Fordham University            The Jesuit University of New York  

President's Saint Patrick's Day Homily 2011

Contact: Bob Howe
(212) 636-6538

Saint Patrick's Day Homily | Saint Patrick's Cathedral, New York City
Joseph M. McShane, S.J., President of Fordham University
Thursday, 17 March 2011


Joshua 24: 14-18
1 Peter 2: 4-7; 9-10
Matthew 28: 16-20

"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who has called you out of darkness into his own wonderful light."

Ho hum.  On hearing these words, taken from our second reading this morning, the First Letter of Peter, some people would be embarrassed.  They might shuffle their feet, cast their eyes downward and hang their heads.  Not the Irish.  The Irish reaction would be: Chosen race?  Royal Priesthood?  Holy nation?  God's own people?  Heck!  I knew that.  I knew it all along.  Now, to the outside world (that is to say, those who are not blessed with an Irish soul), the Irish reaction could be interpreted as arrogance.  We know differently.  The easy Irish acceptance of the designation of royalty, of being a nation set apart has nothing to do with arrogance.  Rather, it has everything to do with the fact that we are a people obsessed with memories. 

This, of course, is not an unmixed blessing.  On the positive side, our gift for memory endows us with an uncanny ability to recite the names and locations of every town, village and farm that our ancestors ever inhabited--even though we have never been there.  We can devise elaborate family trees that sort out first, second and third cousins---and the most revered members of our families are those who can add grace notes like "second cousin by marriage" or "third cousin once-removed" to their recitals.  Locally, this gift comes in handy when you are lost in an Irish neighborhood like Woodlawn, Woodside or Norwood and are trying to figure out if you are related to anyone on the street where your car has broken down--or if you are related to anyone in the local political hierarchy. 

On the negative side, our fascination with memories can at times get us into trouble.  We can nurse grudges with the best of them.  In fact, we can nurse a grudge with such exquisite vengeance that, if we close our eyes and work at it, we can relive a slight that occurred fifty years ago in such detail that when we snap our eyes open again, we are loaded for bear.  It is for not for nothing, therefore, that it is said that when you have Irish Altzeimer's disease, you forget everything but the grudges.  This same gift for memory endows us with our almost unparalleled gift for emotional blackmail and guilt (the Irish gift that keeps on giving.)  We are so schooled in these memory-based tactics that we can and do accuse the French of being amateurs when they say that revenge is a dish best served cold.  Ha, we say, with a bit of imagination, those left-overs can be brought to a simmer and returned to their fresh-served heat.  It makes for better eating, better digestion--and better fights. 

If, individually, we are a people blessed and plagued with an obsession for memory, we are also a people of shared memories.  (Of course, we know that some of these shared memories would not pass muster with serious historians.)  We know, for instance, that we are all the descendants of kings and chieftains, that Irish monks saved Western Civilization, and that, lost in a small boat with imperfect steering, Saint Brendan the Navigator arrived in North America centuries before Columbus, that Giovanni-come-lately from Italy, made landfall in the Caribbean.  Since we are a people of poetic power, we are able to work magic with words, weaving the tales of heroic suffering, romance and charity that we have received from our shared memory into sagas that are as captivating as they are heart-rending. 

"But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who has called you out of darkness into his own wonderful light."

Memory.  It is our pride and our sorrow.  It explains our gift for story-telling, and our ability to remain mired in a fratricidal war for over four centuries.  Given the hold that memory has over us, it is not at all surprising that as we prepare to step off and celebrate our heritage in all of its ragged and off-key glory, we find it right--even necessary--to gather in this great cathedral (named for our patron and paid for by the sacrificial offerings of our poor ancestors) for a festival of memory.  As we do so, we focus on the central memory that directs our lives, as has it has directed the lives of our forebears since Saint Patrick first confronted the high king of Tara with it over sixteen hundred years ago-- and with telling results. 

This festival of memory has two moments or movements: word and sacrament.  The word of scripture confronts and challenges us; and the eucharist summons our best angels to rise and go forth into the city renewed in heart and mind.  But what specifically do these two encounters with the sacred memory of God's people tell us this morning?  To what do they call us? 

The Scriptural passages that the Church presents for our prayerful consideration and remembering this morning are especially rich--and, through the grace of God, particularly affecting for the Irish soul.  Over and over again, the readings, from Joshua, First Peter and the Gospel of Matthew speak in terms that we understand.  Like our own history, the story the readings outline begins in exile and ends in glory. They move back and forth, as has our shared history, from promise to challenge, and from challenge to promise.  Moreover, they speak of themes that we trade in all the time in our shared memory: themes of glory, chosenness and royal character. 

When we read them, however, our easy Irish humor and our lighthearted claims that are all descendants of kings and chieftains fall away.  When we read them, our souls are stilled and we become attentive--and just a little terrified.  As we read Joshua, we are haunted by the reminder that our chosenness is not really a reward but a reward that carries with it great responsibility.  (More precisely it carries with it the responsibility to be faithful to the Lord in all we do--and whatever promised land He leads us to.)  When we read the words from the end of the Gospel of Saint Matthew, and hear that we are called upon to be evangelists bringing the Word of God to all of the countries in which our people live in diaspora, even the cocky Irish soul is shaken to the core--as it should be.  And if we turn back to Saint Peter's letter for a bit of comfort, we are confronted once again with the challenge of our chosennes: a chosenness that we have experienced over and over in the history of our people.  We Irish know (and have known through experience over and over again) that even when we were either lost or downtrodden, God lifted us up and drew us to Himself.  In short, all three readings are calling us to a different royal identity than we bargain for when we breezily lay claim to royal ancestry, for they are calling us to nothing less than a royal identity like that of Christ Himself: a royalty that is turned upside down, a royal character that is shown is service, spending ourselves in the service of others and the pursuit of holiness.

It is no wonder that we fall silent.  It is no wonder that we are a bit terrified.  And yet, even as these readings, as draining as they are leave us teetering on the brink of--not despair--but a feeling of inadequacy, let us take heart and remember that we are caught in another moment of memory.  We gather this morning to celebrate the eucharist.  And the eucharist is the strongest antidote to fear.  As Christians, we believe (and believe with all our hearts) that the future that God has in store for those who love Him is revealed in the memory of the suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord.  We believe that in the suffering, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, God says to those who try to live as Christ did, that even if the world does its worst to destroy them, death and evil will not have the last word.  In the resurrection of the Lord, God says in the most powerful way that he will take these brave, generous souls to Himself and give them life. 

In the eucharist, this memory comes alive for us and in us.  Through the eucharist, bravery is born.  Through the eucharist, we spring into action--and action of a certain sort.  Action after the mind and heart of Christ.  Action after the mind and heart of the saint whom we remember this morning, and whom we will celebrate for the coming week.  And if we spring into such actions, we will repeat the pattern of the lives of our ancestors.  Captivated by the image of the Lord and heeding the words of the scriptures we have heard this morning, they gave themselves to the works of charity with telling results.  Rising to the Lord's call to perfection heard in today's gospel, they became perfect in mercy.  Drawing on Patrick's defiance of injustice, they banded together for the cause of justice.  Like the Israelites whom Moses addressed in our first reading, although they were exiles on the earth, they did their level best to build the Kingdom and to transform exile into a place of glory.  If we follow the pattern of their lives, we will indeed a chosen race, a holy nation, a people set apart.  If we follow the pattern of their lives, we will indeed be perfect as our heavenly Father is: perfect in love, in mercy, and in compassion.  And we will indeed be what we have always claimed to be: sons and daughters of kings--or more precisely, sons and daughters of the Great High King of Heaven who captivated and won Saint Patrick's great heart.  As sons and daughters of Saint Patrick, that restless, defiant exile who wrested glory from adversity and who sang to the high king of heaven as he faced down every obstacle: "I rise today through God's strength to pilot me; God's might to uphold me, God's wisdom to guide me, God's eye to look after me, God's ear to hear me; God's word to speak for me; God's hand to guard me; God's way to lie before me; God's shield to protect me; God's host to save me."   Let us make his work and his song our own.  God bless you all. 

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