By Barb Arland-Fye
As an admirer of Celtic spirituality, I looked forward to a talk by a priest from Ireland on the subject. Father Conn O’Maoldhomhnaigh’s talk provided a bonus: insights on evangelization and Celtic spirituality.
He told stories of St. Patrick and his approach to evangelization in fifth-century Ireland that transported me to that time and place. I think other people sitting on folding chairs inside the schoolhouse at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Davenport March 20 might have felt the same way.
Fr. Conn, of the Diocese of Kildare & Leighlin, Ireland, is in the Davenport Diocese for a nine-month Presidential Fellowship at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.
He explained that Patrick ministered to a people whose spirituality was steeped in nature. They worshiped the sun because like other elements of nature it was essential to their existence. Spirits existed in everything, they believed. The Irish felt a sense of harmony between themselves and nature.
As a teenager, Patrick was captured by pirates in his native Britain and enslaved in Ireland. During his captivity he prayed often and became devoted to Christianity. He escaped his captors but sensed that the Lord and the people of Ireland were calling out to him to return, to bring the Irish to Christianity.
Patrick knew the language, the culture, the lay of the land. He understood and appreciated the people; he wanted them to have what he himself embraced: a relationship with the one true God, the triune God of Christianity. Patrick was a syncretist who introduced the Irish to Christianity by combining it with elements of their nature-based religion, Fr. Conn observed.
The fifth-century saint inspired people to worship not the sun, but the Son of God, the light of Christ that never goes out. Tapping into their belief that spirits existed in everything, Patrick taught the people that Christ is present in everything. A wonderful prayer attributed to St. Patrick includes these lines:
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
Patrick saw everything through the prism of his relationship with Christ. His evangelization strategies included meeting with the local chieftain in each community. If he succeeded in converting the chieftain, the people would follow. This, of course, did not sit well with the Druid priests. They had many confrontations with Patrick, Fr. Conn said. If Patrick wasn’t successful in that community, he simply moved on. He’d come back another time.
Slipping in a slice of humor, Fr. Conn told how Patrick toward the end of his life met with a young king who had chosen to convert to Christianity. During the ceremony Patrick inadvertently stuck his crosier into the king’s foot but didn’t realize it until afterwards. When Patrick asked the king why he hadn’t said anything, the king responded that he figured it was part of the ceremony!
Fr. Conn shared several examples of Celtic spirituality. My favorite: hospitality is a “tenet of living our Celtic spirituality,” rooted in the belief that Christ is the visitor.
The priest’s source material for his talk, he said, came largely from what St. Patrick wrote about himself in Saint Patrick’s Confessio.
Sacred Heart parishioner Roxanne Miner asked Fr. Conn why he hadn’t mentioned St. Bridget in his talk. The priest agreed that St. Bridget played an important role in passing on the faith and embodying Celtic spiritualty every day of her life.
Roxanne’s husband, Pat, suggested concluding the presentation with a song. Fr. Conn obliged, singing “Danny Boy” like a pro. He got a standing ovation for his presentation. I left feeling uplifted, with a better understanding of evangelization and a desire to continue exploring Celtic spirituality.