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Homily - St Patrick’s Day 2023 - Bishop McKeown


Today we celebrate a figure who is known around the world. In every generation, how we see today has a huge influence on how we remember the past. If life today is a joke, then the past has to be meaningless as well – and the future is equally full of sound and fury dignifying nothing. When I was young, St Patrick was portrayed in a bishop's robe with crozier in hand, chasing the snakes out of this country. Now we are more inclined to see depictions of a leprechaun-like figure, perhaps with a beer glass in hand, letting rip for a bit of a party. Our narrative about the past of the church in this country used to speak of Patrick bringing light to the darkness of the druids, of monks like Columban, Killian and Fergal bringing Christianity to Europe and of thousands of missionaries bringing health and education to Africa and Asia. But now a new narrative tends to see Christianity as a wet blanket thrown over the hearty happy Irish, a colonisation by heartless Roman clerics – and of liberation from that miserable straitjacket through modern sexual liberation and entertainment-driven consumerism. St Patrick challenges us today about how we remember him and how we see ourselves.

So how might we want to celebrate Patrick in 2023?

Firstly, he was a strong person who came through terrible teenage suffering and desolation and became a man of courage. Somehow, in the depths of hopelessness, he found the Jesus who suffered on the Cross and was victorious. He found the strength to escape from Ireland and get back home. He found the strength to come back to the land of his exile out of love for the Irish. Young people will flourish only if they are told the truth that life is difficult. A trite joke-rich, value-poor promise of instant happiness may serve those with stuff to sell. It will not serve our young people and make them strong for the struggles of creating a more just and cohesive society. It is no surprise that we see an epidemic of mental distress among our young. The solution is not to tell them to laugh, and that life is just a joke. Christ's message to Patrick was that life is tough, but that people of courage can face and change things. Love, faithfulness and forgiveness do not come cheap. But it is deceitful to promise that anything can be built on semi-detached relationships or by blaming somebody else for me having problems. Patrick was a man of courage, not a prancing leprechaun.

Secondly, loss and loneliness on Slemish mountain turned Patrick to God. In his helplessness, his choice was faith or despair, healing or resentment. Many of the famous saints had to experience the dark night of the soul, as the great Spanish Carmelite St John of the Cross described it. Mary, the mother of Jesus knew what it was like for her own soul to be pierced by a sword. Jesus knew anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane and on Calvary. But faith is not the last refuge of the pathetic. It is a discovery of the profound truth that lies beneath the fragile veneer of life. On that journey, Lent is not a masochistic self-loathing. It is a period when we seek to break the bonds of bad habits and self-indulgence that hold us, to let grace tackle the cesspit of resentment and anger that burn away inside many people. Faith is not merely believing that God is up the somewhere. Or that, if I half behave myself, my granny's prayers will sneak me into heaven. Suffering turned Patrick into an adult. He would not want his descendants to remain spiritually infantile. Our national church is facing many challenges. Renewal will not come through any of proposed Cross-free solutions and Resurrection. A time of suffering will make us as a church, not destroy us. The peddlers of easy structural solutions will never help us come to know the Jesus of Calvary.

Thirdly, prayer in silence was the source of Patrick's conversion and maturing. In that apparent emptiness, he made space for grace to intrude. That is the lesson from all the saints. Talking is important as we seek God's way forward. But truth is not necessarily guaranteed to those who can talk most. Listening to the sounds of silence is where Patrick encountered God. If we reduce renewal to a parliamentary approach, we will hear only our hunger for power, security, or vindication. It is in silence that we can hear the Holy Spirit who blows, even though we do not know from where. A prayerful church will be open to the unexpected voice of the Spirit. A chattering church arguing over who should have the power will prevent God being in charge – and substitute faith in Christ with faith in ourselves. Patrick would warn us very strongly against that illusion. Only if our church life is pickled in prayer will we renewed as God wishes us to be.

Today St Patrick tells us that a people that does not recognise its own roots, with their mixture of success and failure, has lost any sense of identity. Without identity we cease to have any real love of self. Without pride in - and forgiveness of - our story, we live the priorities of those who have laid their cuckoo eggs in our nest. As we continue with our synodal pathway in Ireland, Patrick has much to teach us about courage, faith and prayer. As we face questions about what sort of island we want to live in and on, Patrick asks us whether we stand for anything in particular. In his time, he brought light into darkness. He would ask us to be salt to the earth and light to the world today. Are we too embarrassed by the story we are told to tell about the past to be able to do that?

+ Donal McKeown

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