Saint Patrick’s Message for Today
By Heather Melton, UTO Staff Officer
I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.
Recently I’ve read a lot of articles regarding the decline in church attendance—and to be fair, I’ve seen it in terms of giving to UTO. In 2021, the Ingathering took a significant hit; last year it looks like we may have only had a small decline over 2021, but some decline nonetheless. I’ve read articles about how Christianity declined faster in Europe then in the United States and what we’re seeing is a cultural reset or catching up that was inevitable. This caught my attention because one of the things I’ve always wondered about is how different Christianity would look if the Celtic expression would have been the dominant one instead of the Roman.
There’s a great book that I read decades ago called “The Celtic Way of Evangelism: How Christianity can Reach the West…Again” by George Hunter III. It talks about how St. Patrick came and lived among the Irish instead of conquering and dominating. Patrick would set up a community where people were cared for, taught to read, and were able to share their gifts as they felt called. Patrick, though British, loved the Irish. He spoke their language instead of expecting them to speak his. He listened to their music, instead of forcing his upon them. He used their symbols, their ways of understanding the world, to talk about faith, instead of forcing foreign ones upon them.
Patrick loved them for who they were and found ways to connect because he started by listening and being with them. (The Romans, by contrast, utilized a mindset of civilize and convert that later was seen among Puritans in what would become the United States.) Patrick’s ability to weave the Celtic ways into Christianity were incredible. Sadly, some of those weavings have been removed over time. One place we can see this is in the “breastplate” of St. Patrick. The hymn that many of us will sing this month is missing some of the original stanzas that show the Celtic influence. The full text of the prayer is quite long but includes the stanza above, as well as one asking for protection from witches and smiths. (You can read it here.)
I often think that the way forward for the church might be found in the wisdom of St. Patrick. Patrick loved the Celts and received them as gift. He also loved his faith, and offered it as a gift, not as a tool for forcing people to behave like he did. This is the work of the church today: We have to receive people as gift and offer our faith as gift, letting the two meet somewhere in the middle. I see this happening through the UTO grant projects (and through those we—sadly—don’t have enough money to fund), as congregations and dioceses find ways to reach out to their community and make something new together.
It looks like a playground and coffee shop in Northern California. It looks like a horse camp in South Dakota. It looks like a reforestation project in central Africa. It looks like people being less concerned about maintaining what was and working toward building what might be. It looks like gratitude for the gift of faith, and gratitude for the gift of the community. It looks a lot like resurrection, and the pathway to resurrection sometimes looks messy.
This St. Patrick’s Day, I hope you can find ways to practice gratitude for what was, what is, and what might be. I hope we can each look for ways to welcome with gratitude instead of conversion in our church communities as a way of embracing the message of St. Patrick. I hope you’ll find ways to pray using the words of St. Patrick and connect with nature as spring starts to begin around us. Most importantly, I hope you find ways to give thanks for all the amazing things God is doing, even in the midst of change.