Patrick, a sinner who came to know the God who loved him

St. Patrick holds a shamrock in this detail of a stained glass window which hangs in the Cathedral of the Holy Cross. St. Patrick is the patron saint of the Archdiocese of Boston. His feast day is March 17. Pilot photo/Gregory L. Tracy

"Below is the full text of the homily delivered by Father John Connolly at the Mass celebrated at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross on the feast of St. Patrick, March 17, 2006.

Here is your first surprise of the afternoon my friends. I am not Archbishop Seán. My name is Father John Connolly and I am the Rector here at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross and I am grateful to Archbishop Seán for his kindness in asking me to preach the homily this day and I am humbled as well. I suppose it would not hurt to first, if you will, establish my bona fides as I presume to preach on the Feast of our Patron Saint. A Connolly whose grandparents all came from the land of Saints and Scholars, three from County Galway, in Spidéal and Barna, and one from Inis Mór in the Aran Islands. I am encouraged by their steadfastness and their strength of faith, hope and love in the Lord to speak with you this afternoon. But my bona fides, like all of yours, are not merely resting on the shoulders of my ancestors. With Saint Patrick, of whom you and I are both the spiritual and the cultural descendents, I can say, as he does at the beginning of his Confessions, “I am a sinner.” Patrick was able to be so effective, so strong, so productive, fruitful and faithful a missionary because he knew who he was. He knew who he was as a sinner because through the gift of faith with which God blessed him, which ultimately God blessed the people of Ireland and so many places beyond,

Saint Patrick came to know the God who loved him, as he loves us, so much he shared with him the gift of life. Patrick’s story is well known. Taken as a slave from his homeland to Ireland, he labored in difficult conditions for years and in that time he who had been the grandson of a priest finally came to accept, to understand, to be rooted in the faith which God had offered to him. In his years of servitude God prepared him for the mission that would become his, to be the Apostle to the people of Ireland. In ways great and small, day in and day out, for all those years in which he tended the swine and the sheep and fed the cattle, as he recounts in his Confessions, in good months and in cold bitter months, God gave him opportunities to grow in faith, in hope and in love. And God gave him the chance to come to know and to love, despite the harsh treatment he received, the people of Ireland. They, too, had the chance to come to know Patrick. By his own account in the Confessions, in the course of his difficult work he began to pray more and more every day and soon the people who knew him, people who knew not the faith of Christ, referred to him as “the holy boy”.

One day fortune, in the providence of God, smiled on him and he was able to break free of his captivity and he made his way home. He began a journey of growth in the faith and in education which brought him into contact with many good and learned men and women of his day. He grew, he was ordained to the priesthood, and ultimately became a Bishop. He sought to become a missionary. He was always called back. There was a pull in his heart to the people among whom he had lived as a slave, and he hoped to join them again. But for many years through seminary training and through other missions with which he was entrusted, he traveled with others and learned from them about the Word and the Way of Jesus Christ. Each of these experiences, recounted in his Confessions, helped prepare him for the mission that was to be ultimately his, for the mission which he so beautifully and lovingly embraced and for which he is so well known, as Apostle to Ireland. As a slave, he had learned the words and the language of the people of Ireland. He had become familiar with pagan druid rituals and the symbolism of the shamrock and the fire which were so essential to their faith. And when he returned in the fifth century, commissioned by Pope Celestine to bring the faith to Ireland, to walk in the footsteps of another bishop who had been chased away by the ferocity, by the seeming barbarism of the clans of that day, Patrick took up the mission.

I will pause for an editorial comment. As I looked over material in preparation for what I was going to say, I learned that Pope Celestine had first sent Bishop Palladius to be the Apostle to the people of Ireland. Bishop Palladius, sad to say though understandable, was run off by a Chieftain. I can understand that knowing the strength and the ferocity of the Irish people. What I cannot understand is why Palladius turned tail and ran so quickly, given that the Chieftain was from Wicklow. I know I will pay for that later.

But Patrick took up his mission. Patrick went where others had failed. Patrick went because he had come to know, even more fully, that what he did he did not do on his own, he did through the grace, through the power of God. As he began his Confessions with the line “I am Patrick a sinner” he ends them with a line that goes something like, “If I did or showed forth anything however small according to God’s good pleasure...it was the gift of God”, not a result of his own undertakings. And Patrick remains a Saint for you and for me today because he helps us remember who we are and especially who we are in relationship to God. This beautiful patronal feast of the Archdiocese of Boston is so well situated in our Lenten context. We take a break on this feast day, from the fasting, the almsgiving, the discipline of our Lenten season, and we glory and praise to God for the gift of Saint Patrick. And as we do we are able to take courage in the example he gave us. For he reminds us that amidst the complicated and complex lives of the twenty-first centuries which all of us lead, amidst the trials and tribulations, the demands on our time and attention, all those things that tug at us, that pull at us, that might stop us from doing the things we know we ought, he reminds us that it is just that simple and just that easy. God loves us, God sent Christ, His Son, to teach us how to live and how to love, and Patrick reminds us that we need, all of us, to acknowledge our sinfulness before the Lord.

The Prophet Isaiah in our first reading anticipates Saint Patrick and so many other missionaries who were to come in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. Indeed how beautiful it must have been upon the mountains of Ireland, upon the shores of its craggy beaches, upon the streets of the towns when Saint Patrick brought them out of paganism and into the faith that he held so dear. Patrick’s gift was that he was able to speak to the people in a manner that touched them and connected with them in a way that allowed them to be moved to faith. God truly worked through Patrick. Patrick, humble as he is in his Confessions, reminds us, again and again, that it was God working through him. And in that reminding, he teaches all of us again and again, that humility for us in our time and place is a virtue to be worked upon and to be treasured. For if we are truly humbled we receive the exaltation of God. God works through us when we acknowledge that it is not us but God who truly does the work. That lesson of Saint Patrick transcends the more than fifteen hundred years since he walked the earth and serves as a lesson for all of us to put into practice as we walk across and through this threshold of the twenty-first century. Saint Paul, like Saint Patrick, knew the wisdom of the cross. And Saint Patrick often referred to the cross as the touchstone of his daily life. Again and again throughout the course of the day he would make the Sign of the Cross and like the armor against the evil, against the unknown, against the challenges which he encountered day in and day out over the many decades of his apostleship in Ireland, he lived under the protection of the cross.

Our Gospel passage today has in it the words that have become so familiar to us since Pope John Paul II, of happy memory, shared with us his beautiful Apostolic Letter, Novo Millennio Ineunte. “Put out into the deep”, our Holy Father invited all of us who are brothers and sisters of Christ Jesus, daughters and sons of God the Father. Saint Patrick certainly did that, literally and figuratively, as he made his way from his homeland back to Ireland. He put out into the deep to reach those shores and he put out every moment of his life, every bit of himself, as everything he did, day in and day out, was put at the service of God, to the benefit of the people of Ireland and beyond. We here in the Archdiocese of Boston conclude today a Novena in Prayer for Vocations. How fitting a tribute that is to this Saint of Ireland, of Boston, of the world. For part of what Saint Patrick did in the years in which he traversed that great country, was to ordain more than three thousand priests, nearly four hundred bishops and be present and encourage the vocations of many consecrated religious men and women, as well as the foundations of abbeys and monasteries. Through his intercession and through the intercession of the Servant of God, John Paul II, we here in the Archdiocese of Boston this week have been praying in a focused and intentional way for vocations. That prayer should and must be a part of our every day prayer life. It is a great way to honor the example and to further the legacy of Saint Patrick. In the darkest days of Western Civilization, in those centuries from the fifth to the eighth when things were terrible and difficult in Europe, it was part of the immediate legacy of Patrick that in those monasteries and abbeys he founded, the wealth of the world in literature was kept alive, the books of theology and the tomes of so many of the sciences were kept safe. And as that great gift to the world had its roots in Patrick’s sharing of the faith, so too did the many men and women of faith from Ireland who went from her shores to so many others, right here in our time and place. In the sanctuary today I know there are at least Father Finbar, Father Dan, Father John who come to us from the shores of Saint Patrick’s adopted home and continue to spread the faith across the sea.

I see Sister Cathy and I know there are other Sisters and Brothers who are here from Ireland who do likewise. We must, with them, through the intercession of Saint Patrick, pray for and encourage vocations. Patrick is a sinner who knew and loved God and put his life forward day in and day out in loving witness and service to God and neighbor. We who come from so many places, not merely from Irish descent, love him and seek to emulate him because he helps us remember who God calls each one of us to be. Recognizing that we are sinners, we turn to the God of faith, hope and love, and seek His mercy and his forgiveness. And especially in this Lenten season, as we prepare to celebrate Christ’s victory over sin and death at Easter, we turn to the Lord and ask Him to help us grow ourselves in faith, hope and love, by the power of His grace, the power of His mercy. May Saint Patrick intercede for us as we seek to do just that.

Permit me if you will, Archbishop Seán, to speak a word of particular encouragement to you this day. Saint Patrick was, in the early days of his time in Ireland, a slave. You have been with us nearly three years as Archbishop of Boston and things beyond your control from times past, and other things none of us could anticipate, have seemed sometimes to hold you in slavery. Controversies and difficulties have arisen which have embroiled you and our beloved Church in them. We trust and we pray and we hope, and we pledge to you the embrace of our prayers, as you go forward tomorrow to Rome to receive the gift of the Red Hat from His Holiness, Pope Benedict XVI. Just as Pope Saint Celestine sent Patrick to Ireland, John Paul II sent you to us in Boston. We hope and we pray that as you go to Rome and come back again, you will receive the gifts and the graces, the hope and the strength you need to continue to lead us like Saint Patrick lead. Celestine named Saint Patrick, Patricius, the father of his people. Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict XVI send us another spiritual father in Seán Patrick O’Malley. On this, your name’s day, the feast of your baptismal Saint,

we promise our prayers, our support, our affection and we urge you, through the intercession of Saint Patrick whose Feast Day it is the day before you leave and through the intercession of Saint Joseph whose Feast Day falls on the day after you leave, to become more and more open to God’s graces so that you can lead us as the spiritual father we all need. May God bless Saint Patrick’s cultural and spiritual descendents and through the intercession of Saint Patrick may he bless our dear Archbishop. God bless you all.

Reverend John J. Connolly, Jr.

Cathedral of the Holy Cross

Feast of Saint Patrick

March 17, 2006"

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