For instance, earlier this week, I was sharing my testimony with some of you after morning Mass. Before I became a priest, I worked as a scientist. I’m not afraid to stand in this pulpit and say that I believe in the Big Bang and in human evolution. When I dared to suggest to some of you that I didn’t believe that the story of Adam and Eve was about an actual couple who lived on earth, I know what some of you were thinking – “I wish the church would make up its mind! Here’s another priest who believes something different about something else!”
We live in the age of Fake News. It’s easy to say something; people who want to believe it will believe it without checking the facts. People who don’t want to believe it are equally stubborn. But we have to be more canny than that! In the Church we have to keep the main thing the main thing. And what’s the main thing? It’s what we say in the Creed every Sunday – that Jesus Christ really lived, died for us, rose from the dead and opened the way to heaven for you and for me. The main thing is the Mass. Not the rosary or any devotions. St Patrick never said the rosary! He probably never said the “Hail Mary”! We have no evidence that any Christian said the prayer “Hail Mary” before the year 1000! I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray the rosary – just that we must know our onions so we don’t confuse the main course with the trimmings! And it’s the same thing with Adam and Eve – the church leaves us free to decide whether the story in Genesis is a parable meant to teach us something, or the true history of the world, as long as we accept that all of us are tainted because the first human being who ever lived fell short of God’s instructions and committed the first sin.
It’s been my privilege to preach to you this week as a member of the Céilí team – we could echo the words of St Paul today, that “so deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you … the gospel of God”. Next week we’ll be gone, but you will still be here, and the future of this church will be in your hands. If you want to win back Catholics who no longer go to Mass – who are no longer part of this church community – if you want our Church to become as strong as it was in the days of St Patrick – each one of us has to start behaving as a follower of Jesus.
No-one wants to be in a situation where five different churches have to be served by one parish priest, but that’s where we’re starting from. Jesus once said, “it is by your love for one another that people will know you are my disciples.” If this church can become a community where you work joyfully with your neighbours, share your priest cheerfully, and keep Christ at the centre, you have hope! Patrick prevailed, despite the sins of his youth, because he was a wholehearted follower of Jesus. This Christian community can prevail, despite the sins of the wider church and your own sins, if you too commit yourselves to be wholehearted followers of Christ. All the gifts you need to rebuild this parish, are within you. No other religion offers a Saviour who rose from the dead. You have the message of eternal life. Work together, speak the Gospel! Rejoice – and be glad!