On the Day after St Patrick: We Need Saint Patrick's for a New Missionary Age
Patrick teaches us some effective strategies for our work in the contemporary culture of the West.
When Patrick once again landed in Ireland in 432, tasked by the Holy Spirit with evangelizing a pagan people, he drew from a deep, living, dynamic faith. He understood the challenges he faced. He not only faced them without fear, he welcomed them through the courage borne of a living, dynamic, ongoing relationship with the Risen lord Jesus Christ. He had been held captive as a prisoner in that land. He knew the culture, the Druids who ruled it, and the realities he faced in a hostile culture. But, more importantly, he knew the Lord whom he served and he was unafraid. Patrick had a missionary strategy, and it bore extraordinary fruit. We need to follow his example as we set about the missionary task entrusted to us in this hour in the West.
CHESAPEAKE, VA (Catholic Online) - I write on the day after many stopped to honor the Saint especially beloved by the Irish. On St Patrick's Day, everyone is Irish. Sadly, some who celebrated the wrong way, may be nursing a hangover.
I suggest that all who bear the name Christian - and want share the liberating Gospel of Jesus Christ in an age which has lost its way - learn from the witness of this wonderful Christian missionary. We need Saint Patrick's for our age.
The same Lord whom Patrick loved, encountered and served is still pouring out His Holy Spirit in our day. He is calling men and women to be fishers of men in the Third Christian Millennium.
His story bears retelling because he needs to be considered on more than just one day, and for more than green beer. Patrick is a model for our own work in this new missionary age of the Church.
He was raised in a Christian home in Britain toward the end of the fourth century. His was an age much like our own, gripped by a culture of death, or to use the poignant phrase of Pope Francis, a throwaway culture. It was filled infected with a spirit of lawlessness and license.
Tragedy struck Patrick at sixteen years old when he was kidnapped by Pirates and taken to the Emerald Isle. This was the first experience he would have of the land that he would later come to love - the land to which he would give himself away in tireless missionary service.
Upon arrival in that plush, green, breathtaking and beautiful land, he was sold as property to a petty chieftain who put him to work with his herds of swine. Patrick could have become embittered. In fact, the reaction would have been understandable.
He utterly rejected victim-hood.
Instead, Patrick became holy. He did this by growing closer and closer to the Lord. When this young man recalled these traumatic events in his marvelous work entitled the Confession, he perceived the tragedy which had happened to him not as a victim, but rather as a penitent:
I was then about sixteen years of age. I knew not the true God; and I went into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of persons, according to our deserts, because we departed away from God, and kept not His commandments, and were not obedient to our priests, who used to admonish us for our salvation.
Perhaps this is the first lesson we can learn. Patrick actually believed the words of the Apostle Paul, God turns all things to good for those who love Him. (Romans 8:28) Do we?
While he was a slave, Patrick recalled his Christian upbringing and turned back to that true God of whom he wrote so eloquently. He became a Christian pilgrim, turning his captivity into a time of spiritual growth. He learned to walk the way of love. He wrote of that time:
Now, after I came to Ireland, tending flocks was my daily occupation; and constantly I use to pray in the daytime. Love of God and the fear of Him increased more and more, and faith grew, and the spirit was moved, so that in one day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and at night nearly as many, so that I use to stay even in the woods and on the mountain to this end. And before daybreak I use to be roused to prayer, in snow, in frost, in rain. And I felt no hurt, nor was there any sluggishness in me- as I now see because the spirit was then fervent within me
After six years of unjust captivity, Patrick still did not grow bitter. Instead, he grew closer and closer to the Lord. This young pilgrim became a Christian mystic. My favorite definition of a theologian is taken from the writings of an early church monk named Evagrius of Pontus, who said that a theologian is someone who "rests his head on the chest of Christ."
The image calls to mind the beloved disciple, John, depicted as doing just that in early Christian art.Patrick entered into that kind of prayer life. It is possible for every Christian, if we will learn to rest our head on the breast of Christ.
He encountered Jesus every day. Do we?
Patrick rejected both victim-hood and self-centeredness. Instead, he embraced the way of the Cross, choosing to take his place in carrying forward in time the redemptive mission of Jesus. He fell in love with the Lord by developing a profound and transforming interior life, a personal relationship with God.
He kept this relationship alive through constant prayer. In living this dynamic way of life, the Christian way, he learned to discern the voice of the Lord in his daily life, developed the eyes of living faith and was made capable of responding with perseverance to the call to become a missionary.
Each of us is being invited to do the same in this hour. Will we say Yes?
Patrick escaped with the help of some friendly traders. He pledged that he would never return to Ireland. However, the God whom Patrick had fallen in love with had other plans for his life. In the middle of the night the Lord gave Patrick a vision which he recorded for posterity.
Because he responded to the invitation contained in that vision, this young man was used by the Living and true God to literally change the history of not only Ireland but the rest of the world:
And there verily I saw in the night visions, a man whose name was Victorius coming as it were from Ireland with countless letters. And he gave me one of them, and I read the beginning of the letter, which was entitled "The Voice of the Irish"; and while I was reading aloud the beginning of the letter, I thought that at that very moment I heard the voice of those who lived beside the wood of Folcut, which is nigh unto the Western Sea. And thus they cried, as with one mouth: "We beseech thee , O holy youth, to come and walk once more among us." And I was exceedingly broken in heart, and would read no further. And so I awoke. Thanks be to God, that after very many years the Lord granted to them according to their cry.
Through the kind of perseverance borne of a dynamic relationship with Jesus Christ, Patrick finally returned to Ireland, now an ordained servant of the Church of the true God. The Confession tells of his experience of being used to transform that beautiful land into a seedbed of Christianity through evangelization and missionary work.
Patrick is a model for our age. He is a Saint for the New Evangelization of the Church. He is an example of how we should approach our own work of cultural evangelization.
We live in an age when some of our fellow citizens think they are progressive, when they have regressed into a new form of old paganism. They have rejected God and the existence of any objective truth. They have built new idols and are losing their freedom in false worship.
We are called to love them and liberate them with the Gospel of Jesus Christ as found in its fullness within the Catholic Church.
Patrick teaches us some effective strategies for our work in the contemporary culture of the West.
When Patrick once again landed in Ireland in 432, tasked by the Holy Spirit with evangelizing a pagan people, he drew from a deep, living, dynamic faith. He understood the challenges he faced. He not only faced them without fear, he welcomed them through the courage borne of a living, dynamic, ongoing relationship with the Risen lord Jesus Christ.
He had been held captive as a prisoner in that land. He knew the culture, the Druids who ruled it, and the realities he faced in a hostile culture. But, more importantly, he knew the Lord whom he served and he was unafraid.
Patrick had a missionary strategy, and it bore extraordinary fruit. Do we?
We need to follow his example as we set about the missionary task entrusted to us in this hour in the West. We can learn so much from the Apostle to Ireland. Here are some examples.
When he entered into a district, he would first preach the Gospel to the Chieftains and, following their custom, offer them a gift to honor them. Only a few were converted, but Patrick knew what he was doing.
He would ask for two favors, for a plot of land upon which to build a church and permission to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ - as fully revealed in the Catholic Church - to the people. Both would be granted.
Historic accounts revealed that he would then go to the sons and daughter of the rulers. He wrote in his Confession. Wherefore, then in Ireland, they who never had the knowledge of God, but until now only worshiped idols and abominations - now there has lately been prepared a people of the Lord, and they are called children of God. The sons and daughters of the Irish chieftains are seen to become monks and virgins of Christ.
We need to learn the most from the perspective, the heart, of this great missionary. He saw what was good in the culture of pre-Christian Ireland and "baptized" what could be redeemed. He respected the civil order, but never compromised the Christian faith. He won the next generation by preaching the Gospel without compromise and letting the Holy Spirit work through him.
As a result, all of Ireland became Christian! From its beautiful shores western civilization, rooted in the Christian faith and the Catholic Church, advanced to change the whole world. The Gospel took root in the Celtic culture, transforming it from within as leaven in a loaf.
Ireland came to be known as the "island of saints and scholars". Even now, in the midst of its travail and the purification underway in the Church in Patrick's homeland, it can - and it will - rise once again in Jesus Christ!
Western Culture has lost even its Christian memory. However, it is time to stop cursing the darkness and light the Light which will bring about a new missionary age. The same Lord who worked through Patrick now wants to work through you and me.
Like Patrick shows us, our work calls us not to reject the culture but rather to become the leaven which transforms it from within. In 1979, the second year of his pontificate, St. John Paul II wrote an outstanding Apostolic Exhortation on Catechesis In Our Time. You can read it here.
I would like to offer a few of his insightful words, with the biblical references contained within the footnotes offered right within the body of the quote:
We can say of catechesis, as well as of evangelization in general, that it is called to bring the power of the Gospel into the very heart of culture and cultures. For this purpose, catechesis will seek to know these cultures and their essential components; it will learn their most significant expressions; it will respect their particular values and riches.
In this manner it will be able to offer these cultures the knowledge of the hidden mystery (Cf. Rom. 16:25; Eph. 3:5) and help them to bring forth from their own living tradition original expressions of Christian life, celebration and thought.
Two things must however be kept in mind.
On the one hand the Gospel message cannot be purely and simply isolated from the culture in which it was first inserted (the biblical world or, more concretely, the cultural milieu in which Jesus of Nazareth lived), nor, without serious loss, from the cultures in which it has already been expressed down the centuries; it does not spring spontaneously from any cultural soil; it has always been transmitted by means of an apostolic dialogue which inevitably becomes part of a certain dialogue of cultures.
On the other hand, the power of the Gospel everywhere transforms and regenerates. When that power enters into a culture, it is no surprise that it rectifies many of its elements. There would be no catechesis if it were the Gospel that had to change when it came into contact with the cultures.
To forget this would simply amount to what St. Paul very forcefully calls "emptying the cross of Christ of its power."( 1 Cor. 1:17)
It is a different matter to take, with wise discernment, certain elements, religious or otherwise, that form part of the cultural heritage of a human group and use them to help its members to understand better the whole of the Christian mystery.
Genuine catechists know that catechesis "takes flesh" in the various cultures and milieu: one has only to think of the peoples with their great differences, of modern youth, of the great variety of circumstances in which people find themselves today.
But they refuse to accept an impoverishment of catechesis through a renunciation or obscuring of its message, by adaptations, even in language, that would endanger the "precious deposit" of the faith,( Cf. 2 Tm. 1:14) or by concessions in matters of faith or morals.
They are convinced that true catechesis eventually enriches these cultures by helping them to go beyond the defective or even inhuman features in them, and by communicating to their legitimate values the fullness of Christ.( Cf. Jn. 1:16; Eph. 1:10)
We are the evangelists and catechists of this age. Both St Patrick and St John Paul offer us lessons. Let us study and learn. On the day after the world paused to remember Patrick´s life, let us honor his memory by continuing the work of the Lord He followed with such fidelity, courage and love.
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