by the Rev. Fr. William Gahan, O.S.A. (1732-1804)
Mementote praepositorum Vestrorum, qui vobis locuti sunt Verbum Dei— imitamini fidem — doctrinis variis et peregrinis nolite abduci.
Heb. c. xiii. v. 7 et 9.
Remember your Prelates, who have spoken to you the word of God—whose faith follow—and be not led away by various and strange doctrines.
Heb. c. xiii. v. 7. 9.
When the Almighty singles out men to be the extraordinary messengers of his councils, oracles of his wisdom, instruments of his grace and channels of his boundless mercies, he confers on them those wonderful gifts, talents and virtues, that are requisite to qualify them for the execution of his orders, and for the accomplishment of the grand designs of his all ruling providence. Thus he qualified Moses, Aaron and the Prophets in the old Law, and the twelve Apostles in the new Law, for the solemn embassy and the heavenly commission on which he was pleased to send them. He invested them with every power they stood in need of, in order to discharge the duties of their ministry with success; he communicated to them all the eminent gifts and talents that were necessary, to enable them to encounter the difficulties and surmount all the obstacles which stood in their way, and which attended the due execution of the high commission they were charged with.
Among many other renowned characters and remarkable instances of this truth, we may justly rank St. Patrick, the glorious Apostle and Patron of Ireland, whose feast the Church solemnizes this day, and honours with the privilege of a plenary indulgence, extended to the faithful of the whole kingdom on every day of the ensuing octave. When the Lord in his great goodness singled him out, for the grand work of the conversion of this remote corner of the then known world to the Christian and Catholic religion, when he sent him as an instrument of his divine mercy to announce the mystery of the cross to our ancestors, and to enlighten a people, who, as the Scripture phrase expresses it, were sitting in darkness and in the gloomy shades of death, he qualified him in every respect for the arduous enterprise, and made him at once a most zealous Apostle and an illustrious Saint, that he might diffuse the light of the Gospel all over this island by his indefatigable zeal, and establish the spirit of the Gospel by his eminent sanctity. It is under these two considerations that I intend to represent St. Patrick to you at present, as a precious vessel of election and model of Christian perfection. He rooted up infidelity, and planted catholicity in this country; he banished vice and immorality, and promoted the practice of true piety and solid virtue both by his word and example. Behold the plan of the following discourse and the subject of your favourable attention. Let us previously invoke the aid of the Holy Ghost, through the intercession of the blessed Virgin, greeting her with the words of the Angel, [Ave Maria....]
The Scripture informs us, that the Saviour of the world retired into a desert, and prepared himself by prayer, and by a rigorous fast of forty days and forty nights, before he entered upon his mission of preaching the Gospel and reclaiming sinners from their evil ways. In like manner, the most authentic histories of St. Patrick's life informs us, that this faithful disciple and follower of Christ our Lord, spent several years in preparing himself by fasting and praying, before he entered upon the sacred functions of the apostolic ministry. That he might preach the Gospel with fruit to others, and draw their souls more effectually to the love and service of God, he first began to preach to himself, to regulate his interior, to cultivate the vineyard of his own soul, and to treasure up lessons of solid piety and true virtue in his mind. Such was the delicacy and tenderness of his conscience, that he accuses himself in his own writings, which are called his Confession, that he was rather tardy and remiss in not having begun at an earlier period to love the Lord his God above all things, and with his whole heart, from the very first instant that the use of reason rendered him capable of paying his Creator this tribute, which is so justly due to his Sovereign Majesty on a thousand titles. Hence he tells us, that he could not refrain from weeping for his past neglect, whenever he recollected that his heart had been, even for a single moment, insensible and void of divine love. Herein our saint imitated the piety of the penitent Augustine, who thought that he could never sufficiently bewail and regret every day, every hour, every minute of his past life, which had not been filled up with acts of divine love, and who, in order to clear off the long arrears of love, which, on account of his former neglect, appeared to be still due by him, made it his constant study, ever after, to redouble his love for God all the days of his life, and laboured with indefatigable zeal to kindle flames of divine love in the heart of every Christian, crying out for this reason in the fervour of his soul, O Beauty, ever ancient, and ever new! O Sovereign Good! O inexhaustible Source of all Sweetness and Perfection! Too late, too late, alas! have I begun to love thee. O that I could begin my course over again, that every moment of my life might be filled with tokens and proofs of my love for thee, my God and my All! Behold here an excellent lesson of edification for all, both young and old. Learn, my brethren, from your glorious patron St. Patrick-, that the great precept of charity begins to bind you all at an earlier period than perhaps you imagine. Beware of misplacing your affections on the empty bubbles and painted toys of this transitory life. Look up to Heaven, your native country and happy inheritance, which your dear Redeemer has purchased for you with his precious blood; let your hearts be where God your treasure is, and where he shews his glorious and beautiful Majesty to the Angels and Saints. Begin from this instant, if you have not already begun, to love him above all things, not by word of mouth only; but in reality and truth from the very bottom of your hearts and souls, and endeavour to increase every day in this divine virtue, which is to be the crown, the joy and the happiness of the blessed for a never ending eternity. But to return to St. Patrick. Whilst he was, on a certain day, in the sixteenth year of his age, putting up his fervent prayers to Heaven in a retired place, situated near the borders of the sea, he was surprised by a set of barbarian pirates, who then infested the British coasts, and was suddenly carried off from his family and native country, and brought captive into Ireland, the very land which he was afterwards to deliver from the darkness of infidelity, and from the dismal captivity of Satan. Admire here, my brethren, the wonderful ways of divine Providence! We read in the book of Genesis, that the Patriarch Joseph, by a disposition of Providence, was carried off in his youthful days from his native country, and sold as a slave in. Egypt, that he might be the means of relieving the Egyptians afterwards in the hour of distress, and supplying both them and his own father's household with the necessaries of Efe, during the continuance of a dreadful famine that raged ever that land for the space of seven years. By a similar disposition of the same divine Providence, about the decline of the fourth century, the virtuous and pious youth Patrick was stolen away from his parents, carried off and sold as a common slave to a petty prince in the county of Antrim, that by being inured to hardships, and by being well acquainted with the language and manners of the natives of Ireland, he might be better qualified to undertake the great work of their conversion at a future period, and become the happy means of supplying both them and the Churches of his own native country with a sufficient number of zealous clergymen and able missionaries, who would break the heavenly bread of the word of God to the little ones, and nourish their souls with the food of eternal life in the day of their spiritual famine and distress.
Thus it happened that Patrick, whom Heaven had destined to become one day a great pastor of souls in this island, was previously employed in the low and painful servitude of feeding cattle on mountains, and in forests, where he was for a considerable time constantly exposed to the inclemency of the weather, and to all the rigours of poverty, hunger, and nakedness. Far, however, from repining at his despicable situation, far from murmuring, or complaining of the dispensations of Providence, far from flying in the face of God, as numbers of the distressed and suffering poor of our times unhappily do, whereby they not only lose the merit and reward of their trials and afflictions, but likewise expose themselves to the manifest danger of becoming slaves to Satan hereafter in hell, after having been drudges and slaves to sin in this world, Patrick, I say, far from pursuing so criminal a line of conduct, made a virtue of necessity, and carried his cross, and bore his severe trials with patience and resignation, for the love of his blessed Redeemer, Jesus Christ. His sufferings of course were to him a source of heavenly benedictions, and served only to furnish him with daily opportunities of practising the virtues of humility, meekness, obedience and submission to the holy will of God. Whilst he thus discharged every exterior duty belonging to his state with cheerfulness, and attended the cattle of his earthly master with the vigilance, assiduity and activity of a faithful servant, his conversation was mostly in Heaven, for he united contemplation with action, and in the midst of his daily employments he took care to elevate his heart frequently to God, by pious aspirations, and short, but devout and fervent prayers. It is related in his life, that he was accustomed to adore God on his bended knees no less than an hundred times in the day and in the night, by which means the love of God continually inflamed his tender heart more and more, and acquired every day new strength in his affectionate soul. It were to be wished, my brethren, that this pious method of attending constantly to the divine presence in the course of the day, and raising up the heart often to God, by some ejaculatory prayer, whilst the'hands are employed at daily labour, were more generally adopted by all laborious and industrious Christians in the midst of their ordinary occupations and temporal actions. It is highly recommended by the Saints, and was one of the principal exercises whereby they gradually arrived at the height of perfection. St. Francis of Sales advises us to cast ourselves, in spirit, at the feet of Jesus, like Mary Magdalen, and to give our souls to God a thousand times in the day. To breathe forth some pious ejaculations now and then costs no great trouble, nor does it require much time, or interrupt our external duties; it is short and easy, and does riot distract or fatigue the mind; a little practice would render it familiar and habitual, and it has this peculiar advantage, that it can be practised at all times, and on all occasions, without being exposed to the danger of vain glory, as it may be secretly performed in the closet of the heart. 'We have already heard what signal-advantages St. Patrick derived from fervent and frequent ejaculations of this kind.
No sooner was he released from his bondage but the designs of Providence began to be brought about; for he felt the strongest impressions from Heaven to set about the glorious work of converting the Irish nation without any further delay. Any other motive than the greater honour and glory of God, could never have induced him to undertake so arduous an enterprise, and so difficult a work as the general conversion of an entire Nation, where vice was authorized by practice, and impiety strengthened by custom. Palladius, indeed, had preceded him, and was the first who formed the plan of converting this nation to Christianity; but having met with violent opposition, he converted but few, and departed in a short time. The general conversion of Ireland was reserved for St. Patrick, who having travelled into Gaul and Italy for the purpose of acquiring a competent stock of sacred learning, chiefly under the tuition of his uncle, St. Martin, the renowned Bishop of Tours, was promoted to holy orders, and received his episcopal consecration and lawful mission from the successor of St. Peter the Apostle, Pope Celestine, in the year of our Lord 431. He did not intrude himself into the ministry without a true vocation. He did not presume to exercise the sacred functions of the priesthood without being regularly ordained. He did not attempt of his own accord, to dogmatize or turn preacher and teacher without a proper mission, like unto the false prophets in the old Law, who as the Scripture complains, came without being sent, or like unto the new gospellers, and fanatics of these latter ages, who are called by our Saviour wolves in the clothing of sheep, and who force themselves into the sheepfold without any mission, either extraordinary from God, like that of the Apostles mentioned in c. xvi. of St. Mark, v. 15, or ordinary from the pastors of the Church, by the imposition of hands, like that spoken of in c. xiv. of the Acts, and I Tim. c. v. v. 22. and 2 Tim. c. i. v. 6. No, my brethren, St. Patrick came to this part of the world duly called, sent and authorized to preach the ancient faith, originally taught by the Apostles, to plant the catholic religion, and to open the fountains of salvation, grace, and mercy to sinners. No sooner did he land at Wicklow, with about. twenty fellow labourers, and zealous assistants, but he began to weed, to plant, to water and cultivate the new vineyard of Christ. But how did he complete his design? He placed his confidence in God, and as he was a man of piety, recollection and prayer, he possessed the art of converting sinners, of softening their hearts, of subduing all the powers of their souls, and of infusing more virtue into them than a more learned man, with all his empty science, and pompous oratory would be able to do; for though a man of extensive knowledge, may argue, convince, and charm others with his eloquence, yet if the spirit of piety be extinguished in his heart, he is no better than a sounding trumpet, though, as St. Paul expresses it, he should speak the language of men and angels. These maxims were the plan of St. Patrick's conduct, and by these means he had the happiness to gain over innumerable proselytes. He appeared with undaunted courage at the general assembly of the Kings and states of Ireland, which was held every year at Tarah, the residence of the chief King, who was stiled the Monarch of the whole nation. Here our saint met a great number of the Druids, or Heathen priests, and confounded and converted many of them. The shining virtues of his exemplary life were more powerful and more persuasive arguments, than the most elegant discourses. It would be an endless task to enumerate all the labours and fatigues he underwent, in the course of sixty-one years, for the glory of God, and the salvation of souls. He travelled through all the provinces of Ireland, rooting up vice, and planting virtue wherever he went. Like another Elias, he burnt with zeal for the Lord God of Hosts, 3 Kings, c. xix. v. 10. so that he might truly say with the royal Prophet, ps. lxviii. The zeal of thy house has eaten me up, and has made me pine away. Nothing gave him more pain than to see the great God offended; nothing gave him more pleasure than to see him loved, praised and adored. He bewailed the gross errors of idolatry and superstition in which he found thousands of the inhabitants of this country enveloped at the time of his arrival; but glory be to God, his sorrow was soon changed into inexpressible joy. The most obdurate hearts were mollified by his instructions; the greatest sinners cast themselves at his feet, and began to deplore their past crimes with tears of bitterness, and numberless multitudes cried out for Baptism, and embraced the Roman Catholic and Apostolic faith. In short, he dispersed the darkness of infidelity by the brilliant rays of his sanctity, and by the ardour of zeal and piety he made truth and virtue triumph over error and immorality. It is recorded of him that he founded above three hundred churches, ordained near three thousand priests, consecrated a great number of bishops, and established seven hundred religious houses, wherein thousands of the faithful devoted themselves entirely to the divine service, and aspired to the summit of Christian perfection by a regular observance of the three evangelical counsels, insomuch that this island was deservedly stiled the Island of Saints, when St. Patrick finished his glorious career in the hundred and twentieth year of his age, and in the four hundred and ninety-third year of our Lord. Nay, during the three succeeding centuries, whilst the greater part of Europe was overspread with inundations' of pagan Goths and Vandals, this island was deemed a nursery of piety, a school of virtue, a seminary of learning, and abounded with a long train of illustrious saints, who derived the streams of their sanctity from their great Apostle St. Patrick, and illumined several parts of the continent with the light of the Gospel and the splendor of their virtues. It is true, indeed, that in the ninth century Ireland was bits turn infested by successive swarms of heathen barbarians, who made it feel the grievances that followed the invasion of the sanctuary, and the demolition of the Roman empire in other countries; but notwithstanding all the various revolutions of nature, the self-same holy Catholic religion, which was planted here by St. Patrick above thirteen hundred years ago, and which was uniformly professed by our pious ancestors ever since, has been carefully transmitted down to us, whole and entire, unchanged and uncorrupted, and is still professed here to this very day in its primitive purity.
Are we not, then, my brethren, highly indebted to the goodness of God for having, in his great mercy, called our ancestors from the darkness of infidelity to the wonderful light of faith, by the ministry of St. Patrick, and for having extended the same heavenly gift to us by the ministry of his successors and descendants, in preference to so many thousands, in other countries, from whom the true faith of Christ has been withdrawn by a just judgment, and transplanted elsewhere. Have we not reason to thank, praise and glorify the holy name of the Lord for this particular blessing, this singular favour, this special protection, and visible interference of his divine providence? Should we not, as the Apostle recommends in the words of my text, gratefully remember our prelates, who have spoken the word of God to us? Should we not be steadfast in following their faith, and taking care not to be led away by various and strange doctrines? Should we not be armed against all novelty in religion, and guard against the baneful influence 'of those dangerous principles which the new philosophers and unbelievers of this age are spreading in these and other neighbouring countries? Remove not the ancient landmark, which your fathers have set, says the Holy Ghost, Prov. xxii. Stand in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls, Jerem. c. vi. v. 16. Ask thy father and he will shew thee, thy elders and they will tell thee, Deut. xxxii. for there is a way that seems to a man to be right, but its end leads to death and perdition, Prov. c. xiv. v. 12. ; and again, Christ cautions us in the Gospel, to beware of false prophets who make their appearance in the clothing of sheep, but inwardly are ravenous wolves, that come, not to feed, but only to fleece and destroy the flock; nay, St. Paul does not hesitate to say, Galat. c. 1. v. 8. that although an Angel should descend from Heaven to preach up any new doctrine contrary to the ancient faith once delivered to the saints, we ought to look upon him as an anathema.
Away, then with those irreligious discourses, pernicious maxims, unchristian ideas, unsanctified notions and noxious "tares, which the enemy is endeavouring to sow over the good seed. Let us live up to the dictates and duties of our holy religion, and shew the purity of our faith by the purity of our morals, and by a strict observance of the commandments of God and his Church. Let us not forget the example of our holy Patron, but endeavour to render ourselves worthy of his patronage and intercession, by an imitation of his humility, charity, piety and zeal. Let us enter into the spirit of this holy quarantine, and go through it -in a manner becoming good Christians and Catholics. Let us not pervert those days of grace and salvation into days of wrath and perdition. Let us not resemble pagans and bacchanalians in the celebration of our festivals, by criminal excesses and intemperance in drinking. Nothing is more opposite to the spirit of the Gospel, and to the sanctity of this present season and time of mercy, than the odious and destructive vice of drunkenness, by which this day in particular, above all days in the year, is most shamefully profaned. There is no vice that debases or degrades man more from the honour of human nature, or that reduces him nearer to the low rank, condition and similitude of the beasts of the field. It robs him of his reason, which is the greatest prerogative of man, and the most excellent of the gifts of nature. It besots his spirits, clouds his understanding, confuses his judgment, and stupefies his mind in such a manner as not to be able to make one serious reflection, or to distinguish a plain from a precipice, or a friend from an enemy. It renders him a reproach to religion, a disgrace to Christianity, unfit for every spiritual duty, and fit for nothing but for the drudgery of Satan. It should, therefore, be carefully avoided at all times as a brutish vice, but more particularly at present, when the Gospel is crying out loudly to us to watch and pray, to live soberly, justly and quietly., with its lusts, to exhibit our bodies, an immaculate and pleasing host to the Lord, and to look well to ourselves, lest perhaps our hearts be overcharged with surfeiting and drunkenness. Luke, c. xxi. O merciful Jesus, grant us all the grace of a true conversion. Open the eyes of those who are blindly straying away from the path of salvation, and conduct them into the right way that leads to life everlasting. Grant to the just the great gift of final perseverance, that being rescued from the dangers of this sinful Babylon, they may see and enjoy thee for a never-ending eternity, in the sacred mansions of heavenly Jerusalem. Which is the felicity that I wish ye all, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.