Anyone who has followed this blog for a few years will know that I have written quite a lot about St Patrick. I don’t want to revisit any of my earlier points (e.g. see St Patrick and Slavery for some of them), but it may be worth spending a moment or two on the difference between celebrating the saint and celebrating the day.
St Patrick is an uncomfortable kind of saint, with a stern but joyful message for us all. To go from Romano-British society to six years’ slavery in Ireland, then return as a priest and insist on preaching the gospel to his former captors, maintaining a strict separation from the usual networks of kinship and patronage, suggests someone with a good deal of steel in his nature — not exactly what we might expect of a missionary today, who would be encouraged to adapt, as far as possible, to the customs of the people he comes to serve. Then there is the Testament which lifts the veil on other aspects of his life and the part played by the long, unseen hours of prayer, the cold and damp, the sheer loneliness of being a missionary and knowing failure as well as success. All this makes Patrick a great saint who ventured everything for the love of Christ and wanted others to do the same.
So what of his ‘Day’? It is there that we often lose sight of Patrick and settle for a celebration of heritage rather than sanctity. The Irish have, understandably, claimed Patrick as their own and, wherever they are in the world, make this day one of great festivity. There is nothing wrong with that per se, for we certainly should rejoice in the saints and love of country is something most of us share; but there needs sometimes to be a boundary set lest we forget why we celebrate at all. We know that love of one’s own country should never lead to disparagement of another’s; nor should recognition of wrongs suffered in the past (and Ireland has suffered some tremendous wrongs) be a justification for perpetrating quarrels in the present. That said, we also know it can be hard to let go of old fears and enmities, yet unless we do no change can come about. Those of us old enough to remember the tragic events of the Troubles and the suffering experienced on all sides have reason to be wary of partisanship of every stripe. A younger generation does not always feel the same as the resurgence of violence in some areas indicates.
What, I wonder, would St Patrick have made of that? He preached Christ, and he wanted those to whom he preached to embrace the message of Christ in all its fullness, as he himself had done. Is there a case for trying to reunite the celebration of sanctity and heritage in a way that is more than mere pious recall or boozy party? I suspect it cannot be done unless all are prepared to sacrifice something for the common good; but it must be the common good, not just what is good for one part, and that is a huge challenge.
Today, let us pray for the people of Ireland; for a meeting of minds on the question of the Stormont Executive; and above all, for peace and reconciliation where hearts are still bruised and bleeding from the horrors of the past. And, as a Catholic, albeit with no Irish blood, permit me to say that I can’t think of any reason why prayer should not be followed by a pint (or two) of a well-known Dublin brew or anything else you care to name by way of rejoicing. Just don’t forget the prayer.