St Patrick’s Day was one of my favourite days of the year when I was growing up. There was the fact that we had a free day from school and the big parade in Limerick. Plus there was the fact that we all wore shamrock – the bigger the sprig the better.
I always wore the biggest sprig I could find – and I loved doing it because, after all, it was a badge of my identify. It represented who I was, how I saw myself, and it made me feel proud. Proud to be Irish and proud of the faith St Patrick is credited with bringing to these shores 1,600 years ago.
So proud was I of my Irishness and my faith it was no surprise that for my confirmation, at the bright old ago of ten, I chose the name Patrick.
Pride, of course, is one of the seven deadly sins, but it also can have a positive aspect. Pride can be about appreciating what we have; acknowledging what we have to celebrate; it can be about standing tall, conscious of our achievements.
And that’s what we do on St Patrick’s day, and what countless others do across the world, as they celebrate their Irishness, or become Irish for the day. They take pride in their heritage.
I wonder what St Patrick would say to us Irish if he paid a return visit today. I think he would start by acknowledging all the good things we should celebrate and be proud of:
- Our extraordinary generosity – which shows itself in good times and bad. Think of the service and sacrifice of Michael Ryan, the Lahinch-born engineer killed in the air crash in Ethiopia last week; he was part of our long history of giving and compassion.
- He would celebrate the strong community spirit which is still evident, the support people in local communities offer each other, especially in difficult times. Think of the hundreds of thousands of euros raised in the past week for cancer-stricken former Cork All Ireland winning footballer, Kieran O’Connor.
- He would point to our wonderful creativity – which expresses itself in the arts and music and culture. Think of our current generation of great Irish writers who continue the proud tradition of Heaney and Yeats and Swift. Recall that it’s 25 years since Riverdance was first performed and how Irish music and dance has entertained the world.
- He would thrill to our sporting success in so many fields, our ability to punch above our weight (though not in Cardiff yesterday). Fourteen winners at Cheltenham this week. An organisation in the GAA which is probably the most professional amateur body of its kind in the world.
- He would note the resilience we have shown, especially in those difficult years of economic distress and hardship. No rioting, no civil unrest – just quiet determination and forbearance.
- He would spotlight the talent of our young people, the demand for their skills by the world’s top tech companies, almost all of which have a major campus here.
- He would praise our tolerance and openness in a world increasingly less tolerant and open. Ireland is no longer the dull, monochrome country it was when I was young. It is more diverse, cosmopolitan, inclusive, mature.
All of these Patrick would tell us to celebrate. And I think, too, he would encourage us to use these strengths to build a more just society, that offers a decent standard of living to all our people, that is welcoming and inclusive and more equitable, a world leader in care of the sick, the poor and the earth.
Pride in our church has taken a tremendous battering in recent years. For so long we were rightly proud of our missionary tradition, of the extraordinary work Irish missionaries had done in every corner of the world, not only to spread the faith, but also to introduce education and health care.
And we were proud of our faith that had stood firm for centuries – the Mass rocks dotting the countryside giving testament to the faith of our forbears; the sturdy, stone churches built after the famine as a bold proclamation of resilience and hope. And so we wore the shamrock proudly as a symbol of that enduring faith.
Now, after years of revelations of wrongdoing, we look on a demoralised church, from which so many have walked away.
I wonder what message Patrick would have for our church if he visited Ireland in 2019. I think he would highlight the many good things we should celebrate and be proud of:
- parents eager to pass on the faith despite all the challenges
- religious like Fr Peter McVerry and Br Kevin Crowley who stand alongside the poorest and most vulnerable
- organisations like the St Vincent de Paul who are Christ to so many in need
- catechists, pastoral workers, and all those who give of their time to serve their parishes, keeping the faith alive.
All of these he would tell us to celebrate today.
And he would remind us, also, that whatever about losing faith in the church and its leadership, we should never lose faith in God. He would tell us to not let go of God because of the failures of the church. He would tell us to hang onto our faith, for there will be times when we will need it. It was his faith that kept him going, that sustained Patrick, in his captivity as a young man.
And he would remind us that the church isn’t just the hierarchy, weary men in collars and mitres – the church is the People of God, all the baptised. He would ask us to claim it, to work for a new evangelisation, a new spring, a vibrant Christian community, a church on fire – lay-led, welcoming, inclusive, prayerful, just, compassionate, tolerant, loving – a church of which he and all of us could be rightly proud.