Patrician Year (1961): Bl. John XXIII on the Irish Church
The following letter was addressed to Cardinal John D’Alton, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All-Ireland, on the occassion of the opening of the Patrician Year celebrations, 17th March, 1961.
The fifteenth centenary of the death of Saint Patrick, the Apostle of the Irish, is about to be celebrated with fitting solemnity throughout Ireland, particularly in his own episcopal city.
As soon as We learned of this forthcoming celebration, We desired to extend Our warm congratulations to you, Beloved Son, and to your zealous colleagues in the hierarchy, on your intelligent foresight and on your zeal for religion. Because one result of this commemoration will be — as We confidently hope and believe — that greater attention will be focused on recording events of the saint’s life and the sterling Irish people will be moved, as they see more clearly the incomparable benefits which Saint Patrick brought them, to imitate his example and to follow his footsteps in leading their Christian lives.
To anyone who turns over the pages of Irish history it is clear that there was something quite unusual and wonderful about the way in which your forefathers were won over to the light of Christ and to His Kingdom. Heralds of the Gospel are of two kinds. Some, indeed the vast majority, must labour in one tiny patch of the far-stretching field of the Lord. They sow but they do not reap the harvest, or, if they reap the harvest, it is not one which they themselves have sown.
But there are others, an outstanding few, who, blessed with some triumphal grace from on high, win over entire nations, even during their own lifetime, to the kingdom of the Holy Cross. Such was Patrick, in whom the apostle shines out most brightly. At a time when many of the countries of Europe were wrapped in the darkness of idolatry and paganism, Ireland was bathed in the light of the Gospel, a precious part of the flock of Peter. And it was through Patrick that this had come to pass.
Well may one apply to such a nation the divinely inspired words of the prophet Osse: “And I will espouse thee to me in faith: and thou shalt know that I am the Lord…and I will say to that which was not My people: Thou art My people; and they shall say: Thou are my God” (11, 20, 24).
But if Patrick’s outstanding qualities as an apostle produced rich and abundant fruit, no less beneficial, both to themselves and posterity, was the willing way in which the Irish people accepted his preaching of the Gospel. Your forefathers were not merely devoted to the Catholic faith; they were on fire with zeal to propagate it; they realised that the salvation won by Christ, Our Divine Redeemer, was meant for all nations, and they realised too that the most acceptable return they could make to God for having received the light of the Gospel was to spend themselves generously in diffusing that light far and wide.
The exploits of the monks who left Ireland for other lands, far and near, are well known; how they imbued these countries with Christian teaching and Christian morals, and, indeed, how with their scholarship and sweet Latin poetry, they purified the general culture of the time and so rendered notable service to the cause of Christian humanism. Here one recalls the fair names of Saints Columba, Brendan, Aidan, Columbanus, Killian, Vergilius, Rumold, Gall, Cathaldus and many others.
Equally famous is the name of Saint Malachy, an Archbishop of Armagh and Papal Legate for all Ireland, of whom his friend, Saint Bernard the Abbot spoke so movingly after he had died while staying as a guest in Saint Bernard’s monastery. Referring to the fact that Saint Malachy was also called Angelus, he said that he was “an angel in purity no less than in name”. Fresh also is the memory of Saint Laurence, Archbishop of Dublin, who was appointed Papal Legate in Ireland by Our predecessor, Alexander III.
The undaunted loyalty of your forefathers to the Catholic Church had to endure many bitter and lengthy trials: want, hard labour, exile; “mockeries and stripes, bonds also and prisons; they were tempted; they were put to death by the Sword” (Hebr. 11:36, 37)
At times the soil of Ireland was reddened with the blood of martyrs. Amongst these, Blessed Oliver Plunkett, the bravest of the brave, is outstanding and one whose memory we should recall at this present time, because he adorned that Episcopal See which was once Saint Patrick’s and is now yours, nor merely with the halo of virtue but with the crown of martyrdom.
Work for the missions, which has always been held in honour by the Irish, is crowned in this case with an altogether special glory. Generally speaking, any Christian nation will produce a greater or lesser number of priests. But Ireland, that beloved country, is the most fruitful of mothers in this respect. In the numbers of priests, diocesan and regular, and in the number of nuns and sisters to which she gives birth, she is second to none; to no other nation does she yield this palm.
Chosen bands of priests have gone forth and are still going forth from her shores to Great Britain, to North America, to Australia and to other countries of the English-speaking world and in more recent times she has sent her valiant missionaries in large numbers to the most distant parts of the earth.
She has preserved undimmed the glory of the priesthood; it is her crown of virtue and with it she has won for herself a rich harvest of merits from the Communion of Saints for centuries to come.
One other thing we wish to mention — at once a happy memory and a well-founded hope for the future. It has always been a sacred principle with the devout and deeply religious people of Ireland to preserve the closest of bonds with the See of Peter.
This, indeed, is part of the patrimony which you have received from Saint Patrick. He was sent to you by Our predecessor, Saint Celestine, and dedicated as he was to the Apostolic See, he used to exhort his followers to be true Christians and Romans. It will, indeed, be most fitting if on the occasion of the present joyful celebrations that health-giving bond shines out still more brightly and is even strengthened by noble decisions.
Here, one thing is very close to Our heart. There is at Rome a Pontifical Irish College, where chosen students for the priesthood, for whom the Church is waiting and hoping, are formed, a College indeed which we greatly admire and greatly love. Under your untiring watchfulness and protection may it be free from care, may it thrive and flourish.
With these wishes, which come from the bottom of Our hearts, We commend you and yours to the patronage of Saint Patrick, who is at once the mainstay and the glory of your motherland. May he who is “a lover of his brethren…and who prays much for the people and for all the holy city” (cf 2 Mach. 15:14), may he win for you the choicest heavenly gifts of the august and adorable Trinity, may he shelter you, may he protect you unto the world to come. “The grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the charity of God and the communication of the Holy Ghost be with you all. Amen” (2 Cor. 13:13).
As pledge of these blessings, We lovingly and willingly impart the Apostolic Benediction to you, Our Beloved Son, to the clergy and faithful of your archdiocese and to all Ireland.
Given at Rome, at Saint Peter’s, on the 18th day of February in the year 1961 and the third year of Our Pontificate.
JOHN XXIII PP.