What we have just heard is the account of what must have been a major experience for Peter, the apostle. He was issued with an invitation: “put out into deeper water”. But he was so discouraged that his reply was that he had already worked hard and had tried to catch something but to no avail. It was a down moment for him, a moment of exhaustion. However, on Jesus’ word he’s prepared to give it another go. And he makes an important discovery – Peter may be nothing in himself, indeed, a sinner, but God who is All can do great things. It’s Peter’s moment to discover that it’s important to not base life only on our own calculations. We are accompanied by God.
In his Confessions, St. Patrick tells us a similar experience. In the very opening line he tells us – not unlike Pope Francis said in an interview a few months ago – ‘I’m Patrick, a sinner, least of all” but he also says: ‘I was like a stone in the mud and you lifted me up and put me on top of the wall.’ Patrick’s whole life story is about that – we are what we are but don’t give in to negative forces, self-loathing, believe there’s a plan for you, that things can be better, that God can do great things. Keep on “putting out into deeper water”.
Patrick had every reason to be dejected. He was the victim of slavery. Sometimes as a migrant he was homesick. As he went around Ireland, considered at that time, very much “the ends of the earth” and barbarian, he faced robbery and the threat of martyrdom every day. Yet he kept going and he let himself be surprised by the developments that God had in store. He took strength from the line of Scripture that says, “Cast your care/worry upon God, and he will sustain you” (Ps 5 (55): 23)
With this conviction to look more to God than to himself, around him, waves of new life inundated the Irish landscape with Good News. And it had an impact. Take, for instance, the Irish word for people, which is muintear—derived from the Latin, monasterium. Because the Irish didn’t live in towns, apart from some royal settlements, but were nomadic, moving around with their herds of cattle, the Church couldn’t be simply organized on the continental and British model, where large towns had their bishop. Patrick drew on the most spiritually dynamic element in the Christianity of his day, which was that of monasticism--which he already knew from his experience with Germanus of Auxerre in France. It seems that even in his life time monasticism took root in Ireland, with communities of monks and of women religious.
Since the Irish were divided into many local kingships, which fought one another frequently, the fact that the word for people, muintir, along with adjectives derived from it like muintearas, ‘community’ and muintearúil, ‘friendliness,’ seems to indicate that it was in the spiritual oases provided by these monasteries, that the members of the various warring tribes first experienced themselves as a people, in the sense of a community of persons united to one another by ties of love overcoming the tribal differences that divided them.
It’s good that each year we have St. Patrick’s Day. It gives us a chance to touch base with our roots and also reflect on how we today are to “put out into the deep”, how we are to be bearers of good news.
At times it can seem Irish society is going through its own moment of exhaustion and discouragement. As well as the dramatic challenges that many find themselves in financially, issues relating to substance abuse, suicide and broken interpersonal relationships are wounds that inflict us as a society. Our institutions and traditions can seem to have grown tired, life-less, no longer fit for purpose.
On a day like St. Patrick’s Day we are reminded to do two things. On the one hand, make sure we are connecting with a life-giving vision. That’s what we see St. Patrick do in his book, The Confession. We can all so easily get caught up with the tasks we have to do every day in our personal live, or running an institution or servicing a project, that we can forget to spend time connecting with why I am living, with what lies behind the institution I am serving.
And, secondly, we need to hear the invitation to think positively and commit ourselves anew to setting up processes of new life, points of Good News, that build up our society as a people bound together by bonds of mutual love. It’s what St. Patrick did in his age.
Pope Francis has said recently: “Sometimes I wonder if there are people in today’s world who are really concerned about generating processes of people-building, as opposed to obtaining immediate results which yield easy, quick short-term political gains, but do not enhance human fullness. History will perhaps judge the latter with the criterion set forth by Romano Guardini: “The only measure for properly evaluating an age is to ask to what extent it fosters the development and attainment of a full and authentically meaningful human existence, in accordance with the peculiar character and the capacities of that age”. Again, Pope Francis says: “What we need, then, is to give priority to actions which generate new processes in society and engage other persons and groups who can develop them to the point where they bear fruit in significant historical events. Without anxiety, but with clear convictions and tenacity.” (Evangelii Gaudium, 223-224)
I was with a group of young people recently who have proposed they will take the next 100 days as days when they will focus on what’s positive in their lives and share that with one another – whether by text or facebook. It’s an initiative that I think St. Patrick would have admired. On this St. Patrick’s Day in Limerick, the 2014 national city of culture, each of us too can reflect on how best we can respond to the invitation: be positive, believe in God who accompanies us and cast out into the depth.