Fr Billy Swan
The celebration of St Patrick’s Day this year will be extra special given that it will be first public celebration in three years. It will be good to see the fanfare, the colour and parades back on our streets. We look forward to it this week. Yet, as we celebrate, the people of Ukraine will not be far from our minds. No sooner had the world emerged from the COVID-19 crisis when war has tragically broke out in Europe again with millions of people negatively affected, not least the people of Ukraine. As I write, hundreds of families have signed up to host a Ukraine family as 100,000 migrants fleeing from the war are due to arrive here in the coming weeks and months. So, what would St Patrick make of it all and can we find inspiration from his story? Yes.
Patrick was born into a middle to upper class family somewhere on the British west coast around 380 AD. We know something of his social standing because he tells us that his father owned an estate of land. Around the time of Patrick’s youth, Rome was sacked by Alaric and the Goths in 410 AD. It marked the beginning of the end for the Roman Empire. From then onwards, the military power of the Roman army began to weaken and the defense of its outer territories started to crumble. Being on the British West coast, Patrick’s home was included in these perimeters which meant that pirate attacks became more common. During one of these attacks by Irish pirates, Patrick tells us that he was captured along with many others and taken to the West coast of Ireland where he was put to work minding sheep as a slave. Therefore, Patrick’s relationship with Ireland began with an act of violence where he became a victim of human trafficking, arriving in Ireland as a vulnerable immigrant.
After six long years as a slave, Patrick escaped back to Britain where he was united with his family again. Not long afterwards, Patrick experienced a mystical vision that called him to return to the land of his captivity as a Christian missionary. When he did eventually return to Ireland, he tells of the success of his mission and witnesses to the remarkable transformation of the nation who had previously worshipped idols and unclean things but who now had become sons and daughters of God and co-heirs of Christ. Apart from Patrick’s own words, what we do know is that he and other missionaries played a crucial role in the establishment of Christianity and the foundation of the Church that was missionary from the beginning. So successful was the establishment of the Christin faith at the time that in a few centuries, large numbers of Irish men and women would leave Ireland to depart for foreign shores to bring the Gospel to many nations in the same missionary spirit that
Patrick brought the Gospel here. This is why St Patrick’s Day is celebrated proudly by so many countries around the world from America to Australia, to Canada to Africa. St Patrick has a universal appeal because he transcends national boundaries to unite people of different languages, ethnicity and culture into the one family of God’s people.
In recent years, the celebration of St Patrick’s Day has come to mean a celebration of all things Irish. While this is understandable, it is not faithful to the spirit of Patrick for Patrick was not Irish but British! Yet, he loved the Irish and dedicated himself to us for the rest of his life as a caring pastor who raised our dignity to a level we could not have imagined or foreseen. As we celebrate his feast day this year, we remember the dignity that God has conferred upon us by letting be called God’s children for that is who we are.
That said, in all this story of ‘glorious St Patrick’ a pivotal part is his suffering as an immigrant and a victim of human trafficking. And here is where his story takes on great relevance today, especially in the light of the current crisis in Ukraine. For the last two weeks, thousands of Ukrainians have been forced to flee their homes because of violence. This was Patrick’s suffering too. In the last two weeks, thousands of Ukrainians have been forced to leave their homeland and stay in another country. This was Patrick’s plight too. In the next few weeks, many of these immigrants will arrive here in Ireland. Many of them will be traumatized after their journey and the conflict they have seen. Despite the hard work of many and the generosity of those who are opening their homes to these brothers and sisters, there is much uncertainty about how it will all work out – how long will they be here? Will there enough supports for them when they arrive? What support will hosting families receive?
Despite this uncertainty, there is a clear need for Ireland to play its part to mitigate the refugee crisis and to take pressure off countries like Ukraine’s neighbour Poland whose ability to cope is at breaking point with the sheer numbers crossing over from their neighbouring country. Here is also an opportunity to show a form of nationalism that Patrick would be proud of – a nationalism that transcends national differences and strives to integrate immigrants into our society and culture. This is the direct opposite to the toxic and violent nationalism that we saw with Hitler in World War II and are seeing now with Putin.
Among all the thousands of Ukrainians who will come here soon, will there be another Patrick among them? Will there be another man or woman of great faith who will bring something to us that we need right now? As the Christian faith was brought here because of a tremendous evil – namely the slave trade – could
the evil of this war result in the arrival of a person or people who will change who we are for the better?
For this we hope, based on the story of St Patrick that is less about shamrock, costumes and green beer but everything about the story of a human being who was an immigrant and victim of human trafficking and who changed our nation forever. With these thoughts we celebrate St Patrick’s Day 2022.