19 March 2010

A fellow-missionary's homily on St Patrick's Day

My fellow-Columban Fr Cyril Lovett, who edits the Far East, the magazine of the Columbans in Ireland and Britain, gave this homily at Mass in St Columban's, Dalgan Park, Navan, County Meath, Ireland, on St Patrick's Day. I've highlighted some parts and added a [comment] or two.


A reading of St Patrick’s Confession from the viewpoint of a fellow-missionary.

I have always had great affection and admiration for Patrick, and in my years on mission in the Philippines and Brazil I always read his Confession with sympathy and empathy around this time every year.

There are three particular aspects of Patrick that I want to look at:

• Patrick’s attitude towards the Irish.

• The fact that he always remained a foreigner.

• The crushing blow of having his life’s work denigrated by those who should have supported him.

Patrick’s initial contact with the Irish was enough to make him anti-Irish for ever. His father was a Roman citizen, living in the south of Britain, probably working as a civil servant in what would be known today as Boulogne-sur-mer, on the coast of northern France. As Patrick grew up in this isolated outpost, the Roman Empire was beginning to crumble. By 410 Alaric and his Goths had swept into Rome and sacked the city for three days.

At the age of 16 disaster struck nearer to home. His father’s house was raided by Irish pirates and Patrick along with many other youngsters was carried off to Ireland. There he was sold as a slave and spent the next six years herding sheep in all weathers on the slopes of Slemish in the north-east.

So, his first experience of the Irish was anything but a favourable one: the son of an upper class Roman citizen was poorly fed and housed; had to get used to manual labour; and had very little experience of any kindness from his captors. His writings are notable for acknowledging kindness from any source, but of these early years he had no kindness to report. [Fr Michael Sinnott, the 79-year-old Columban kidnapped last October  and held for 32 days in the southern Philippines, speaks of the kindness of his captors every time he is interviewed about his ordeal].

His normal schooling was also interrupted. He tried to make up for it later but he had to cope for the rest of his life with being a lonely man, with a permanent feeling of being isolated and unwanted. In our first ventures into another culture, we generally go full of hope and as we learn to cope with a strange new world we are enriched by the good things in it, and we learn to live with the down-side. [Father Sinnott has spoken of never understanding all the nuances of the culture in which he lives.]

When we return after holidays, it is the richness of the good things in the people and the culture that sustain us. For that reason I find it hard to imagine the heroism of Patrick who would later chose to go again to a people who had only given him unhappy memories and minister among them for more than thirty years.

Patrick remained a foreigner in Ireland for the rest of his life; this had to be so.

He writes “This is where I am now in all my insignificance among strangers”. This is a state that all of us missionaries can identify with. For all of us, working in one or more different cultures has been an enormous enrichment. The downside is that we can never fully belong: as soon as we open out mouths we are recognised as foreigners, even if our appearance has not proclaimed that loudly beforehand. And then having adapted as best we can to the new culture, we often find that we can no longer be fully at home in our own culture. There is then an aspect of being a nomad in living out our missionary vocation. [This aspect of missionary life is being written about more lately. The situation of the missionary is not quite the same as that of a migrant, whoe life may well be more lonely. But it is a phenomenon of migration that people from the same area in the home country often migrate to the same country and even the same area, eg, there are many Australians whose ancestors came from County Clare in Ireland. But people from neighboruing County Galway tended to migrate to the USA. Daly City in California is full of Filipinos. Most of the Filipinos in Hawaii, or people there of Philippine origin, trace their roots to the Ilocos region of northern Luzon. So migrants often find a large community of their own, unlike missionaries.] Patrick’s initial six years in Ireland meant that he acquired a good grasp of the language, but he would write later of his critics, “I was afraid of drawing general gossip on myself because I had not studied like the other who got a thorough grounding in law and theology. They never had to change their medium of speech since childhood…while I had to express myself in a foreign language.” [I once met a Filipino businesswoman at a gathering of Irish people in Cebu, Philippines, one St Patrick's Day. She travelled extensively and spoke English fluently. But she told me how trying it was at times when she had nobody to speak to in her own language, Cebuano visayan.]

He never went home to Britain and he felt that deeply. [Until less than a hundred years ago many missionaries never expected to go home again. Manyh of them didn't because they died very young.] He wrote, “It is not practical for me to consider leaving them and going to Britain. How dearly would I love to go, like a man going to his homeland and relatives, and not only there but also to Gaul in order to visit the brothers and to meet the members of the Christian community. God knows how I yearned for it but I am tied by the Spirit”.

And then there was that awful experience that happened to him late in life. When he had decided to respond to the Spirit calling him to evangelise the Irish, it seems he went for his early formation to Germanus of Auxerre. Germanus took him under his wing, understood his difficulties as a late vocation, but recognised his sanctity and his missionary potential, and had him ordained a deacon and later a bishop. When Germanus went to visit Britain, Patrick went along with him to try and get the financial backing of the British bishops for his mission to Ireland. But, Ireland was considered unimportant and savage; after all Patrick’s predecessor Palladius had disappeared there without a trace, and Patrick did not have great credentials. He may have wasted up to eight to ten years before he finally got the backing he sought.

Then, years later, as Patrick was trying to face the various challenges of his mission in Ireland, there was a disaster.

Here is how he describes it...

"I was put to the test by some of my senior fellow-bishops (in England) who came to cast up my sins at me in order to discredit my hard work as a bishop of this mission… After thirty years they discovered against me a confession which I had made before I became a deacon. In the anxiety of my troubled mind I confided to my dearest friend what I had done in my boyhood in one day… because I had not yet overcome my sinful ways…

My only sorrow that we should have deserved to hear such a report is for my dearest friend. To him I had confided my very soul… Now I was not in Britain at the debate… how could he have let me down publicly before all, good and bad, in a matter in which he had previously favoured me?” [It is not an enemy who taunts me-- then I could bear it; it is not an adversary who deals insolently with me-- then I could hide from him. But it is you, my equal, my companion, my familiar friend. We used to hold sweet converse together; within God's house we walked in fellowship Ps 55 (54) 12-14].

And he goes on to say, “On that day indeed the impulse was overpowering to fall away not only here and now but forever. But the Lord graciously spared his exile and wanderer and helped me greatly when I was walked on in this way. The disgrace and blame I felt, however, were considerable.”

So, this is the Patrick that I can relate to: a man heroic in his human qualities; a man who faced the kind of difficulties that missionaries of every age continue to face; a man of deep faith; a man who was inclined to postpone some hard decisions; a man who carried scars from the past, who was very conscious of his own shortcomings; and a man who suffered greatly at the hands of the very ones who should have supported him.

We ask his intercession for our country as it passes through the present crisis.

Homily at Mass in Dalgan Park by Fr Cyril Lovett SSC - 17 March 2010

No comments: