On our recent pilgrimage to Ireland, Fr. Nicholas and I visited the sites where many of the holy men and women of Ireland lived and worked to bring the light of Christianity to their countrymen and others further afield. The spirit of mission was so strong here that, within 500 years of our Lord’s Resurrection, the whole country was filled with innumerable churches and monastic settlements and the Christian faith was thriving.
How did these missionary saints do it? What methods did they use to convince pagans to abandon their errors and follow Christ? Is there anything we can learn from them about how we are to be evangelists?
Although Christianity was already quietly spreading through Ireland, it was not until the arrival of the adult St. Patrick (461), who had been ordained to be a missionary bishop, that the spark of the true faith was really ignited. From his youthful days as a slave working in the fields tending sheep, Patrick knew the local people, the language, and the customs. He knew their superstitions and their rituals. When on that first Pascha, he defied the High King Lothaire by lighting the Paschal fire on the hill of Slane for all (including Lothaire on the hill of Tara) to see, he was deliberately dispelling a superstition and thereby won converts for the faith. In our country today, do we know what superstitions and folk beliefs are a hindrance to Christianity? Would we be brave enough to defy those who hold these beliefs and show them the light of our faith?
Maybe we are the ones who hold hindering folk beliefs or at least incomplete or incorrect theological understanding. Could we be like St. Erc (512), one of Lothaire’s chief druids, who saw and heard St. Patrick and was impressed enough to abandon his former errors and follow Christ? St. Erc became a bishop and founded a monastery on the hill of Slane which became a school for passing on the teachings of our Lord.
Just as it is important for missionaries to know the background against which they will be preaching, it is sometimes better to show how some former beliefs can be brought into the Church and “baptized” rather than completely abandoned.
St. Bridgid of Kildare (525), who shared the name of a pagan Irish deity, saw the need for this. The continuous fire of the cult of the goddess Bridgid, became the fire over which food was prepared for the needy whom Bridgid and her nuns fed. A common cross-shaped pagan emblem made of rushes was re-interpreted for a dying man by the saint, who told him about the Crucifixion and Resurrection and baptized the new believer before his death. Are there strong elements of our secular society today that we can reinterpret in light of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of our Lord?
While some Irish saints came from leading families, others were of humble origin. St. Ciaran (549) was just a boy when he left home to seek God. The son of a carpenter, Ciaran brought the carpentry skills he had learned from his father and a cow as the gifts with which he began his life as a monk. He founded the monastery at Clonmacnoise on the River Shannon, and it eventually became a place where many came to learn about Christ and His Church. St. Ciaran’s very homely contributions to the physical welfare of himself and others led to great spiritual growth. Do we offer all our skills and gifts (even those which are very ordinary) for the furtherance of the kingdom?
One of the great concerns of the 20th and 21st centuries is the care of the earth. Ecologists urge us to recycle, live “green”, make a small “footprint” on the earth. The early saints in predominantly rural Ireland were also concerned for the earth. But unlike their pagan ancestors, they were careful to worship the Creator and not the elements of the earth. St. Kevin (618), particularly, had great reverence for God’s creation and his creatures. He chose beautiful Glendalough as the site for his monastery, where the monks could pray and study between two lakes, surrounded by woods and the wildlife which inhabited them. St. Kevin is known for his love of animals and the story is well known of the raven who made her nest in his upturned palm as he prayed, a position he remained in until her egg hatched. Are there ways that we, as Orthodox Christians intent on being evangelists, can help steer the public concern for the environment in a direction which is consistent with our faith?
Perhaps the most difficult example from the Irish missionary saints is that of those who traveled far to take the Christian faith to other lands. St. Columcille (597) was the first who voluntarily exiled himself from his homeland in order to be a missionary to foreigners. He first spent seventeen years in studying, preaching, and teaching in Ireland and then departed for Scotland where he established the great monastic settlement at Iona (from which the monks, fleeing Viking invaders, returned to Kells in Ireland in a later century). St. Columbanus and St. Gall are among those who took their missionary endeavors even further – to Italy, France, Switzerland and beyond. Most of us would not be able to leave our homes, families, and jobs to be missionaries in other countries. But we should joyfully pray for and support those – like our own Maria – who have answered that call.
However the Irish missionary saints adapted the Gospel message to the people they were evangelizing, or whatever methods they used to aid in the conversion of a pagan people, their most effective tool was the example of their holy lives. These men and women had devoted themselves to serving God, they had put others before themselves, they led disciplined lives of prayer and fasting, and they met the members of warring family factions with love and kindness. This, more than anything, helped to bring about conversions.
It would be wonderful to imagine another “golden age” of Christianity like that which the early saints brought about in Ireland. We should believe that it could happen if we follow the examples of those saints by knowing the beliefs that need to be changed, knowing the Orthodox teachings that should replace them, having the courage to shed our unhealthy attitudes and speak out for our faith, being willing to give all of our skills and energies to the task, being able to articulate societal concerns in Christian terms, even being willing to leave the comfort of our normal lives to help spread the Gospel and, above all, by leading holy and godly lives. May St. Patrick, St. Erc, St. Bridgid, St. Ciaran, St. Kevin, and St. Columcille pray for us that we may follow in their footsteps.