The statue of the patron saint of Ireland sat in the transept of the Church. Vested as a Bishop, this tall, bearded man presented a three-leaf clover.
Each Sunday my family went to our usual seats at the former St. Patrick Parish, McAdoo, where this image of our saintly patron, from the vantage point of a child, loomed large.
Each year during Lent we would celebrate a day in his honor wherein a visiting priest – sometimes a priest-son of the parish or others who previously served the parish – would return to recall the virtues of our patron. We would sing “Hibernia’s Champion Saint,” a hymn written by immigrants who fled poverty, famine and oppression for a better life.
When I was 6 years old the visiting priest that evening of March 17 left a memorable impression as he told us the fascinating story of St. Patrick in the first person.
We heard about how, as a teenager, “I was indifferent to my faith. We did not keep his commandments. We would not listen to our priests, who advised us about how we could be saved … we did not believe in the living God.”
But how, “a group of men came into my town and kidnapped me, taking me to a foreign land … forcing me into a form of slavery, and for the next six years as they made me work as a shepherd. I lived in poverty, often hungry, and most of all in a dreadful silence away from everything and everyone that I knew.”
I cannot say I remember another homily from when I was 6 years old, but this one had my undivided attention.
He continued to relate how during years of desolation he learned the language and culture of his captors, but even more important, he came to knowledge of Faith in the Trinity and received the gift of the eternal consolation of God that brings about “a life-changing conversion of heart that would never leave me the same.”
He continued, “Eventually I found the opportunity to escape and return to my family. I became a deacon like my father, and then a priest, and eventually a bishop. All the while hearing the voices of the Irish people calling me back to bring them the light of faith … and I did, bearing the insults of unbelievers, persecution, and chains.”
He concluded noting, “God inspired me … so that I would faithfully serve the nation to whom the love of Christ brought me. His gift is that I would spend my life, if I were worthy of it, serving the Irish people in truth and with humility to the end.”
As he spoke I thought, “he looks a little like the statue” and was firmly convinced, and remained so through my childhood, that Monsignor John McCann, currently pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish, Douglassville, was St. Patrick.
That day Monsignor McCann gave me a devotion to our patron saint that would grow over time, especially as I pursued the priesthood.
This devotion necessarily frames Irish pride of ethnicity against the backdrop of a missionary servant of the Gospel whose life was radically changed by encountering Christ in the darkness of captivity.
Instead of seeking retribution for cruelty, Patrick embraced God’s call to evangelize, catechize and bring the light of the Gospel to the land of his captivity. He accomplished his mission so successfully that there are few parallels in history.
For these reasons the countless millions of his spiritual descents, and indeed every Catholic, can once again this year, rightly sing “Great and Glorious St. Patrick!”
By Father Eugene Ritz, director of the Office for Permanent Diaconate and judge on the Diocesan Tribunal, in residence at St. Joseph the Worker Parish, Orefield.