Today we celebrate St Patrick here in St Patrick's Church. Our national patron's day provides the opportunity for many celebrations – cultural, political, recreational and sporting. But those of us who gather here are not overly interested in figures with green capes and ginger beards or a shallow, candyfloss nationalism. We remember a man who was inspired by the same Jesus who energised young hearts from the time of Peter and Paul to the present day.
So what strikes me about Patrick's story in 2017?
Firstly, the young Patrick had a strong sense of following a calling. His unexpected move as a slave to Ireland was not just a physical journey. The long hours on Slemish marked a long inward journey. He was gradually moving from the youthful desire to choose and to have fun, to a profoundly adult sense of being called. And he coiuld write in his Confessio: That is why I cannot be silent – nor would it be good to do so – about such great blessings and such a gift that the Lord so kindly bestowed in the land of my captivity. (4) The move from dependence as a child to independence is necessary – but it is really only complete when we develop a sense of interdependence. He matured to see his life, not as a toy with his fun and priorities at the centre – but as a rich gift to be explored and to be shared. That message of taking up one's cross and of accepting responsibility for others does not sit very well with much of our commercial culture which tells me that 'I'm worth it' and that I should not have to endure anything for anybody else's sake. My comfort is the greatest good and life is too short to say 'no'.
Not despite the problem he faced but because he did not avoid the crosses of life, Patrick's developed a mature ability to believe that God was calling him to go and work in Ireland. That freedom of spirit to allow oneself to be chosen has been strong down through the centuries. It has led many people from this diocese to go on the missions and to give their lives for a cause greater than their own pleasure. Patrick learned that maturity comes from facing challenges with confidence in the wisdom of God in all things. Graced self-discipline creates growth. Self-indulgence creates 'couch-potatoes' as Pope Francis at the 2016 World Youth Day. That call still echoes in the hearts of a surprising number of young people, even though the culture suggests that they should not dream of greatness. But those who remove from our young people the dream of greatness do them huge harm. Those who help young people to discern their calling and not just to choose their path are blessed.
Secondly, this vocation of Patrick was a calling to be critical of the powers in his time. We all know the stories of Patrick's challenge to the druids and to the High King on Tara. But we make a mistake if we think that this was a once-off battle. As with Jesus, all Christian leaders are called to speak truth into the heart of power. We know from Ireland what can happen when the church is too close to the political power. A distance from the powerful is more typical of Christian ministry and witness.
Our current economic system says that people have rights and dignity – but that ultimately the system's rules have to take priority. The banks and profits must continue whatever the cost. We can have a situation where the system does not serve people but rather the system is served by people. So there is still a huge need for new Patricks who will be critics of the system when it fails people, especially the poor and the weakest. A well known writer stated over 30 years ago "if freedom once required a secular critique of religion, it can also require a religious critique of the secular". There are new High Priests whose rule and domination need to be challenged, not in order to create chaos but in order to keep the focus on community and healing and not just on globalisation and domination. Patrick challenged that sort of heartless power in Ireland a long time ago. There is still room for prophetic voices who are nourished, not by a hunger for power but by the power of the one whose blood was shed on the Cross. Patrick might say that we should make our voices heard, but never merely pray to make the Church great again. Patrick would have no time for ecclesiastical Trumpism!
Thirdly, St Patrick's Day will be celebrated in all sorts of ways and many people around the world will be proud of their Irishness. Identity is vital and very healthy – but what is that identity? Indeed, there are many people of faith who now feeling a decreasing sense of belonging in the new Irish identity that some want to create. The challenge for this country is not to race headlong down the road that other parts of the western world have followed – only to find that some of those societies are now moving back from the 'anything goes' approach to society. Our task in Church is not to self-righteously criticise and build up the barricades but rather to see where our society is hurting most, to pour what Pope Francis calls the 'balm of mercy' onto the most wounded and to speak a message of hope to a society that seems unsure of where the future is bringing us.
If we are to be disciples of Patrick today, we need to come back to what the Eucharist points us to. It speaks of the blood of the new covenant with the whole of creation, sealing in the sacrifice of the Cross. It says that salvation for the world is to be found only through those who take up their cross and follow Jesus out of love for people. It speaks of the love of God for the world in all its messiness and God's never-ending dream for what we could become through grace.
Patrick brought the Gospel to the concrete realities of Ireland in the fifth century. We still need prophetic disciples who will speak peace to troubled hearts and build, not the kingdom of me but the Kingdom of God.