Homily of Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, Mass for the Celebration of St. Patrick’s Day at Old St. Patrick’s, Chicago
Thank you Fr. Hurley and all here at Old St. Pat’s for the chance to celebrate with you once again the beginning of Chicago’s St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
Some years ago, I was having dinner with an Egyptian Jesuit. At one point during the meal I told him that at the risk of being indelicate I had a question that I always wanted to ask an Egyptian. Every year at the Easter Vigil we hear the story of Exodus, I noted, when God smotes the Egyptians, drowning Pharaoh and all his chariots and charioteers in the Red Sea. How does that make modern day Egyptians feel, I asked? Without a blink of the eye he said, “Oh we love that story, we are proud of that story, because it reminds us that it took God himself to defeat us.”
Some may say that is pretty good spin, but I believe it testifies to the human aspiration we all have of wanting to fit in, of wanting our story to be recognized, to fit into the stories and the lives of others. In fact, the first reading from Deuteronomy, acknowledges and even ratifies that aspiration as something the people of the covenant are obligated to respect.
You shall not violate the rights of the alien, the orphan, or the widow but let them pass through your fields and orchards at harvest time. I command this as a rule to observe, for remember you were once slaves in Egypt.
The message is clear, the people will lose something of their heritage, their identity as people of the covenant if others who share the lot that was once theirs are marginalized simply because they are strangers, rootless cast offs or considered losers. Jesus goes even further by telling us that our failure to help those in need comes at the risk of putting in jeopardy our very salvation, puts us at risk of losing our very soul.
And that is a risk that is not delayed until we pass from this life, but one that can happen to us in the present day. What we do in response to those in need – to the stranger, the person how has no home or family, the person who has suffered great loss and who has no voice or power - is not just about what happens to them now, but what happens to us now.
That is a timely message for us during this moment of national debate about establishing immigration and refugee policies that are just, particularly as we join with the world in helping relieve the human tragedy of 60 million people who have fled their homes because of war, famine and poverty. What happens to the soul of a nation of immigrants and refugees, that fails to respond in a way that is just?
It is also a timely message as we consider how to address the fears of people about national security, especially if those fears are stoked simply to keep out those who like our ancestors are merely seeking new opportunities and a better life.
And it is a timely message that can bring balance and reason to our discussions about what kind of world we are passing on to our children and grandchildren, lest we leave them with paying our bills or cleaning up our environmental mess, or even worse allowing the state to use the fruits of our labors to end the future of some of our children before they are even born. We cannot escape the searing words spoken to us today: Remember, you were once a slave, remember you were once there, remember, what you do to the least of these you do to me.
Yes, it is important to own what happens to those we neglect, marginalize and dispose of, but also to own what happens to us in doing so.
St. Patrick is celebrated as the Apostle to Ireland, yet he acknowledges in his Confessions that his relationship with the Celtic tribes whom he converted was a two way street. He first came to Ireland abducted as a slave, exiled from his native homeland in the Roman Empire. After escaping back to his home and family, he eventually returned to Ireland drawn not just by a desire to share his faith, but also by what he found of value in the very people who enslaved him. The Celts had a different worldview. Even with all of its faults and imperfections that Patrick needed to purify, it stood apart from the way the Roman Empire looked upon the world with its sharp lines and borders, ordering everything in a way that harshly defined who was in and who was out, who was up and who was down. For the Celts all of life was interwoven and interconnected, celebrating the oneness of the divine and the human with all of nature. The cosmos was not defined by straight lines that separate and divide but was understood as interdependent and where oneness and communion are celebrated.
With Patrick’s influence the Celtic Christian experience gave the entire Church a fresh appreciation of the core of our faith, the incarnation of the divine in our humanity and the imminence of the divine within creation.
It is a world view that inspired poets to pray with an astonishing daily intimacy with God: “May the Father of heaven have care of my soul, His loving arm about my body, through each slumber and sleep of my life.” ~ Carmina Gaedelica
It is a world view that was expressed in a unique art form marked by unbroken knotwork, energetic circles and interlaced patterns like we find in the Book of Kells, as well as in the iconographic detail that decorates this very church named for Patrick. With its beautiful and unique artwork and architecture, it stands today as a legacy and witness to the faith of the immigrants who built it.
Those same immigrants, regularly shunted aside by the harsh vetting message Irish Need Not Apply, who were objects of suspicion because of their different faith and ways, boxed in and boxed out by the sharp dividing lines of the dominant culture in power, gathered in this sacred space undaunted to sing their prayers and pray their songs, confident that their story was a story to tell, a story that could fit into the stories and lives of others in this new world of opportunities.
As we gather in this Church it is easy to be in touch with the vibrant interconnected and interdependent world view of these Irish immigrants and be inspired by the elaborate iconographic detail and multi-colored schemes that surround us, opening us to make our own the prayers of the poet that God’s loving arm wrap around us all in each of our daily tasks.
But, we will leave this place and enter into a world saturated by divisive language, fears stoked by prejudice, and sharp edges that define who is in and who is out. Patrick and his Celtic friends would challenge us to look for signs in the world, for new opportunities to find traces of their world view that we are all connected and interdependent, that our stories fit into each other’s stories.
Some months ago, I found such a trace of this other world view in a very surprising way. Visiting as I try to do regularly the children’s hospital, a man stopped me in the hallway and invited me to come and visit his sick daughter. He was a Muslim. At the end of my visit, he walked me to the door and asked: “do you want to know why I invited you to see my daughter?” “Yes,” I said, “I was curious but was not sure if I should ask.” Then he told me that in the Islamic tradition, it is a blessing to visit someone, especially a child who is sick. “I wanted to give you this blessing,” he said.
May we all find that kind of blessing as we wish each other a Happy St. Patrick’s Day.