Saint Patrick, A Sermon [for March 17]
by Fr. Edward Jones
THE BEAUTY AND TRUTH OF THE CATHOLIC CHURCH, SERMONS
B. HERDER, 1916
Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, 1916
"Let us now praise men of renown, and our fathers in their generation; ... these men of mercy whose godly deeds have not failed; good deeds continue with their seeds; their posterity are a holy inheritance; and their seed hath stood in the covenants; and their children for their sakes remain forever; their seed and their glory shall not be forgotten. Let the people show forth their wisdom, and the Church declare their praise." --- ECCLUS. 44
The characteristic qualities of great men are delineated in their works. There are certain leading features which characterize their activity and distinguish them from all other men. Great men impress, as it were, their own individuality upon their works. Thus Shakespeare's dramas are a perfect mirror of his character; he has impressed upon them so forcibly his own individuality, that they are beyond compare. The author of the world-renowned "Last Supper," Leonardo da Vinci, has impressed upon all his paintings the image of his own pure soul in a most singular manner. And so it is with all great men, the leading features in their character are impressed upon their work.
St. Patrick, whose feast the Church commemorates today, is no exception to this rule. He was a man of a strong and noble individuality and he impressed it upon his work --- the founding of the Church in Ireland. I propose, therefore, to consider briefly the leading features in St. Patrick's character, which may be summed up as follows:
A great supernatural attachment to the see of Peter; a missionary apostolic zeal for the conversion of souls; and a spirit of heroism in suffering for God. These were the three great features in the character of St. Patrick, and these qualities he transmitted to the Church which he founded in Ireland.
In the first place then, St. Patrick was truly devoted to the Holy See. He recognized in the Successor of St. Peter, the Representative of Christ, the Head of the Church Catholic, and loved him as such. Coming directly from Rome, and filled with ecclesiastical knowledge, he preached fidelity and unswerving obedience to the Chair of Peter, to the Pope of Rome.
But some writers deny his Roman mission. They say that St. Patrick was not sent to Ireland by the Holy See. By whom then was he sent? And from whom did he receive his mission to preach the Gospel in Ireland? They do not tell us, but history does, and in no uncertain language. St. Probus, one of Ireland's earliest writers, tells us that when St. Patrick proposed to himself to evangelize Ireland he prayed to Christ Our Lord that He might lead him to the feet of the Roman Pontiff, there to receive authority to preach the Gospel to the Irish people. And he continues: "Patrick having come to Rome was most honorably received by the Pope, Celestine, and sent into Ireland by that Pontiff." This testimony of the sainted biographer is corroborated by writers of every age and country. Thus the Four Masters, under date of 431, tell us that St. Patrick was ordained to the Episcopacy by the Holy Pope, Celestine I, who commissioned him to go to Ireland to preach the Gospel.
But why do I argue? Why dispute with men who would have the world believe a most unmitigated falsehood? Nothing is more clearly proved than the subordination of the new-born Church in Ireland to the Roman See --- a subordination which was taught, decided, and regulated by Patrick. He came to Ireland by command of the Holy See; he revealed to her the grand design of Almighty God in His Church; he taught her that Peter was the Rock which was to sustain her in every storm; and he bound her to this rock, the "Rock of Ages," to Peter's Chair, by firmest bonds of obedience and love, and infused into her soul his own supernatural devotion to Rome --- that devotion which has ever marked the Church in Ireland.
It is a curious fact that when the Christian world was confused by the pretensions of the antipopes, Ireland was never led astray; with an instinct truly supernatural, she never failed to discover, to proclaim and to obey the true Pontiff. She is the only Catholic nation that never was separated for a moment from St. Peter, nor mistaken in her allegiance to him.
But it might be urged that Ireland was too far removed from Rome to be easily led astray, as the confusion caused by the antipopes seldom spread farther than the continent. Why then did she not renounce her allegiance to Rome when England apostatized? When the evil genius of Henry, of Edward, of Elizabeth, of Cromwell --- stalked through the land and with loud voice demanded of the Irish people separation from Rome or their lives --- why did they consent to die rather than renounce their faith, their union with Rome? Was it because the false religion was presented to them by the detested hands that had robbed their country of her crown? Was it because the new gospel was preached by such gentle missionaries as the "humane and tender hearted" Oliver Cromwell? This may have told with the people, I grant; but no natural explanation can explain the supernatural fact that a whole nation preferred for a thousand years, confiscation, exile, death, rather than surrender their faith, their union with Rome. And it is because the spirit of St. Patrick lived on in the Church in Ireland; because he had transmitted to her his own supernatural attachment to the Holy See. He had engrafted her on the Rock of Peter, that Rock upon which is built the impregnable Church of God, against which the crested billows may rise and foam, but they fall harmless at its feet. The bond with which St. Patrick bound Ireland to this Rock has never been severed. Each succeeding Pope, from Celestine I, who sent Patrick to Ireland, to our glorious Benedict [XV], has inherited her prayers, her love, and her obedience.
The second prominent feature in St. Patrick's character, I said, was missionary apostolic zeal for the conversion of souls. He burned with the desire, he tells us himself, to instruct the world, to enlighten those that sat in darkness, and in the shadow of death .
This missionary zeal, this burning desire to spread the Gospel was his great ruling feeling. He is the only Apostle who entered a country entirely pagan, and left it at his death entirely Christian. And it was not only Catholic and Christian at his death, but according to the most ancient records, the most holy nation God had gathered into the bosom of His Church. And St. Patrick transmitted this missionary zeal to the Church which he founded.
To prove this, I need but remind you of the days of Ireland's monasticism --- of those days when the world acknowledged the miracle of Ireland's holiness. Never since Christ proclaimed the truth among men --- never was seen so extraordinary and miraculous a thing as that a whole people should become almost entirely a nation of monks and nuns as soon as they became Catholic and Christian.
There had been the ruin and desolation of almost all the rest of the world. Hordes of barbarians poured in streams over the world sweeping every vestige of civilization and Christianity before them. The whole world seemed to be now falling back into the darkness and chaos of the earliest times; but Ireland, sheltered by the encircling waves, converted and sanctified by the labors of St. Patrick, opened her schools and learned institutions, the first universities, as it were, to the children and scholars of the young nations, who had conquered the soil of the Roman empire, to be conquered in their turn by the faith of Rome.
But the sons of St. Patrick were not content with instructing the vast numbers that flocked to their shores from every clime, they had inherited Patrick's missionary zeal, they realized the necessity of spreading the Gospel abroad, of carrying their knowledge and faith afar, and of penetrating into the most distant lands to watch and combat paganism. The missionaries launched forth from their Green Isle, they covered the land and the seas of the West, unwearied navigators they landed in the most distant islands; they fertilized the continent by successive immigrations, and these children of St. Patrick not only evangelized the people of these foreign countries, but founded monasteries and great seats of learning. So undeniable were their exertions, that they left Scotland, Britain, Gaul, Burgundy, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, Iceland, and even Vinland on our own shores under a debt of eternal gratitude. To name Iona, Lendisfane, Bangor, Luxeuil, St. Gaul, Bobbio, is to name centres of civilization and faith of world-wide renown, established by the children of St. Patrick. There is hardly a land in the whole world wherein do not rest the bones of an Irish missionary.
Our own great country, our grand America, which Providence seems to have designed for the great meeting place of all mankind, is dotted with churches, colleges and ecclesiastical institutions of every kind. But who built them? Who covered our vast country with glorious churches and grand Catholic institutions? All credit and honor to every Catholic race. All credit and honor to the Catholic Frenchman, to the Catholic German. The Germans in this country --- those brave men; those sons of Catholics; those descendants from ages when the great Roman emperors upheld the sceptre for so many centuries in defence of the altar, are worthy of their sires; they have done great things in this country and will do still greater; but it is, after all, the children of St. Patrick who have done the lion's share of the work. Great America --- vast, grand, free; to what shall I liken thee, my native land, unless to the mighty ocean, whose surface mirrors the Almighty's form? I glory in thy greatness, in thy immensity, but in thy prosperity forget not the God of nations, Who created thee, and forget not what thou owest to the sons of St. Patrick and aid them and their last struggle for freedom.
I now come to the third feature in St. Patrick's character; viz.: a spirit of heroism in suffering for God.
St. Patrick, as you all know, was a child of adversity. In his early youth he was carried off by pirates, and enslaved in Ireland. He passed six years on the bleak mountains of that country, exposed to all the inclemencies of the seasons, and endured suffering unspeakable without a murmur. It was during these years of adversity and suffering that he prepared himself unconsciously for his future labors --- the conversion of Ireland.
That the Church which he founded in Ireland was a suffering Church, I need not tell you. It is true, in the first three centuries of her existence she was a glorious Church "without spot or wrinkle," she stood forth as a beacon light to all the world, but her bridal robe was soon changed for the purple garment of suffering. Suffering Ireland! How the very name thrills through the soul, and stirs the deepest fountains of its sympathies. How many mournful recollections does it not awaken? Who has not shared to a greater or less extent in the tender feelings embodied in the following touching lines of Erin's sweetest, greatest poet:
"The stranger shall hear thy lament o'er his plains; The sigh of thy harp shall be sent o'er the deep;
Till thy tyrants themselves, as they rivet thy chains, Shall pause o'er their captives and weep."
But why has the Church of St. Patrick ever been a suffering Church? What was her crime? The stern refusal to abandon the Catholic faith and subscribe to the new fangled and ever-changing religious notions of England constitutes her greatest crime. No language can adequately portray the refinements of cruelty by which this crime has been visited by England for centuries. The penal code which England adopted for Ireland would have disgraced the statute book of the Grand Turk himself! No government whether Christian, Mohammedan or Pagan, was ever sullied with more crimes or marked with more utter baseness. I recoil from this recital! I will not harrow up your souls by relating the anguish which Ireland endured in the days when her faith was tried, in the days of the penal laws and of famine, when her children preferred death on the gibbet, starvation in their cabins, rather than abandon the faith brought by St. Patrick from Rome, and left as the richest of legacies to their fathers! Never was a nation's faith and nationality more perfectly united. In other lands individuals suffered for their fidelity to faith, and all credit to them --- but Ireland suffered as a nation, she exhibited to the world a nation of Martyrs, suffering as a nation for their holy faith. Had Ireland betrayed her trust and become Protestant with England she might be prosperous today --- but because she spurned the temptation and clung to the faith given to her by St. Patrick, she is not prosperous, but poor, like the Lord for Whom she suffered!
O how truly did St. Patrick impress the qualities of his own great soul upon the Irish Church! And she has ever remained true to him, and true to her God. Today St. Patrick looks down upon her from his high seat of bliss, and his heart rejoices. Today the thousands of her virgin and Martyr Saints bespeak her praises in the high courts of Heaven. Today her children scattered over the four quarters of the earth plead in prayer for her liberation. May we not hope that God will comfort His "little one" and speak to her as He did to weeping Israel! May we not hope that He will say to her in His infinite mercy: " Poor little one, tossed with tempest, and without all comfort; behold I will lay thy stones in order, and thy foundations with sapphires."
O God Who art just and merciful, hear Thy children call on Thee! In the day of rack and gibbet they were faithful to Thee; bless them in their great and final struggle for the land Thou gavest them, and restore to freedom Thy long-enslaved people!
Erin, Mother Erin, may thy children hope to see thee come out of this struggle more glorious and resplendent! May the shackles of slavery that have long bound thee to feudal lords be stricken from thy limbs, and may the full morn of freedom shine around thee yet, that thou mayest be all that we wish thee:
"Great, glorious and free,
First Bower of the earth, and first gem of the sea."
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