Dear friends. A young Sister I know from a convent in Dublin told me a story this week that saddened me. Two weeks ago, a worker from a nearby hospital called and asked if the Sisters were willing to take the contents of a large box that was sitting on the back seat of her car. When the young nun looked, she saw the box was full of crucifixes, holy water fonts and statues of Our Lady and the Sacred Heart. These were all taken down from the walls and rooms of the hospital in response to a government demand that State hospitals should not display religious symbols or décor. For the young Sister and all of us who would have seen it, the box was a symbol of what is taking place in our country – how God is being packed away, put in his box and declared irrelevant. It is also a sign how far and how quickly we have moved to empty our culture of the Christian faith that has been established for centuries since the time of Patrick. These crucifixes, holy water fonts and statues were probably in place in that hospital for decades or more. In an hour or two they had been removed, never to return.
This development raises a number of big questions. For starters, we all know that in the last few decades, we have become more accommodating to other faiths and cultures. This is good because Christianity welcomes other peoples and faiths without feeling threatened. But is the removal of Christian symbols from public places a policy, not of accommodating other faiths but of dislodging our own faith and replacing it with, well, nothing? Is the sight of a crucifix on a wall really that offensive to non-believers or non-Christians? If we were to go to Thailand for example, would we complain or be offended at the sight of so many statues of the Buddha? Of course not! We would accept it as part of their culture and religion. And if this aggressive push to separate Church and State continues, then how far do we go? Even the Taoiseach said in an interview that he thought the removal of Cribs from hospitals at Christmas would be a step too far. But why? And if there is to be complete separation of Church and State should the government stop exploiting the figure of St Patrick as a celebration of all things Irish? Afterall St Patrick was not Irish but British. He was also a Christian who offered us the gift of the faith that we seem so eager now to cast aside. And finally, are the scandals being used unfairly to hurry this banishment of religion from the public square and to unfairly attack the ethos of schools and hospitals? And if so, are we not throwing out the baby with the bathwater?
Answering these questions is not part of a call to go backwards into the past but to go forward into the future and address the crisis in the present. St Patrick’s courage and zeal for Christ was far more than the establishment of cultural Christianity and the preservation of what we already have. It was about imagining the future where we as a living Church become people of possibility as the salt of the earth and light of the world. We are always gravitating towards what is immediate and manageable, looking to survive and remain the same. But with Christ and the spirit of St Patrick, there is something attractive about men and women striving to become all that God created them to be. This was the vision that St Patrick first presented to our pagan ancestors and one to which they responded in a way that changed them and changed the world.
To realise this vision of a Church that is confident, engaging and convinced, we need a map to show us the way. Here I offer four directions on this map for a Church that is struggling to find its way (these are amended points taken from an excellent book by Matthew Kelly called Rediscover Catholicism, Beacon Publishing, 2010).
1. Despite all the bad publicity, we believe there is something beautiful and profound in our Catholic faith if we just take the time and make the effort to humbly explore it.
2. There is nothing wrong with Catholicism that can’t be fixed by what is right with Catholicism.
3. If you and I are not part of the solution, we are part of the problem.
4. If every one of us as Irish Catholics stepped up our commitment to our faith even a little, something incredible would happen.
Catholicism is a treasure map. It may be old but it still leads to treasure. It is a treasure worth living for, dying for and defending against the aggressive forces who seek to empty our culture of the faith that Patrick brought to our land. On his feast day, let’s discover this treasure together, and help others to do the same.
The painting above is of St Patrick on the Hill of Tara lighting the Easter fire. It is by Sean Keating and hangs in the library of the Irish College in Rome.