St. Patrick, St. Joseph, and the Conversion that Makes All the Difference
I am always pleased when the feasts of St. Patrick and St. Joseph roll around every year, the first on March 17th and the second on March 19th. Joseph is especially dear to the Italian people, who celebrate him with festive meals, and Patrick, of course, is specially reverenced by my own people, the Irish, who celebrate him with parades, parties, and (often) too much drinking. Though separated by four centuries and though hailing from extremely different cultures, Patrick and Joseph have a great deal in common, spiritually speaking. For both stubbornly situated their lives in the context, not of the ego-drama, but the theo-drama, and therein lies their importance for the universal church.
Let’s consider Patrick first. A Roman Briton, born in the early fifth century, Patrick, while still a young man, was kidnapped by raiders and brought to Ireland, where he lived the brutal life of a slave. One can only imagine the darkness of these years: torn away from family, friends, and home, compelled to learn an unfamiliar language, treated with disdain, forced to do the most disagreeable work. How often he must have wept. How often he must have cried out to God, wondering how he could have been so thoroughly abandoned. After six years in Ireland, Patrick finally managed to escape and return home. Some accounts have it that he then sojourned in France, doing his theological studies there and becoming ordained as a priest.
Looking at this life from a purely natural or psychological perspective, one would readily conclude that still youthful Fr. Patrick would never want to journey again to the place where his life had hit rock bottom. Or perhaps, he would want to return there as chaplain to an invading army! Instead, he decided to go back to Ireland in order to carry the Gospel to those who had enslaved and persecuted him. How can we explain this? We have to move beyond a merely natural and psychological framework and understand his life theologically. Stated differently, we have to appreciate that Patrick, like all of the saints, saw his life as ingredient in a drama that God was directing and producing. He appreciated that the whole awful experience of being a slave was not simply dumb suffering, but was, strangely, a preparation for the work that God had for him. During those terrible years, he learned a great deal about the history, topography, and language of the Irish; he came, perhaps, to love some of their lore and religious customs. Like Moses among the Egyptians, he came to understand the “enemy” culture from the inside and hence was able, with special skill and creativity, to engage it. Now think of the worst moment of your life, the time when you hit bottom. How do you read it? Pointless pain—or a moment of particular grace?
Now let us look at St. Joseph. Every episode of his life recounted in the Bible is a crisis. He discovers, to his dismay, that the woman he loved and to whom he was betrothed to marry, was pregnant. How lost and confused he must have been. The Mosaic law permitted him to hand Mary over to be stoned to death, but his native decency prevented him from taking that path. Instead, he resolved, undoubtedly with a broken heart, to divorce her quietly. But then the angel of the Lord appeared in a dream and explained the anomalous pregnancy. Placing his own fears and preoccupations to one side, Joseph understood what was happening in the context of God’s providence and he took Mary as his wife.
Next, discovering that the child was in mortal danger, Joseph took mother and baby on a perilous journey, across hundreds of miles of trackless desert, to an unknown country, an unknown village, an unknown people. Anyone who has ever been forced into exile, compelled to leave his homeland, or even obliged to move to a new city to take up a job knows the anxiety that Joseph must have felt. Now add to it the keen sense that your baby is being pursued by agents of the government, intent upon murder. But Joseph went because God had commanded him.
Finally, we hear of Joseph desperately seeking his lost twelve-year old son. Speak to any parent who has gone through a similar experience—looking for a child who has wandered away or been taken—and you will hear of a fear beyond measure. And this anxious search went on for three days. Did Mary and Joseph sleep? Did they eat? What did they say to one another? Thus we fully understand Mary’s reaction when, having finally discovered Jesus among the doctors in the Temple: “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been looking for you with great anxiety?” And they received that devastatingly understated response: “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know I must be in my Father’s house?” Quietly taking the child home, Joseph once more put aside his human feelings and trusted in the purposes of God. The little we know about Joseph is that he experienced heartbreak, fear unto death, and a parent’s deepest anxiety, but each time, he read what happened to him theo-dramatically and not ego-dramatically.
This shift in attitude, this re-orientation of the heart, this conversion is what made Patrick the patron of the Irish and Joseph the patron of the universal Church.