By Fr Billy Swan
On Monday 1st February, we celebrate the Feast Day of St Brigid or Mary of the Gael. Here I explore how the example and witness of St Brigid takes us back to the primacy of charity and love at the heart of the Church.
The earliest surviving hagiography of Brigit was written by the Kildare monk Cogitosus (c. 620-680), within 150 years of her death. In his account, Brigid is portrayed consistently as compassionate and merciful. She is a woman of charity ‘to the poor and to wayfarers…having given all away to the poor’. On one occasion when a man had suffered a grave injustice, we are told she was ‘moved with pity…filled with deep grief for the unfortunate man who had been unfairly condemned’. Cogitosus speaks of ‘the excellence of her holiness’, ‘her marvelous hospitality’ and how ‘no poor person left her presence empty-handed’. He also writes of her charity and kindness to lepers and animals. A later hagiography tells the story of how, when she was asked during a ceremony to choose a particular beatitude to live by, she chose ‘the beatitude of mercy’.
The fruit of Brigid’s witness to mercy was unity. In his prologue to The Life of Brigid, Cogitosus refers to ‘this woman who drew to herself from all the provinces of Ireland inestimable numbers of people of both sexes’. All were ‘filled with admiration for the girl who was incomparable in her faith and in the merit of her good works’ and that ‘people were drawn to her from all parts by the great fame of her virtue and exceeding generosity’.
In Brigid, the Irish Church has an exemplar of charity and hospitality. These are the virtues without which the Church would disintegrate. She is someone who calls us back to mercy and who points the way to an ecumenism of love. She connects the unity of Christians and the charity between them, as Christ did at the Last Supper when he prayed that we be one and that we ‘love one another as I have loved you’ (John 13:34). To the measure we love one another, to that extent we are united. Put simply, ‘where there is sin, there is division. Where there is charity, there is unity.’
If love and mercy are the key to unity within the Church, then it is also the key to her mission ad extra to the world. At a time of increasing secularism, the imperative for a stronger Christian unity that translates into a greater unity of mission and purpose, appears all the more urgent. In a culture of multiple identities, now is a time when the scandal of division among Christians appears less tolerable and the need greater to show the world the Trinity at a time of global uncertainty and fragmentation.
In 1963, President John F. Kennedy paid tribute to Ireland as ‘a maker and shaper of world peace…no larger nation did more to keep Christianity and western culture alive in their darkest centuries…You have something to give to the world’ (Address to Joint Houses of the Oireachtas, Dublin, 28th June 1963). These words remind the Irish Churches not to preserve all our energies in resolving theological differences between the traditions, important as this work is. It is a call to commit ourselves to a joint mission in the service to humanity.
Joint mission to the world saves the Church from being too ‘self-referential’ and shows how ‘unity of action leads to the full unity of faith’. As Pope Francis explains: ‘To do something together is a high and effective form of dialogue’. In this light, St Brigid invites Irish Christians to see the universal nature of their Christian vocation that extends to the whole of humanity and beyond their own locality and denomination.
Lastly, this Brigidine principle taps into the vitality of our joint missionary heritage and the immense contribution that Irish Christian missionaries of all denominations have made around the globe. It keeps the energies of the ecumenical movement focused outwards with the hope that differences of doctrine and tradition will be resolved in the context of our joint missionary efforts. With a renewed missionary commitment, the hope arises that the future will be marked not just by historical reflection but remembered for its legacy of real progress in unity among Irish Christians.
On this feast day of St Brigid, we pray through her intercession that, in the words of St Therese of Lisieux, that there be ‘love at the heart of the Church’. We ask her to pray for all Christians at this time of pandemic, that we might be united in charity and loving mercy towards all the people of God. We ask her to pray for a great renewal of the faith in the Church in Ireland beginning now but coming to fruition in the future. St Brigid, pray for us!