As Saturday was the feast of St Patrick, we sang that rousing old hymn “Hail glorious St Patrick, dear saint of our isle” as the recessional hymn at Mass yesterday. I always identify completely with the religious and patriotic sentiments it expresses. My mother comes from Cork city and my father was the son of Ulster immigrants to Glasgow. (As I myself was born and grew up in Surrey my children think my Celtic aspirations are pure fantasy but I ignore them; heredity matters.)
There is something wonderfully un-PC about the words of this hymn: “Hail, glorious St Patrick! Thy words were once strong / Against Satan’s wiles and an infidel throng…” Satan: who on earth is he and who, apart from a few fuddy-duddy evangelicals and charismatic Christians, believes in his existence anymore? Infidels? Aren’t we all equal and all friends and isn’t all truth relative nowadays?
“In the war against sin, in the fight for the faith / Dear saint, may thy children resist unto death…” Sin? Didn’t that go out the window with psychotherapy? We don’t want to be crippled by guilt, after all. And death is now the great unmentionable; we don’t want to know about it and are slightly mystified that with all the great technological breakthroughs of the last century, scientists haven’t cracked it yet.
In his homily our parish priest reminded us that St Thomas More didn’t want to die; after resigning as Lord Chancellor he hoped to live quietly at home with his family. But Henry VIII forced him to choose; so he chose death rather than dishonour. MPs are apparently to be allowed a free vote over David Cameron’s own “great matter”: the redefining of marriage. This time heads won’t roll; so one hopes that as many MPs as possible will vote against it.
“Thy people now exiles on many a shore / Shall love and revere thee till time be no more / And the fire thou hast kindled shall ever burn bright/ Its warmth undiminished, undying its light.” The word “exiles” reminds me of my mother, sitting two pews in front of me at church (she likes to assert her independence); now 88 and living next door, she left Ireland for an English convent boarding school aged 13, then married and never returned to live there. But she has stayed Irish to her fingertips and completely loyal to her faith which she in turn passed on to her children.
The chorus line to verse two of the hymn runs, “Oh come to our aid, in our battle take part.” As we were leaving the church, our parish priest who, as I quoted on my blog last Monday, referred to the Coalition’s “modest proposal” to change the ancient, natural meaning of marriage as “outrageous”, opened his arms wide as if to invoke the heavens and repeated this chorus with emphasis.
There has been some recent secular reappraisal of St Patrick: apparently he wasn’t captured by pirates and he didn’t banish snakes from Ireland. Oh really? Well, I believe the story of his life that I read as a child. And it’s a well-known mystical phenomenon that those who are close to God can have mysterious authority over the animal kingdom: look at St Francis and the birds, St Cuthbert and the seals, and St Jerome and the lion. For religious believers, the Coalition is beginning to look a bit like a snake pit. St Patrick, we need you – and not just in Erin’s green valleys.