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On faith: A gift from God

Fr. Michael Lyons,

Pastor, Holy Spirit, Two Harbors and St. Mary’s, Silver Bay

Along the base of a contemporary monument to St. Patrick in Westport, Ireland, there are four inscriptions taken from his Confessions. The inscriptions identify the major stages in his life-story. They also outline the profile of a saint who continues to be an icon of the missionary tradition of my homeland.

Told in his own words, the Confessions offer an intriguing look into one of history’s best-known saints. Similar to those of Augustine, they are however more spiritual than autobiographical. They provide a graphic account of the wonderful ways in which God works, encouraging everyone to live lives of Christian witness and holiness.

“I am Patrick,” he begins, “a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many.” His admission is reflected in the simple style in which the Confessions are written. It also identifies a common touch, rather similar to that of Pope Francis. It appears however, that Patrick penned his life-work in defense of his good name. Evidently, his integrity was often attacked by those who held power in the country. When it came to the salvation of others, Patrick was never one to be politically correct.

Patrick became a victim of slave trafficking during his teenage years. It happened at a time when he was not yet aware of the true God and his life had already begun to drift into pagan ways. Life hasn’t changed much, has it? Looking back however, Patrick admits that this was part of the way in which God opened his mind to an awareness of his unbelief, watched over him, and in various ways prepared him for his life’s work ahead. The experience of slavery got his attention. During the years he herded sheep and prayed hundreds of times each day, even in snow and rain. “The Spirit,” he says “was burning within him.”

Eventually, Patrick escaped to Britain but he was not very long at home when he had a dream in which he heard voice of the Irish asking him “to come and walk once more among us.” In due course he returned as a bishop with a mandate to evangelize the Irish. Patrick writes: “It was necessary to cast our nets so that a very great multitude might be caught for God.” Indeed, large numbers were converted to Christ, and many went on to live consecrated lives in the early Irish monasteries. Patrick concludes the Confessions however, by affirming that any of his success was solely, to use St. Paul’s words, a “gift of God.”

Sparse in historical detail, the Confessions are a valuable account of the highlights of Patrick’s spiritual journey. Ever since the fifth century, Patrick continues to be celebrated by Catholic and non-Catholic alike. In the city of Armagh, Ireland, two Cathedrals grace two hillsides and both are named St. Patrick’s. One is Roman Catholic, the other is Church of Ireland. Everyone claims St. Patrick, and rightly so.

In Churches everywhere, St. Patrick is depicted in stained glass as a bishop holding a shepherd’s staff in one hand and a large shamrock in the other. Tradition has it that the shamrock helped him explain the great doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Indeed it was a core belief that shaped everything he said and did. In his Lorica (the Cry of the Deer), St. Patrick prays: “For my shield this day, I call a mighty power; the Holy Trinity, affirming threeness, confessing oneness, in the making of all through love.” It’s a powerful prayer and well worth saying! Happy St. Patrick’s Day!