Homily of Bishop Kevin for the Solemnity of Saint Patrick
If a historian were to come to Ireland in another thousand years, to study the origins of the St. Patrick’s Festival, she would find that it started out as a religious festival. It was a celebration of faith. Over the centuries it has grown into a celebration of Irish culture and nationhood. I suppose the change began to happen as long as 150 or 200 years ago, when a wave of Irish emigrants settled in the US and Australia. My own experience of living abroad would suggest that Irish people become much more conscious and proud of their identity when they are away from home. So, while remaining a religious festival, St. Patrick’s Day took on a wider significance. The response to the psalm today “Go out to the whole world, proclaim thegood news” reminds us however, that this was Patrick’s reason for coming the Ireland. It is also part of the gift that Irish Christians have to bring to wherever they go in the world.
The whole phenomenon of Irish communities living abroad is very interesting. It began, of course, in the 6th. and 7th. centuries with the foundation of Irish monastic settlements in Europe. The contribution which these settlements made in the dark ages was enormous. Later on there were the Irish Colleges and communities in Paris, Louvain, Salamanca, and Rome. In more recent times it was the turn of the missionaries who went further afield, to first to America and Australia, then to; Asia, Africa, and Latin America. We have never been a colonial power, but we have been great colonisers.
It is important, however, that our sense of celebration should not be too rooted in the past. There are present and future challenges. One of these challenges, of course is to constantly renew our commitment to the things that will enable us to live in peace with one another. The fragility of a peaceful civil society was brought home to us recently with the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Peace can never be taken for granted. The cultural differences among us need not be divisions. It is amazing how Irish people from different traditions, once they are abroad, seem to have no trouble living together in peace.
Among the hundreds of thousands who have left Ireland in the past 150 years, there have been some who left to escape persecution, or starvation, and others who, (even very recently) left to find work. Emigration has been an element of our culture for hundreds of years. No matter what century you look at, Irish people have made a significant contribution in many parts of the world, in spreading the gospel, and by participating actively in the development of new nations. There is a lot to be proud of. We cannot, however, be proud of the fact that so many young people and indeed entire families have found it necessary to leave Ireland when the country, with proper economic management, could sustain them all. To go abroad, even permanently, should always be a freely made decision.
We have been reminded this week of the very real difficulties faced by Irish people who, for one reason or another, have been living, some of them for a very long time without the required documentation in the United States. They are “hiding in the open” so to speak. They go to work every day. They drive their cars and they pay their taxes, but there is always the fear that, one day, they will be deported and lose everything they have built for themselves over the years. It is easy to say that they were unwise; that they took a chance, but that doesn’t solve the problem now, twenty or thirty years later. It is perfectly reasonable that two sovereign governments should discuss how this can be resolved, for the sake of the people involved and, indeed, for the sake of the two countries involved.
A related challenge, of course, is our own attitude towards those who come as refugees or economic migrants to our own shores. I know that many Filipinos, Indians, Poles and Chinese will take part in our St. Patrick’s Day parade this year, as they have done in other years. This is a welcome development, but I am aware that, as I speak, there are many asylum seekers waiting for years up in Globe House for the outcome of their applications. The experience of rejection which many economic migrants and asylum seekers seem to experience is very regrettable. The government policy which even now limits their right to participate and to contribute to the success of this country, flies in the face of our own history. More importantly, as a Christian community, it flies in the face of the Gospel, and of our tradition of Christian faith. We have long been associated with generous support for the developing countries of the third world. Now that the third world has arrived at our door, are we going to change?
If St. Patrick were looking at the 6.1 News this evening, he would undoubtedly be surprised to find that his name was associated with the greening of the Great Wall of China and of the Pyramids in Egypt. The marketing people have been very clever in turning our national feast day into an opportunity to promote tourism and to seek opportunities for overseas trade. Fair play to them. If these things help to rebuild our economy and to ensure that all our people can live with dignity and enjoy the fruits of citizenship, then there is nothing wrong with that.
But we who believe in Jesus need to be doing a bit of marketing ourselves. In our second reading today, St. Paul reminds us that the time will come when many people will not want to hear the message of the Gospel. The image of the weeds and the wheat growing together, which we heard in the Gospel, is a reminder that faith and unbelief exist side by side in our society. It is not the responsibility of politicians, economists or entrepreneurs as such to promote faith. It is our task as Christians, together with Christians of other religious traditions throughout Ireland, to ensure that the primary focus of St. Patrick’s Day remains the reception of the Gospel and that the values of the Gospel permeate our civil society.