Fr Billy Swan
It is no exaggeration to say that, in recent years, Ireland has become one of the most rapidly secularized countries in the world. This news comes with great sadness for thousands of people around the globe who have Irish ancestry and who treasure the gift of faith shared with them by Irish emigrants and missionaries. The reasons for the decline of faith are many but the symptoms are there for all to see - the sharp decline in vocations, the sharp rise in those unaffiliated, the legalization of same-sex marriage by a two-thirds majority in 2015 and then abortion in 2018 by an even greater majority. These signs were a wake-up call for the Church that confirmed not only the decline of faith but the widening gap between faith and the evolving culture.
Today, on the feast of St Patrick, we might well ask ourselves if he is turning in his grave by the undoing of a Christian culture that remained in place for centuries but now is unravelling before our eyes. By way of response, perhaps Patrick would not want us to waste time feeling sorry for ourselves or lament the passing of an age when the Church was dominant. For by contemplating the story of his life as a courageous evangelist, he inspires all people of faith not to stay locked behind closed doors in fear but to proclaim the Gospel with fresh heart and conviction to the culture of our time. Afterall, this is what he did to the culture of his time in a way that transformed it. Within a few centuries, Ireland’s reputation changed from being a nation of uncivilized pagans to a nation of saints and scholars. This was the powerful and transforming effect of the Christian faith he brought us. Today, we face the same challenge to evangelize as Patrick did – not to propose but re-propose the Gospel with fresh vitality to a modern audience. This is our calling – to share the faith in a way that inspires Christians to be creators and shapers of modern culture. Here are three pointers from the witness of this beloved saint on how best we can do this.
First, Patrick was sharply aware of being chosen by God and sent to the Irish to preach the Gospel. As St Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles, so Patrick understood himself as the Apostle to the Irish. These were the people at the periphery, at the ends of the earth as Patrick understood Ireland to be. But they were also a people also on the periphery of civilization. They were the people who held him in slavery, who spoke a different language and who did not share his own Christian faith. Yet these were the people to whom God sent him on a dangerous but ultimately successful mission.
The new evangelization is not our own project. It does not begin with us. If we feel compelled to share our faith with others, that impulse is always a movement of the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit who moves us into a new space, to meet new people and communities, to have courageous conversations and to try something new in order to express our burning desire to make Christ known and loved. This is because we have come to know Christ ourselves first. Like Patrick, we have been called first and only then sent on mission.
Second, in one of his letters, Patrick talks about his mission being fueled by ‘the zeal of God, the truth of Christ and the love of neighbors and friends’ (Letter, 1). There was a fire that has caught hold of him, that burned in his soul and drove him to teach the Gospel to a people he loved. As Bishop Barron frequently points out, we cannot evangelize people or a culture we don’t love. For Patrick, the Irish were a people ‘who took me prisoner’. And so, he had good reason to be resentful towards them. But in his own words, ‘it is from within me that holy mercy arises which I show towards this people’(Letter, 10). He had come to them to proclaim the Gospel and to bring them to faith in God. This faith was not something slavish but liberating and that Patrick describes as ‘this great and health-giving gift’ (Confessio 36)
Whether our missionary efforts will be fruitful or not will depend on whether our hearts contain that same ‘holy mercy’ that goes to meet those we hope to evangelize. It is difficult to evangelize from a distance for as Pope Francis reminds us: ‘How often we are tempted to keep close to the shore! Yet the Lord calls us to put out into the deep and let down our nets (cf. Luke 5:4)’ (Rejoice and be Glad, 130). Mercy, love and understanding bring us closer to the people we care about. When they correctly intuit that we are sharing the Good News because we care for them, the more they will be disposed to come to a faith that is life-giving. In Ireland and elsewhere, there is a reaction today against a form of uncritical faith that is imposed and led in the past to forced conformity. The faith in God that Patrick shares is one that makes life wholesome and unifies all the dimensions of our existence.
Third, Patrick was an evangelist of courage. Into a culture of many gods, Patrick dared to proclaim that there was but one God who revealed himself in Christ and whose life, death and resurrection had defeated division, violence and sin. In his autobiographical Confessio, he recalled that his efforts to proclaim the Gospel made the possibility of martyrdom a daily reality. He speaks of the dangers involved in calling the pagan Irish away from the worship of false gods and turning to the God of life and light.
Our efforts to evangelize must also be marked by boldness and risk. Recent scandals and difficulties have damaged the confidence of the Church to be bold and missionary. This lack of confidence has led to a fear of an aggressive media reaction to what the Church might proclaim or stand for. Yet the truth is that if St Patrick was controlled by the fear of how his message would be received by the Irish, his missionary efforts would never have got off the ground. The same is true for the early Apostles in Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection. They were glad to have suffered humiliation for the sake of his name and had the courage to preach the Gospel on their terms, despite the consequences. The challenge for the Irish Church and the Church universal is to meet modern challenges with ‘the Spirit’s prompting, lest we be paralysed by fear and excessive caution’ (Pope Francis, Rejoice and be Glad, 133). That is why our experience of being Church today is not dissimilar to the challenge of Patrick and the early Church who prayed: ‘And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant your servants to speak your word will all boldness’ (Acts 4:29).
On St Patrick’s Day, I ask your prayers for Ireland. We need them. We need the intercession of Patrick to raise up a new army of courageous saints - men, women and children who are convinced that ‘we have a treasure of life and love which cannot deceive and a message which cannot mislead or disappoint’ (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 265). The breakdown in the Irish Church is painful and dramatic but it can also be a moment of breakthrough when God is renewing his Church by bringing her back to her evangelical, missionary and mystical roots.