We have a Breastplate to protect us - St Patrick’s Day Mass at St Patrick's College

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Home > Archbishop > Homilies > We have a Breastplate to protect us - St Patrick’s Day Mass at St Patrick's College

I know students of St Patrick’s College are very familiar with the story of St Patrick. In particular, we all know that he brought the Catholic faith to Ireland in the early part of the fifth century.

I am sure you are familiar with the popular hymn attributed to him and which you sing with great gusto. The hymn is entitled, ‘St Patrick’s Breastplate’. Have you ever asked yourself the meaning of the word, ‘breastplate’, and why it is used in the title of the hymn?

What is a breastplate? It is a piece of armour worn by a soldier across the chest. It was a standard piece of armour in ancient times. I am sure you have seen many pictures of Roman soldiers and their body armour. It is to protect the soldier from sword cuts, spear thrusts and perhaps flying arrows. It was a vital piece of armour in ancient warfare.

What then is the meaning of this piece of armour for a holy saint, like St Patrick? Saints don’t usually engage in physical combat. It, of course, has a spiritual meaning.

St Paul in his Letter to the Ephesians says, “Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” (Eph 6:11) He goes on to say that the Christian should wear the breastplate of righteousness. St Paul is speaking of spiritual armour. No doubt this passage influenced the thought of St Patrick.

There is a legend concerning the origins of this hymn. The story goes that he was about to preach to the Irish king, Leoghaire. Patrick was trying to convert the people of Ireland to the Christian faith. In those days the missionary would do well if he could convert the king, because then the king would order all his subjects to also become Christians.

However, approaching the king was a risky business. He could be favourably received, or he could be killed. Many missionaries have become martyrs as they sought to win over kings and leaders to the faith. Patrick knew this.

The day he was to see the king, he knew his life was in the balance. The meeting could go either way. He had no idea what would happen. Thus as he got up in the morning, he sought divine protection. He had to put his trust in God. He needed God to be a breastplate to protect him. Thus, he invoked the protection of God through this extraordinary hymn. The hymn begins with the words:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

‘I rise today’. One imagines St Patrick getting up on the day he was to meet the king. Immediately he invokes the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Spirit. You might recall the symbol of the Irish is the three leaf clover. It was this that St Patrick used to explain that God was three and one. We see this captured in the opening words of the hymn. Thus, St Patrick invokes God, Father, Son and Spirit, seeking a “mighty strength” to protect him.

Next he turns to Christ. St Patrick was a Christian. Christ defines his identity, as it does for us as well. When he invokes Christ he emphases in particular the key moments in Christ’s life and their profound significance. These key mysteries in Christ’s life are part of Christ’s work of saving humanity. He calls upon them as sources of strength.
Thus he says: 

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ's birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.

His focus on Christ reaches a high point later in the hymn in a passage which is very familiar to us. As he goes to meet the king he wants Christ all around him and in him. He is completely dependent on Christ. Thus he prays. Here I imagine him walking to the meeting and praying:

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

St Patrick wants Christ to totally surround him as he goes to face the king. It also shows that he knows that in the end it is not going to be him who convinces the king, it will be Christ working through him who converts the king’s heart. He wants Christ to so flow through him that the king will be converted.

As he gets near he calls upon the power of God to protect him. He prays:

God's strength to pilot me,
God's might to uphold me,
God's wisdom to guide me,
God's eye to look before me,
God's ear to hear me,
God's word to speak for me,
God's hand to guard me,
God's shield to protect me,
God's host to save me.

This hymn tells us much of the faith of St Patrick. It tells us of his extraordinary faith.  He relied completely on God to watch over him and protect him, and to work through him.

This is the faith that he brought to Ireland. It is the faith then passed on to us by the Irish priests, brothers and nuns who came across the world to plant the Catholic faith in Tasmania.

Today as we honour St Patrick let us desire to have that same faith. God is there to protect and watch over us. Whenever we face danger we can be like St Patrick and call on divine power to guard us in all our ways.

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Thursday, 14 March 2019