by Fr. Tommy Lane
We can only imagine the shock it must have been for Patrick to be forced to to Miliucc in Ireland as a slave to look after his animals. The only one who could offer him protection was his slave master who obviously didn’t care too much about him. He must have spent long hours alone on the hills and it must have taken him a long time to master Gaelic so that he could converse with others with ease. Patrick tells us he had two constant companions during those years, hunger and nakedness. There was a gnawing in his belly and a chill on his exposed skin. When Patrick first arrived here he was not a spiritual person, and he didn’t take his faith seriously. In his book, Confessions, he writes,
“I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people. We deserved this fate because we turned away from God; we neither kept his commandments nor obeyed our pastors who used to warn us about our salvation.” (Confessions §1).
When he was alone in Ireland he had no one to turn to for help but God. Patrick found God in his loneliness. In fact Patrick needed these six years to mature because at the end of them he had become what we might call “a holy man.”
“After I had come to Ireland I daily used to feed cattle, and I prayed frequently during the day; the love of God and the fear of Him increased more and more, and faith became stronger, and the spirit was stirred; so that in one day I said about a hundred prayers, and in the night nearly the same; so that I used even to remain in the woods and in the mountains; before daylight I used to rise to prayer, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm; nor was there any slothfulness in me, as I now perceive, because the spirit was then fervent within me.” (Confessions §16)
So we could say that Patrick’s slavery here was all part of God’s plan to bring him to maturity. Sometimes what at first looks like a disaster looks differently when we look back with the benefit of hindsight. We do not always see God’s plan but if we have patience and persevere can hopefully look back later and see good coming out of what was painful. (God turns everything to good.)
Patrick was specially chosen by God to be a missionary to the Irish and God would ensure that his plan to convert the Irish would succeed. In many instances in Patrick’s life we see God’s plan and divine intervention at work to ensure that God’s plan would succeed. Some of these instances are the following. On the last night Patrick was here as a slave, when he was asleep a voice said to him, “Your hungers are rewarded, you are going home.” Patrick was startled and the voice continued, “Look, your ship is ready.” It must indeed have been divine protection that helped Patrick succeed in reaching a ship in a port many miles away without being apprehended once more by his slave master. A cargo was being loaded on the ship. He showed the sailors that he could pay for his passage, and again we see the Lord’s divine help here because we don’t know how a slave could afford to pay his fare. But the sailors refused to take him at first and while praying on his way back to the cottage where he was staying he heard one of the sailors calling after him. They had agreed to take him on trust. Again we see God’s special plan for Patrick when one night back in his parents’ home he had a dream of a man from Ireland visiting him and holding many letters, one of which was addressed to Patrick with a heading, “The Voice of the Irish.” In his dream there was a crowd of people beside a forest Patrick remembered who were pleading with him, “We beg you to come and walk among us once again.”
When Patrick arrived back in Ireland again, having studied for the priesthood and being ordained a bishop, the pagan Irish had not yet arrived at the understanding that their pagan gods did not need human sacrifice; they were still sacrificing humans to their gods. Prisoners of war were sacrificed to war gods and newborns to harvest gods. This was not unique to Ireland but was the belief of the Celtic peoples at this time. An example is the Gundestrup Cauldron which was found in a Dutch swamp. It was left there a century or two before Jesus as an offering to the swamp god. It has beautiful silver panels which refer to sacrifice, animal sacrifice as well as human sacrifice. The gods that the Celts believed in demanded sacrifice, animal as well as human sacrifice. All early peoples sacrificed humans to their gods. At a certain point it seems they became aware that human sacrifice was not required by their gods and from then on they sacrificed animals. But the Ardagh Chalice found in a field in Limerick, which dates from the seventh or eighth century, is a happier story. In the Ardagh Chalice Jesus offered himself in Holy Communion. Those who received Holy Communion from the Ardagh Chalice were nourished the sacrifice of God for them, nourished by the blood of Jesus. The situation is reversed. God does not need our deaths as a sacrifice; instead by living our whole lives for God our entire life becomes a sacrifice to God. What a difference between the Gundestrup Cauldron and the Ardagh Chalice. That difference is due to the preaching and sacrifices of St. Patrick to bring the faith to Ireland.
When Patrick brought the faith here the natives realized quickly enough that faith in Jesus was the answer to their deepest needs. They had a fear of death but Patrick showed that there is no need to fear death and that one can be a person of peace and live without fear of dying. No doubt as Patrick neared the end of his life he could see that Ireland had been transformed by his teaching and preaching. Violence decreased, the slave trade came to a halt during or shortly after his lifetime. Christianity had answered the deepest needs of the Irish. Today we thank God for St. Patrick and the gift of faith which he brought to this land and we ask St. Patrick our patron saint to continue to intercede before God for us. St. Patrick, Apostle of Ireland, pray for us.
More homilies for March 17th - St Patrick’s Day