Dear friends. The way we celebrate St Patrick’s Day 2020 will be unique and unprecedented. There will be no public Masses, no parades and no pubs. In theses extraordinary times, we priests are mindful of everyone and remain prayerfully close to you the people of God, as normal life is put on hold. But as we mark this St Patrick’s Day, it is also an opportunity to go back to what the celebration is really all about – God, his offer of friendship to us and the real power of faith at a time of crisis like this. Here I would like to explore the ancient tradition of St Patrick being an intercessor for the Irish people against evil and harm.
One of the most beautiful prayers attributed to our Patron saint is known as St Patrick’s Breastplate. It is a prayer of confidence and trust in God at a time of trial. It begins:
‘I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through a belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation’.
What I love about this part of the prayer is the confidence prayer gives us to ‘arise’ – to stand tall and to hold our heads up while we receive the strength of God through faith in Him. It encourages us not to panic or to fear and to never to underestimate the power of prayer in facing crises like the corona virus pandemic we face right now.
Probably the best know part of the prayer is where Patrick speaks of his awareness of Christ’s presence surrounding him like a shield:
‘Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me, Christ on my right, Christ on my left, Christ when I lie down, Christ when I sit down, Christ when I arise, Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me, Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me, Christ in every eye that sees me, Christ in every ear that hears me’.
This prayer of Patrick is known as the Breastplate because it refers to similar invocations by St Paul in his letters. To the Ephesians Paul asks them to: ‘Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil…Therefore put on the full armour of God…Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace’ (6:11-17). And to the Thessalonians, Paul urges them to ‘put on faith and love for a breastplate and the hope of salvation for a helmet’ (1 Thess. 5:8).
Here is the spirituality St Patrick’s Breastplate. The one who prays it is totally surrounded by the presence Christ. That is why the prayer speaks of Christ before me, behind me, within me, around me. It is a prayer that invokes God and the powers of heaven to protect people against a multitude of physical and spiritual dangers including diseases and the temptation to despair.
Yet enjoying Christ’s protection does not mean that we wont suffer. That’s not faith. Being protected by Christ means that we share in his sufferings but also in every aspect of his victory over the things that threaten to destroy us. Therefore we do not fear, for the one who prays is binding God to him/herself and receives a divine strength simply by asking for it.
Neither is the prayer a wish to return to normal so that inconveniences will soon be ended. For too long St Patrick’s Day has been turned into a distraction where the real meaning of his story is lost and people pass by Churches to get to parades. Something has gone awry. Given there are no parades and no pubs, St Patrick’s Day this year is about focusing on deeper needs instead of little needs. D.H. Lawrence once said that ‘we have fallen into the mistake of living from our little needs till we have lost our deeper needs in a sort of madness’. In this crisis, are we, the children of St Patrick being called to return to our deeper needs and stop the madness of ignoring them as we live in a culture that tries to convince us that our little needs are more important? If the answer is ‘Yes’ then good is already emerging from this crisis.