Bishop, Principal Patron of Ireland
1st Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-9
Go and say whatever I command you and do not fear
The word of the Lord was addressed to me, saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you;
before you came to birth I consecrated you;
I have appointed you as prophet to the nations.”
I said, “Ah, Lord; look, I do not know how to speak: I am a child!”
But the Lord replied,
“Do not say, I am a child.
Go now to those to whom I send you
and, say whatever I command you.
Do not be afraid of them,
for I am with you to protect you
it is the Lord who speaks!”
Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me:
“There! I am putting my words into your mouth.”
Responsorial: from Psalm 116(117)
R./: Go out to the whole world and proclaim the Good News
O praise the Lord, all you nations,
acclaim him all you peoples! (R./)
Strong is his love for us;
he is faithful for ever.(R./)
Second Reading: 2 Timothy 4:1-8
I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith; it is time for me to be gone
Before God and before Christ Jesus who is to be judge of the living and the dead, I put this duty to you, in the name of his Appearing and of his kingdom: proclaim the message and, welcome or unwelcome, insist on it. Refute falsehood, correct error, call to obedience – but do all with patience and with the intention of teaching. The time is sure to come when, far from being content with sound teaching, people will be avid for the latest novelty and collect themselves a whole series of teachers according to their own tastes; and then, instead of listening to the truth, they will turn to myths. Be careful always to choose the right course; be brave under trials; make the preaching of the Good News your life’s work, in thoroughgoing service.
As for me, my life is already being poured away as a libation, and the time has come for me to be gone. I have fought the good fight to the end; I have run the race to the finish; I have kept the faith; all there is to come now is the crown of righteousness reserved for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that Day; and not only to me but to all those who have longed for his Appearing.
Gospel: Mark 16:15-20
Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News
Jesus showed himself to the Eleven and said to them:
‘Go out to the whole world; proclaim the Good News to all creation. He who believes and is baptised will be saved; he who does not believe will be condemned. These are the signs that will be associated with believers: in my name they will cast out devils; they will have the gift of tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and be unharmed should they drink deadly poison; they will lay their hands on the sick, who will recover.’
And so the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven: there at the right hand of God he took his place, while they, going out, preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word by the signs that accompanied it.
Appreciating the water of Life
We live in an age of pollution and looming environmental crisis, aware that global warming threatens the very future of life on earth. As Pope Francis has wisely reminds us in his encyclical “Laudato Si,” this world is our shared home; but by contaminating the earth’s air and water, we are putting in peril the conditions for life of future generations. The pope has called us to practice inter-generational justice, and actively protect our environment and leave the earth unharmed for those who will follow us. Therefore the fresh-water image in Ezekiel’s prophecy is very relevant for today and we ask God to help us protect this lovely planet. Only by the mercy of God, it seems, can the process of destruction be reversed. Only God can convert human hearts to responsible stewardship of the earth.
Ezekiel offers us reasons to hope and pray. He inspires us also to seek another kind of purification, of our inner selves. We need a stream of grace to flow through us, to cleanse our hearts, brighten our hopes and infuse us with new life and vigour. Sometimes we seem only half alive; we are as lame as the man in John’s gospel, waiting for the movement of the water.
The healing miracle at the pool near the Sheep Gate can bring echoes of our Baptism. Lent is the time when catechumens are preparing for Baptism on Holy Saturday. It invites us to throw off anything that is unworthy in us and turn aside from sin so that our best self can prevail.
As the waters of Ezekiel’s prophecy flowed from the Holy of Holies in the temple, let’s see what we can do to revive the spirit in our local church, during Lent. Through prayer and liturgy we can feel the touch of God’s presence. Reflecting upon Ezekiel we seek our own source of life-giving water. Like him we will notice new signs of life about us where previously we saw only the dry desolation of the desert.
Finally, the lame man at the pool of Bethesda shows how worthwhile it is to wait with patience. This vital virtue is urged by the prophets, especially Isaiah who said: “By waiting and calm you shall be saved. Your strength resides in quiet and in trust.” (Is 30:15). Like the lame man by the pool, we trust that Jesus offers the healing we need. He could have waited forever and remained lame, if he did not recognise the coming of the Lord.
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 Padraig), 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.