Friday, March 4, 2016

Theological Institute Pilgrims in Northern Ireland

The Theological Institute's pilgrimage to Northern Ireland is in its second day.  We are having a great time, despite rain, snow and two funerals this morning (it's a long story!).  This morning we celebrated Mass in the primatial Cathedral of all Ireland: Saint Patrick's in Armagh.  Pictures of some of the group at Coabra Castle last night and the whole bunch of us listening to a tour at Saint Patrick's Cathedral follow, along with the text of my homily from this morning.

The temptation of every Irish Catholic is to turn the rich heritage of Irish spirituality into a loose amalgam of shamrocks, legends and little people all tied up in a Celtic knot.  But the faith preached to the land of our forebears by the Apostles of the Emerald Isle is as real as Saint Patrick, who was very real indeed,

When a little over a millennium and a half ago, Patrick died, it was after living a life filled with a passion for God: a passion so evident, that his very presence ignited a fire of faith which still burns, in good times and in troubles, on that Emerald Isle.  

That passion was first ignited, ironically enough when he was kidnapped as a sixteen year old slave.  His seminary, he tells us, was lived out in a solitary pasture, where he was forced to tend sheep, living in exile among a strange people in a stark and craggy land.

Yet, he reflects in his Confessions, those days of suffering, far from the comforts of home, were days in which God’s love and his Faith flourished.  He writes of the lonely days he spent as a young shepherd:

"Many times a day I prayed. The love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. In a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night. I used to get up for prayer before daylight whatever the weather--snow, frost, rain-- without suffering any ill effects. The spirit within me grew fervent."

At one point, that passion led him to flee Ireland and attempt to return home.  With unbounded determination he was undeterred by mere physical realities in this quest.  If God (or at least his passions) wanted him to do it, no mountain or bog would remain unclimbed or uncrossed as he walked almost two hundred miles to get home.

He was in his twenties when he arrived there, overjoyed to be away from those troublesome Irish.  He must have dreamt about that moment on Endless star-lit nights in Irish pastures and longed for those who spoke his language, with whom he felt at home and among whom he had grown up for many years.

Yet no sooner did he return home than he had a dream in which a man named Victoricus came to him with a big stack of letters.  This somulant mailman was, scholars suggest, Saint Victorious, a saint of whom Patrick’s Father, an ordained and learned deacon, may often have spoken.  Victorious, we are told, was a vociferous advocate for missionary activity, especially to the dark and mysterious lands which lay north of Britain.  

One of the letters was addressed to Patrick himself, and it began with the words: ‘The Voice of the Irish.’  It said:  'We beg you, young man, come and walk among us once more.'"

So Patrick returned to Ireland, and for thirty years he labored in the Irish vineyard.  And here, as often is the case in the best of our lives, his youthful passion was transformed by God into full fledged perseverance.  One of the more obscure iconographic signs of the great Saint illustrate this well.

It is of a crozier stuck in the mud, or the bog, to be more precise.  It seems that after responding to the vision, Patrick was making his way through a  part of Ireland now now known as Aspatria, a place so stubbornly pagan that he could preach until he was blue in the face and these stubborn celts would just sit there and scowl.  And so, the ever persistent evangelizer jammed his wooden crozier into the ground and swore he would not shut up until the faith had taken root in that obstinate land.  Upon which, roots sprang from the base of his crozier and the great walking stick grew into a small tree, at which the people repented and were baptized by the hundreds.

Such was the perdurance of his faith that he could wait a lifetime, if that’s what it took, for the Faith to take root. 

Of his life preaching the Gospel he once wrote, "Daily I expect murder, fraud, or captivity. But I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself entirely into the hands of God Almighty who rules everywhere."