For the end of the world was long ago,
And all we dwell to-day
As children of some second birth,
Like a strange people left on earth
After a judgment day.
For the end of the world was long ago,
When the ends of the world waxed free,
When Rome was sunk in a waste of slaves,
And the sun drowned in the sea.
When Caesar’s sun fell out of the sky
And whoso hearkened right
Could only hear the plunging
Of the nations in the night.
G. K. Chesterton
With all the fun and frivolity that has become associated with Saint Patrick’s Day, we lose sight of the man and of the saint. Saint Patrick was a pivotal figure, not only in the history of Ireland, but also in the history of Western Europe and in the history of the Catholic Church. He is also very much a saint for our time.
The Fifth Century, the time of Saint Patrick, was a time of disaster for both the Roman Empire and the Catholic Church. Barbarian invasions rent and destroyed the Empire in Western Europe and Africa, and the Barbarians, when they were not pagan, were adherents of the Arian heresy. The Church had spent three centuries spreading throughout the Empire and had eventually become the faith of the Empire. Now all of that painful progress seemed undone as the Empire died and the Church seemed mortally wounded. In Patrick’s native Britain, by the end of his life, pagan Germanic hordes had invaded and were well on their way to destroying the Faith throughout most of that island. The lights of faith and learning seemed to be going out forever.
In this chaotic darkness, Patrick, a man on fire with the love of Christ, was commissioned by Pope Celestine I to erect the Cross in a pagan land. In the face of defeat and despair, the Church went on the offensive. The Pope had already sent Saint Palladius in 431 to Ireland as the first bishop of Ireland, but the emerald isle remained overwhelmingly pagan. Saint Patrick would be the second bishop of Ireland, as he embarked upon a lifelong mission to every Irish man, woman and child who could hear his voice. Tireless and fearless, he endured captivity no fewer than 12 times as he preached the Gospel throughout Ireland. Wherever he went he established churches and ordained priests. The results of his efforts Saint Patrick summed up in his Confession:
I am greatly God’s debtor, because he granted me so much grace, that through me many people would be reborn in God, and soon a after confirmed, and that clergy would be ordained everywhere for them, the masses lately come to belief, whom the Lord drew from the ends of the earth, just as he once promised through his prophets: ‘To you shall the nations come from the ends of the earth, and shall say, “Our fathers have inherited naught but lies, worthless things in which there is no profit.”’ And again: ‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles that you may bring salvation to the uttermost ends of the earth.’
Saint Patrick found Ireland almost totally pagan, he left it almost totally Catholic, a Faith that the Irish cherished and spread throughout Western Europe in the centuries to come as a galaxy of Irish saints and scholars aided in the revival of the Faith and of learning throughout what was to become Christendom.
It is striking how often in times of crisis the Church has gone on the offensive. Urban II launching the crusading movement which delayed by centuries the march of Islam into Europe; at the time of the Reformation, the Church sending out missionaries to convert the New World; the destruction of the Papal States in the Nineteenth Century occurring at the same time that Vatican I helped establish a new spiritual unity in the Church with the papacy enjoying a power and prestige unknown for centuries.
In our day we also live in a time of Crisis. We live at a time when what Saint Patrick helped to create, Christendom, has been destroyed, the ending of a process that began with the Reformation. In Ireland the Faith seems to be dying, as the Irish desert Catholicism in droves, all but one of the seminaries are closed, and the Church in Ireland is reeling from a self-inflicted wound of predatory and abusive priests, brothers, sisters and nuns, and the bishops who protected them. Ireland, for long one of the few bright spots for Catholicism in Europe in the past few decades, is now a prime example of the de-Christianization of an entire continent.
It is time for the Church to take the offensive, a process that is beginning. The old religious orders that have lost the Faith and their way are dying. That is a healthy development; they should die if they are beyond restoration and reform. New orthodox orders are beginning to be formed. Priests, and religious, overflowing with love of Christ and the Faith are beginning to make their voices heard. Pope Benedict has given effective leadership to this movement. Some Church leaders are beginning to realize the truth that de-Christianized populations are ripe for strong missionary efforts, the message of Christ being new and fresh to them.
It is hard living in a time like this when we see the Faith under assault and so many Catholics in despair, but such is our lot. It is glorious to live in a time when the Church rises from apparent defeat and astonishes the world by becoming stronger than ever, living out the prophecy of Christ that the gates of Hell will not prevail against her. Saint Patrick in his day could see beyond the disasters of his age, and the gathering gloom of the time in which he lived, and laid the foundation for a new and glorious morning for the Church. That is our task today. Let us be about it.