Sunday 4 February 2018

Saint Brigid: 'the pride and glory of the Irish Church'

The opening chapter of Father Knowles' book Saint Brigid, Patroness of Ireland, sets the scene for the career of its subject. He opens, naturally enough, with the coming of Saint Patrick and it is clear that Father Knowles views the fifth-century Ireland to which Patrick came as a place of special holiness, unique among the pagan nations:
Never, in the history of the propagation of the Catholic Faith, was there found a soil more ready for the reception of the blessed seed of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, than that of our own dear Isle. In the wide expanse of the dominions of the Catholic Church, Ireland stands alone as a Nation whose conversion, from the darkness of paganism to the full light of the true faith, was accomplished without the shedding of one drop of a Martyr's blood. St. Patrick went from end to end of our Island preaching the Gospel of peace and good will, without encountering any of the obstacles and trials experienced by the Apostles of other nations. His apostolate partook more of the nature of a triumphal procession than of a fierce combat with the powers of darkness and superstition.
This view of Saint Patrick as an all-conquering hero who singlehandedly evangelized the entire island of Ireland was a common one at the time. And despite the fact that he is writing in English, Father Knowles approvingly notes the national apostle's use of the national language:
Wherever our Apostle went, crowds flocked round him to hear the doctrines and practices of the New Law preached to them in their own sweet Gaelic tongue.
The superiority of Saint Patrick's new teachings are particularly manifested to upper-class Irish women: 
Ladies of royal and noble birth sat at the feet of the Apostle, to learn the true dignity of womanhood, attained only by the knowledge and practice of Christian virtue.  
And, attracted by this message, women begin to enter the religious life, as the quotation from Saint Patrick's own Confession records:
...And there is one blessed Irish maiden, of the Scottish race, of noble birth, most fair, of adult age, whom I baptised; and soon thereafter she came to us on some business, and informed us that God's will had been revealed to her, admonishing her to become a Virgin of Christ and draw near to God. Thanks be to God, on the sixth day after that, she worthily and most eagerly embraced that state of life. And indeed all the Virgins of God act in like manner, not at the bidding of their parents — nay, they endure reproaches and persecutions from their parents — and, nevertheless, their number goes on increasing, so that I know not the number of the natives who thus have become of our kindred, besides the widows and those who observe continency.
There is one Irish nun though who stands out from all the innumerable and anonymous others:
At the head of this noble band of consecrated virgins, St. Brigid, Patroness of Ireland, takes her rightful place. She, of all the spiritual children of St. Patrick, was the brightest jewel in his apostolic crown. She is, and always will be, the pride and glory of the Irish Church, the most honoured and venerated on the bead-roll of her Saints, the joy and the crown of the womanhood of holy Ireland.
It is interesting to see Father Knowles take some pains to establish Saint Patrick as the inspiration of Saint Brigid's later career. I will continue with his view of Saint Brigid in tomorrow's post.

Rev. J.A. Knowles, O.S.A., Saint Brigid, Patroness of Ireland, (Dublin, 1907).
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