Every St. Patrick’s Day, some people insist on repeating “surprising” facts about Ireland's patron saint. One of the most common is: “Did you know St. Patrick wasn’t Irish? He was English!”
I wince whenever I hear this, not only because there were no “English” back in Patrick's day, but also because part of the reason Patrick is a saint is that he became Irish. In Ireland, he took up the Christian struggle between two biblical injunctions: “do not conform yourself to the world” and “go therefore into the world.”
Patrick knew he wasn’t from Ireland, as we can see in both his Confessions and in his condemnation of slavery The Letter to Coroticus: “I am a stranger and an exile living among barbarians and pagans.” But he wasn’t just a stranger and exile when he wrote these words. He was a man in love with the Irish people. Moreover, this love wasn’t blind. He had experienced the cruelty of the Irish pagans as a child slave. Yet he returned to live as a stranger among them “because God cares for the Irish.” He returned to preach because he loved the gospel, but also because he loved those people, at that time, and in that place. And in loving them, he became one of them.
As St. Paul “became all things to all people,” Patrick became Irish for the Irish. This wasn’t his plan: “Was it my idea to feel God’s love for the Irish?” Out of love for God, he felt God’s love for Ireland's particularities, and this love bound him to Ireland even though he remembered it as a “land of slavery.”
In our era of dwindling faith, it is tempting as Christians to detach ourselves from this time and this place—to long for a time when things were otherwise. We live among people who have rejected the God Patrick served. What should we do about those around us? Following Patrick’s example, we must love them up close. Patrick was similarly tempted to distance himself from the Irish, but he chose to “walk in wisdom towards those who are outside, redeeming the time.” Patrick walked towards those outside in order to walk with them.
Only by doing the same can we redeem our own time. In modernity there is much that is lovable and much that merits celebration. We are not called to flee from the world but “to go into the world,” to offer ourselves to our fellow denizens of this time and place and offer our “very life for them.” Paradoxically, we can only avoid conforming to the world by truly living in the time in which God has placed us. Patrick writes that he learned to “turn with my whole heart to the Lord my God” in Ireland. This turning allowed him to both resist conforming to the world and to go into the world.
It was in Ireland that God first opened St. Patrick’s heart. Love God and you will be able love the time in which your heart was opened. Love your time and you can help other hearts open to the God of open hearts. Why love this world? Because it was in this world that we fell in love with God and it is only in this time that we can help other hearts turn to God. In so doing, we can redeem the time in which we were redeemed.
If we are to go into our world to preach, we must love it for its particularities, condemning what is evil but rejoicing in the goods that flourish, such as the return of artisanal work, new urbanism, and the commitment of young Christians to the renewal of tradition. If we are to preach the Word, we must love the flickers of goodness that we find around us. If we try to love them, we will find our neighbors have always been lovable.
Patrick could have rejected the Irish, headed to a monastery in Gaul, and condemned the barbaric pagans. But if he had, he would have failed to see that God cares for the Irish—that it was among them that the Holy Spirit was opening his heart. He didn’t conform to pagan Ireland, he transformed it. Out of love, he responded to the summons of the Irish who begged him “come walk among us.” He became Irish so that he could be fully Christian. So too must we go into our time and our place to walk with those who have not yet turned their whole hearts to God.
Terence Sweeney is a PhD student in philosophy at Villanova University.