Homily for the feast day of S. Patrick, given the 17th of March, 2019
On the occasion of the feast day of S. Patrick, impeded unfortunately in 2019 by the Second Sunday of Lent, Mass was offered by the Bishop at the parish church of S. Patrick, in the Meadows, at Nottingham.
"As a diocese, we are focusing this Lent on Christian Discipleship. A disciple is someone who wishes not only to grow in their relationship with Christ, to know that they are personally loved by Christ, but also wishes to be used by Christ as a co-worker, as a means by which he or she may bring Christ’s love, care, compassion and forgiveness to others; a disciple is also someone who is humble and very aware that they themselves often fall short of what Christ wants for them, but who is always prepared to learn from Christ and to acknowledge their need of ongoing forgiveness and growth in faith and trust. In the life and example of St. Patrick, whose Feast we celebrate today, we find much to teach us about what is involved in being a disciple of Christ and so being someone who wishes to make a positive contribution to their local community and wider society.
"So, briefly, who is St. Patrick? He was born towards the end of the 4th century to wealthy upper-class parents on the west coast of Britain. He tells us that his home was not a place of great Christian piety and prayer, in spite of the fact that his father was a deacon in the Church. As a boy of 15, perhaps a little spoiled and certainly used to being waited upon by servants, he was captured by Irish pirates and sold into slavery, ending up working for six years on a farm, somewhere on the west coast of Ireland, possibly near to the Mayo and Sligo border, though I do know that where he was is greatly disputed (joke). He then made his escape back to Britain, felt called by God to become a priest and called also to return to Ireland as a missionary bishop, spending the rest of his life there bringing the message of Christ to the people of Ireland.
"What can St. Patrick teach each of us about being a disciple of Christ? I said earlier that a disciple is someone who wishes to grow in their personal relationship with Christ, to know that they are loved by Christ and that Christ wishes them to develop their own personal relationship with him. Early in his life Patrick had experienced the trauma of being captured, taken away from everything that was familiar to him, his home, family and friends, and sold into slavery in a foreign land. In his complete sense of helplessness he turned to God and God did not fail him. These are his own words from the ‘Confession’, an account he wrote near the end of his life to thank God for all that he had done for him:
'I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many…the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God who watched over me before I knew him, and before I was able to distinguish between good and evil, and guarded me and comforted me as would a Father his son. Hence I cannot be silent about the great benefits and the great grace which the Lord has deigned to bestow upon me in the land of my captivity.'
"Where did this deep personal trust in, and relationship with, Christ come from? Well it wasn’t from time spent in church, but rather from time spent on the hills where he was put to work looking after the sheep:
'But after I came to Ireland – every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed; the love of God and respect for him came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountains; and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, frost, rain, and I felt no harm.'
This experience of a personal relationship with Christ, of finding God’s help and nearness, when no human help was available to him, profoundly affected St. Patrick’s whole life. It gave him an unshakeable personal relationship with God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Although regarded only as a slave by those around him in those early days, he came to see that in the eyes of God the Father who loved him, he had supreme value and worth; that Christ Jesus walked with him each day, and that he was supported by the Holy Spirit, who prayed in him, guided and inspired him.
"A disciple is also someone who wishes to be a co-worker with Christ, a means by which Christ can reach out to others with his love, care and compassion. Patrick’s prayer life, learned in the hardship of his slavery in Ireland was, after his escape, to be the source of his courage and his zeal to return to Ireland to share with the people there his deep and personal faith in Christ. Patrick tells us something of his life in Ireland as a bishop in his few writings. His mission there was, in many ways very successful, in spite of some opposition and jealousy. He converted, baptised and brought many thousands of people to Christ and to full membership of the Church; he ordained many clergy, and also encouraged a form of monastic life. He travelled widely throughout Ireland and claims that he brought the Good News of Christ to many remote parts of the country where the gospel had not been preached before. This is how Patrick himself humbly and readily acknowledges all that God has done for him in choosing him as his disciple, his instrument, to share with the people of Ireland the Good News of Christ:
'I am very much God’s debtor, who gave me such grace that many people were reborn in God through me and afterwards confirmed, and that clerics were ordained for them everywhere…So now I commend my soul to my faithful God, for whom I am an ambassador in all my wretchedness;… God …chose me for this office - to be, although among his least, one of his ministers. Hence let me render thanks unto him for all that he has done for me.'
"One of the ways in which we can each honour St. Patrick is to try to be, like him, a disciple of Christ, a co-worker with Christ. How? Well there are so many ways, but here are a few simple, but potentially significant examples of ways in which we can put our faith into action. We can smile and be friendly to people as we move about, (don’t underestimate the effectiveness of a smile) we can seek to carry out little acts of love and care as opportunities come our way; we can be welcoming, especially to the newcomer in our local neighbourhood; as an Irish person coming to Nottingham, remember how you first felt all those years ago, and how a helping hand or a friendly word meant so much. Nottingham has over the years become a multi-cultural, multi-faith city, with a desire to help ensure that people of all faiths and none can live together with respect for each other, in peace and harmony; this is very noble but, as we have learnt from Friday’s horrific happenings in Christchurch, New Zealand, it just needs a few people to disrupt that, and so none of us can be simply complacent that all will continue to be well in our city; none of us can simply leave it to others to help make this city what we want it to be; as co-workers of Christ we must seize every opportunity to get to know our neighbours from other cultures and faiths, and so grow not simply in tolerance of others, but rather in respect and appreciation of everyone’s contribution to the well-being and good of all in this city.
"May our celebration of this Feast be a time when, like Patrick, we all open our hearts afresh to encounter Christ in prayer, when we ask the Lord to help us hear and respond to what Christ is asking of each of us as his disciples, and how, as sharers in his mission, he may be asking us to reach out to and engage with the wider community around us here in Nottingham. I think St. Teresa of Avila expresses it beautifully when she said:
'Christ has no body on earth now but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours; yours are the eyes through which he looks with compassion on the world; yours are the feet with which he walks to do good; yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.'
"To the parishioners among you here today, I say, you have a great missionary as your parish patron; may St Patrick inspire you to become a great missionary parish here in Nottingham. May St. Patrick pray for us all, Amen."