This homily was given by the Bishop on the occasion of the feast day of S. Patrick, at the Mass he celebrated at the parish church of S. Patrick, Leicester, the 17th of March, 2018.
I find the person of Patrick particularly inspiring. I acknowledge that I’m bound to be a little biased, in that I bear his name, but I would like on his Feast Day to share with you a little of why I find St Patrick so inspiring, and why aspects of his experience, so long ago, sadly remain very relevant to our times. It is sometimes forgotten, amidst all the celebrations of this Feast day that, as a boy of fifteen, Patrick was trafficked as a slave; the son of wealthy upper class parents in Britain, perhaps a little spoiled, and certainly someone used to being waited upon by servants, he was wrenched away from family and home by Pirates, and trafficked as a slave to work in a land of foreigners whose language he did not then know, and whose culture he did not then share. Today, some sixteen centuries later, St Patrick would no doubt feel a great empathy with, and compassion for, the twenty-seven million women, men and children throughout the world, including here in the UK and in Ireland, who in our own day are being sold into slavery. In response to this Modern Slavery, many of you will know that we have held training events in various areas of the Diocese, including here in Leicester where was a great response, so as to help raise greater awareness of this ever-growing horrendous crime against humanity; it is what Pope Francis has called ‘a plague on the body of contemporary humanity’. Patrick, as a slave, was made to look after sheep in all weathers up in the hills; the many modern faces of slavery are to be seen in the woman sold into sexual bondage, the child forced to become a soldier, or the migrant shackled to the debt he/she owes their smuggler.
There are many legends and stories about St Patrick, but very little of these is based in reality. If we want to get to know the real St Patrick we need to look at what can we piece together from the two of Patrick’s writings which survive; the ‘Confession’, written near the end of his life, not as an autobiography but more as an attempt to tell us of God’s goodness to him, and of how he tries to respond to God, and his ‘Letter to Coroticus’ which he writes to excommunicate the British King Coroticus and his soldiers for the massacre and enslavement of a group of newly baptised Irish Christians whom Patrick had been teaching.
At the beginning of his ‘Confession’ Patrick suggests that his family home in Britain was not a particularly religious one, in spite of telling us that his father was an ordained deacon in the British Church. ‘I did not then know the true God’, he tells us. The explanation for this may well have been that his father, a local town official from the wealthy upper-classes, did not seek ordination as a deacon, out of zeal to serve the Church, but rather to escape heavy taxes that had to be raised by town officials for the occupying Roman government. If they didn’t raise enough from the townspeople, then they had to make up what was lacking from their own pockets! At that time, the Emperor Constantine decided to exempt the clergy from the tax, so many wealthy men were rushing to be ordained a deacon! Patrick describes for us his growing personal relationship with God which took place not in his home, but later on in his life as a slave looking after sheep up in the wet and windswept hills of Ireland:
‘the Lord opened the understanding of my unbelieving heart…he pitied my youth and my ignorance and protected me…and comforted me as a father comforts his son’. ‘Every day, I used to look after sheep and I used to pray often during the day…as many as a hundred prayers and nearly as many at night..and I used to rise before dawn for prayer, in snow and frost and rain, and I used to feel no effect (as I now realise, it was because the Holy Spirit was glowing in me)’.
This experience, of finding in captivity and loneliness, God’s help, when no human help was available, profoundly affected the rest of Patrick’s life. He never pretends to be what he is not. He is humble, and not in a sickly false-modest way, but genuinely humble in that he tells us how he came to trust and to rely on God’s help so fully, and he happily acknowledges how God changed his life:
‘I was like a stone lying in the deep mire; and he that is mighty came, and in his mercy lifted me up, and raised me aloft, and placed me on the top of the wall. And therefore I ought to cry aloud and so also render something to the Lord for his great benefits here and in eternity – benefits which the mind of men and women is unable to appraise.’
For me, the most attractive quality of St Patrick is this genuine sense of humility. It runs through what he writes. In recalling the events of his early life as someone trafficked into slavery in Ireland, and of his later life when, after escaping, he freely chose to be ordained and then to return to Ireland as a bishop to bear witness to Christ and to bring the people there the Christian faith, Patrick comes across as neither self-satisfied nor self-pitying, although he is very self-conscious of his human failings, and of the deficiencies in his own education. His years in captivity, from the age of 15 to 21, very much interrupted the good education he would otherwise have enjoyed as the son of an upper class family in Britain. He is very self-conscious too, later as a bishop, that the way he expresses himself in writing limits, his ability to speak persuasively and the scope of his mission. This is what Patrick feels, but to anyone reading his ‘Confession’, his openness, honesty and vulnerability helps us to know him for who he was, very human and yet a holy man, courageous when circumstances require courage, as in standing up to the British King Coroticus and his soldiers and excommunicating the lot of them, no fool as a bishop, and zealous to help others to come to know God personally.
Patrick’s prayer life, learned in the hardship of his slavery in Ireland, was the source of his courage and his zeal after his escape, to go back to Ireland to share with the people his deep and personal faith in Christ. St Patrick has made a deep abiding impression upon the people of Ireland, and beyond, because he was passionate about serving God and the people around him. In captivity as a teenager, Patrick came to see that the faith into which he had been baptised as a child, but which had not been nurtured in the family home, was more than a series of statements about God, more than a belief system which simply filled the head. Although regarded only as a slave by those around him, Patrick came to see that, in the eyes of God the Father who loved him, he had supreme value and worth; that he was accompanied by the Son, Christ Jesus, who walked closely with him in his captivity and loneliness, and that he was supported by the Holy Spirit, who prayed in him and who encouraged and guided him.
Inspired today by St Patrick may we never forget that every person, without exception, is cherished by God, and is to be loved and respected as such. May we, who today rejoice in his Feast day, be willing to join together with all Christians, with people of all faiths and none, and with all local campaigning groups, to do everything we can to help prevent the trafficking of human beings here in Leicester, in Ireland, and throughout the world.
St Patrick, pray for us!