St. Patrick’s Vision of the Dimming of Ireland’s Faith
Since St. Patrick’s Day is upon us, there is only time for me to write one more post about him and his doings. (See here and here for two other related posts.) One simple rule I once learned while teaching others how to write in the past has helped me make the difficult decision on what final topic I would choose to write about out of my copious notes about many compelling stories and interesting controversies about St. Patrick’s life.
I learned this simple rule (abbreviated as WIRMI) at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis while doing graduate work on an MA in English with an emphasis in writing. (Students in that program would take courses in English along with courses in various genres of writing, and their master’s theses would be collections of their own writing; in my case my master’s thesis consisted of my own fiction, poetry, memoir pieces, and feature articles.) The head of the U of MINN MPLS composition department hired me and other graduate students, most of whom had never taught before, as instructors and put on workshops to coach them and give them support.
I had learned to write well by assimilating the authors I had devoured while reading constantly ever since I first learned to read. But I found out that for most students writing didn’t come naturally and that some skills could be taught. One of the things they taught us instructors in the workshops was to tell students to ask themselves certain helpful questions before and while they wrote — such as: “Who cares?” (It’s kind of funny, but “Who cares?” actually is useful to make a new writer think about what audience is intended for a piece of writing under construction and also give a thought to whether the intended audience would find the topic interesting.)
I also learned to teach students not to try to write a piece all in one sitting, but instead to write drafts with their inner critics turned off, to get their ideas flowing. Then I would tell them they should do the following after they wrote one or more drafts, “After you look at all the words you’ve gotten down, pretend you are starting your next draft with ‘What I really mean is . . .” I would write ‘WIRMI’ on the whiteboard.
WIRMI has often been helpful for me in my writing life. It has caused me to delete many a first paragraph or larger chunk at the start of a piece of writing that on second reading proved to be obviously a wind-up to what I really wanted to say. After I applied the WIRMI test to my wealth of the topics about the life of St. Patrick, the answer to what I really wanted to say with the time I have left came out as follows.
All the current speculation aside about whether St. Patrick really drove out snakes from Ireland, whether Ireland ever had any snakes, whether the snakes in the stories were really metaphorical Druids, or whether while escaping from slavery the saint was asked by sailors to perform a perverse bonding ritual, about which I wrote some things in my first two posts, not to mention the fascinating question of whether he ever used a shamrock to teach about the Trinity, which I never got around to, what I really want to make sure to write about are the alarming indications that the Irish are losing the faith that Patrick labored so mightily to enlighten them with. And then I want to tell you one of the stories from the life of St. Patrick that gives hope for a brighter future even though the light of the faith seems to be flickering these days in the Emerald Isle.
By the time he died, St. Patrick had baptized tens of thousands. As an old man, Patrick looked back on his life and wrote, “Those who never had a knowledge of God but worshipped idols and things impure, have now become a people of the Lord, sons of God.” Within a century after his death, Ireland was predominantly Catholic, and the faith of the Irish was so strong that Ireland established monasteries and schools and sent out missionaries around the world. This preeminence of the Irish in Catholicism lasted over a thousand years. When I was a child, most of the priests here in the U.S. still were Irish, either American born, or born and trained in Ireland.
When in 1898 Archbishop Patrick Reardon of the Archdiocese of San Francisco where I now live dedicated a seminary that he had built to train priests locally, he said this at the seminary’s dedication. “I have placed this work under the patronage of a great Apostle, St. Patrick, not indeed for personal reasons, but because he is the patron saint of a great Catholic race which has suffered more than any other for religion’s sake, the most devoted, the most generous, and most priest-loving race within the fold of the Church of Christ.”
The Way It Was in the early 1960s
Until 1970, you couldn’t get a drink in Ireland for the life of you on St. Patrick’s Day. All the pubs were closed by law. It was a religious holiday, a solemnity, and holyday of obligation, which meant mandatory Mass attendance.
For example of what it was like before 1970, here’s this one account from a 2012 article “Mobile area Irish faith leaders recall spirituality of St. Patrick’s Day” describing what it was like fifty-odd years ago for an Irish immigrant priest, Father John Lynes, when he was a boy.
“When the Rev. John Lynes, pastor of Little Flower Church in Mobile, was a boy in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day was a time of prayer and reflection.
“’It was a 100-percent religious holiday,’ said Lynes, 55, who grew up in Tipperary. In addition to going to Mass with his family, Lynes learned the story of St. Patrick — who converted the pagans of Ireland to Christianity in the 5th century. Places having to do with the life of St. Patrick, he said, were ‘sites of pilgrimage, all very penitential.’
“He described a high school excursion climbing Croagh Patrick — the hill of St. Patrick — going barefoot up “the rugged, rough mountain. At the top there was an altar and cross, and prayers were said.’
“The American notion of St. Patrick’s Day as a party with green beer, leprechauns and ‘Kiss Me, I’m Irish,’ was in contrast to the day of holy obligation in the Irish Catholic Church.
“‘I never saw anything green on St. Patrick’s Day,’ Lynes said, ‘until I came to America.’”
Some say that blue is the true color of St. Patrick, but that’s another story.
The Way It Was In 1979
This second clue about the state of Ireland’s religious beliefs from the more recent past is from Pope John Paul II. For years I would pray while driving around in my car listening to tape recordings of Pope John Paul II saying the Rosary in Latin, until the tapes started to wear out. The tape on the Glorious Mysteries also included excerpts from a sermon that the pope gave at the shrine of Knock in Ireland in 1979. Here are some excerpts of his prayer to Our Lady on that occasion: “Help this land to stay true to you and your Son always. May prosperity never cause Irish men and women to forget God or abandon their faith. Keep them faithful in prosperity to the faith they would not surrender in poverty and persecution. Save them from greed, from envy, from seeking selfish or sectional interest. … Queen of Ireland, Mary Mother of the heavenly and earthly Church, a Mháthair Dé, keep Ireland true to her spiritual tradition and her Christian heritage. Help her to respond to her historic mission of bringing the light of Christ to the nations, and so making the glory of God be the honour of Ireland.”
Soon after the pope’s visit there in 1979, the Celtic Tiger phenomena of steeply rising incomes got loose to wreak damage across the land. From 1990s to the 2000s, Ireland experienced all the temptations of prosperity, followed by greed and envy. People went from trying to cash in on the technology boom to trying to strike it rich by selling houses to one another for higher and higher prices. The Celtic Tiger rise in prosperity in Ireland was short lived like other bubbles. The bubble broke in 2008. Many lost their jobs, many were left bankrupt because of job loss or speculations, and many lost their homes.
Prosperity may have lured many of the Irish people away from the old ways. But then the scandals about sexual abuse by priests rocked people’s faith some more.
The Way It Was in 2009
Attendance at Mass, the percentage of Catholic weddings and funerals, all began to decline.
By March 17, 2009, Cardinal Sean Brady, archbishop of Armagh and primate of Ireland, was asking the Irish people to rediscover the faith. In a St. Patrick’s Day message, the cardinal wrote, “St. Patrick’s Day unites Irish people all over the world” due to the saint’s image as a “symbol of Irish history and of Irish heritage.” But he went on, St. Patrick’s Day is “not just to celebrate Irish culture and identity, but also to remember the man who described himself as an ambassador for God and who prayed that it might never happen that he should lose the people which God had won for himself at the end of the earth.”
The Way It Was in 441
When reading the account of St. Patrick’s life from the Catholic Encyclopedia of 1911, I realize there is hope for the Old Sod yet. St. Patrick extracted a promise from God that although the faith in Ireland would dim for a while, it would shine bright once again and never go out.
It all happened after St. Patrick undertook his famous Lenten fast on Croagh Patrick, where pilgrims are still climbing in his memory and visiting the place where he stayed. The Book of Armagh, a manuscript written in the 8th century, states that Saint Patrick fasted on the summit of the mountain for forty days and forty nights and also built a church there. Like Christ and Moses, Patrick fasted on his Holy Hill a metaphorical forty days and forty nights. Also like Moses, St. Patrick bargained with God.
“His only shelter from the fury of the elements, the wind and rain, the hail and snow, was a cave, or recess, in the solid rock; and the flagstone on which he rested his weary limbs at night is still pointed out. The whole purpose of his prayer was to obtain special blessings and mercy for the Irish race, whom he evangelized.”
He may or may not have driven out any snakes but he drove out a flock of demons. “The demons that made Ireland their battlefield mustered all their strength to tempt the saint and disturb him in his solitude, and turn him away, if possible, from his pious purpose. They gathered around the hill in the form of vast flocks of hideous birds of prey. So dense were their ranks that they seemed to cover the whole mountain, like a cloud, and they so filled the air that Patrick could see neither sky nor earth nor ocean. St. Patrick besought God to scatter the demons, but for a time it would seem as if his prayers and tears were in vain. At length he rang his sweet-sounding bell, symbol of his preaching of the Divine truths. Its sound was heard all over the valleys and hills of Erin, everywhere bringing peace and joy. The flocks of demons began to scatter, He flung his bell among them; they took to precipitate flight, and cast themselves into the ocean.
“So complete was the saint’s victory over them that, as the ancient narrative adds, “for seven years no evil thing was to be found in Ireland.”
St. Patrick felt that after the penitential purifications of his fast, he had the right to demand a lot of promises from God for the people he loved. “He had vanquished the demons, but he would now wrestle with God Himself, like Jacob of old, to secure the spiritual interests of his people. The angel had announced to him that, to reward his fidelity in prayer and penance, as many of his people would be gathered into heaven as would cover the land and sea as far as his vision could reach.” But St. Patrick demanded more, much more from God. “[H]e resolved to persevere in fasting and prayer until the fullest measure of his petition was granted. Again and again the angel came to comfort him, announcing new concessions; but all these would not suffice. He would not relinquish his post on the mountain, or relax his penance, until all were granted.
“At length the message came that his prayers were heard:
• Many souls would be free from the pains of purgatory through his intercession;
• Whoever in the spirit of penance would recite his hymn before death would attain the heavenly reward;
• Barbarian hordes would never obtain sway in his Church;
• Seven years before the Judgment Day, the sea would spread over Ireland to save its people from the temptations and terrors of the Antichrist; and
• Greatest blessing of all, Patrick himself should be deputed to judge the whole Irish race on the last day….
“He tells us in his ‘Confessio’ that no fewer than twelve times he and his companions were seized and carried off as captives, and on one occasion in particular he was loaded with chains, and his death was decreed. But from all these trials and sufferings he was liberated by a benign Providence…. The reward of his sufferings was an extraordinary vision that was granted him before he died.
“He saw the whole of Ireland lit up with the brightest rays of Divine Faith. This continued for centuries, and then clouds gathered around the devoted island, and, little by little, the religious glory faded away, until, in the course of centuries, it was only in the remotest valleys that some glimmer of its light remained.”
St. Patrick was not about to give up, after all that had come before.
“ St. Patrick prayed that the light would never be extinguished, and, as he prayed, the angel came to him and said: ‘Fear not: your apostolate shall never cease.’ As he thus prayed, the glimmering light grew in brightness, and ceased not until once more all the hills and valleys of Ireland were lit up in their pristine splendour, and then the angel announced to St. Patrick: ‘Such shall be the abiding splendour of Divine truth in Ireland.’:
Cardinal Brady expressed the hope that “more and more Irish people, who have lost their connection with faith, will rediscover it and rediscover what St. Patrick called ‘the joy and love of faith.’”
May it be so.
May the Strength of God pilot us.
May the Power of God preserve us.
May the Wisdom of God instruct us.
May the Hand of God protect us.
May the Way of God direct us.
May the Shield of God defend us.
May the Host of God guard us.
Against the snares of the evil ones.
Against temptations of the world
May Christ be with us!
May Christ be before us!
May Christ be in us, Christ be over all!
May Thy Salvation, Lord, Always be ours,
This day, O Lord, and evermore. Amen.