August 15th, the Feast of the Assumption, fell on a Sunday in the year 1858; that afternoon, a 22 year-old Irish immigrant named Cormack McCall1 may well have watched as a stone that he had cut with his own hands was blessed as the cornerstone of the new St. Patrick’s Cathedral by New York City’s Archbishop John Hughes. Around Hughes stood seven bishops, 130 priests, and 100 choirboys. The crowd was estimated at 100,000 people or more; New York’s entire fleet of streetcars had been diverted to the area just to accommodate them.
It is an oddity in keeping with St. Patrick that to this day no one knows exactly where the cathedral’s cornerstone is or when it went missing.2 It has sunk into obscurity like the details of the life of the great saint himself. Nevertheless, St. Patrick’s impact on the faith is every bit as real and foundational as the cathedral’s mysterious cornerstone.
Patrick was similar in a few ways to Israel’s son Joseph, whose life story closes the book of Genesis. Both became slaves in their youth, both were bright and resourceful men of dreams, and both used their gifts not just to endure their captivity but to be victorious over it.
Of course, there were differences. Unlike Joseph, Patrick was not raised by parents with a strong and vibrant faith; nevertheless, during his captivity he found that his faith was strengthened. Moreover, although both were men of dreams, Patrick focused on one particular vision from his youth and was determined to see it come to fruition. While a slave he had a vision of Irish children reaching out for him and resolved that should he escape he would return and convert the pagan Irish to Christianity. In fact, he did escape and reunite with his family in Britain for awhile; however, Patrick never lost sight of that vision from his youth. Around the year 431, after being ordained in France, Patrick was sent to Ireland as its bishop by Pope Celestine I.
At first, Bishop Patrick began by supporting the small band of Christians already on the island but was soon evangelizing far and wide, preaching, writing and baptizing countless people. It is ironic that Patrick was so self-conscious of his lack of formal education for as an evangelizer he was brilliant. He understood that the truth of Christ transcends culture, that certain symbols or practices of the pagan people could be imbued with Christian meaning. For example, an ancient pagan image of two crossed lines and a circle was reinterpreted by Patrick as the Cross of Christ with the circle symbolizing the eternity of God. We know it as the Celtic Cross to this day.
Over the course his years a missionary bishop to Ireland, Patrick truly was a cornerstone of the Irish Church. He installed and supported church officials, created councils, founded monasteries and organized Ireland into dioceses. He died around the year 461 and was buried in the land that he first came to as a slave and to which he returned, faithful to his promise to the end.
The psalmist must have had Joseph in mind as he sang, they had weighed him down with fetters, and he was bound with chains till his prediction came to pass and the word of the LORD proved him true (Psalm 105:18-19) but it applies to St. Patrick as well. In a larger sense it applies to all of us, for to one degree or another we are all weighed down with the fetters of sin. Many are bound with the additional chains of addiction or illness, either our own or someone we love. Perhaps we have not been given visions or dreams like Joseph or Patrick, but we have been given the vision of Christ, the Eternal Word who proved himself true to the greatest promise ever given mankind: That every fetter would be lifted, every chain broken, every tear wiped away for all those who cling to him as their salvation. As much as they did, as faithful as they were, both Joseph and Patrick humbly bend their knee and fade into the background like an old cathedral cornerstone before the Stone rejected by the builders, the one true Cornerstone who is Christ.
St. Patrick, pray for us.