St. Patrick’s Day provides us with an opportunity to reflect on where we’ve come from in our history, where we find ourselves today and the direction in which we hope to move. We remember in a special way those who have left our shores in search of work and a new livelihood in England, America, Australia, New Zealand or where ever. Older people still recall the so-called ‘American Wake’ when neighbours gathered to say ‘fare well’ to young men and women who were emigrating. Very often their families had to wait for weeks to hear from them, communication and mobility was so restricted. These went because they had no choice. Many were lonely and longed to return but felt that employment opportunities at home made it impossible for them to do so. I recall when I was Chairman of the Irish Bishops for Emigrants celebrating Mass with our Irish exiles in Boston some years ago. Before the Mass the people were singing the ‘Fields of Athenry’. Today, those who are leaving our shores are doing so largely out of choice. Employment opportunities and the quality of life are now available here at home that could never be envisaged in days gone by. We thank God for the opportunities which have arisen, for the improvements in our work situation and in our living conditions. As a nation we are capable of taking our place along side any group and holding our own with them. This is a cause for great rejoicing and celebration.
What about the way forward? I believe that this calls for reflection and critical self examination. The world has become smaller due to increased mobility and information technology so that we can communicate instantly across the globe. In another respect perhaps our minds have become reduced proportionately. What I am referring to is the tendency to exclude God from the mainstream of life itself. A very significant directive was given to the people of God as they were about to enter the Promised Land was “Do not forget what the Lord has done”. Forgetfulness quickly leads to ingratitude and conveys the impression that we have achieved all of this on our own; are self-sufficient and can chart the future un-aided. There are indications that this is happening in certain areas of our society today. Political correctness seems to call for an exclusion of God, of Christian values, of faith and prayer from large areas of modern living. I believe that there are signals in our society which, if we read them accurately, are calling upon us to take a critical look at what is emerging and what the way forward if likely to be if we continue to relegate God to the circumference of life.
Someone said that if you don’t believe in God then you can believe in anything. Greed can so easily take over, consumerism and ruthless competition strengthen the powerful but leave the vulnerable at their mercy.
We have much to learn from Patrick himself. In his short writings we get to know the type of person he was and the way in which he responded to different crises. Underlying those writings we get a real sense of the presence of Christ in his life. He has absolute trust in God’s loving care for him; his life is directed by a love for God, by joy and pride in his missionary vocation and a deep sense of gratitude to God for all of it.
Everything in Patrick’s life is understood as being a gift from God, both in its small beginnings and it its growth. Looking back over his life he had come to see the pattern, the golden thread of God’s loving ………. woven into it all and part of the legacy of St. Patrick must surely be the faith that we share. Faith, properly understood and genuinely lived ought to provide us with a new way of looking at the world of relating to God and to each other.
There are signs that the growing secularisation with increased wealth and prosperity is something with which we are finding it difficult to cope. We can ask the question if people are any happier as a result. I quote from the Saint that we celebrate today, he said “I was in Britain with my family. And there I saw in a vision of the night, a man coming as it were from Ireland, with countless letters, and he gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of the letters, which ran “the voice of the Irish”; and as I was reading the beginning of the letter aloud I thought I heard at that very moment the voice of those who lived beside the wood of Voclut, which is near the Western sea, and thus they cried out as with one voice: “we beg you, holy youth, to come and walk once more among us”. It was this voice that inspired Patrick to return to Ireland as a missionary.
Today, we need to hear the voices of those who remain unfulfilled inspite of economic prosperity, we need to hear the cries of loneliness, of those who are abandoning hope, the cries of parents who have been disappointed in the ingratitude of their children and the cries of the elderly who live in fear. In responding to those cries I believe that we will be more in contact with the Saint that we celebrate and with the faith that he brought to our shores. So by all means let us celebrate this day but let us not forget that central to our celebration ought to be the faith that has sustained us through dark and difficult days in our history. This faith can enable us to avail of the prosperity that we enjoy today in such a way that it will be something we will share with others and will enable us to draw closer to the Lord.