The Irish, immigrants and our faith

Jonathan Currie |

The sweep of salvation history offered to us in the Judeo-Christian religious traditions begins with the story of an immigrant. Abraham leaves his native place along with his wife Sarah and their extended family, relying only on God and one another for support. This story is a narrative precedent for much of the scriptures. The journeys of persons and peoples continue throughout the bible. Moses leads the people of God on a journey from captivity searching for a promised land. The Israelites are held captive in Babylon for a generation before returning home. Mary and Joseph and the infant Jesus flee Bethlehem and Herod’s violence, passing through the desert to Egypt, returning finally to Galilee where Jesus would grow to adulthood before traveling further still, proclaiming the imminent reign of God. Paul and the other apostles were sojourners.

God’s self disclosure to humankind is inseparable from a human story defined by travel and travail and trust in God. The promise of freedom and fullness keeps us a people on the move.  

St. PatrickThis weekend, many of us celebrated the feast day of Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, a man whose own spiritual progress mirrors this scriptural pattern of migration. It may surprise some to learn that Patrick was not a native Irishman. In fact, he was born a Roman Briton in the 4th century. Having been taken captive by marauders when he was 16, he was enslaved and brought to Ireland where he worked as a shepherd for several years. He escaped sometime in his early 20s and managed to return to Britain to his family.

But a vision moved Patrick to return to Ireland some time later as a Christian missionary. The son of deacon and the grandson of a priest, Patrick belonged to one of the relatively few Christian communities in Western Europe at the time. He was determined to bring the good news of God’s reign and the resurrection of Christ to the people of Ireland.

It is an historical irony that the spiritual father of the nation is a man who was at first forcibly relocated there and who later settled in Ireland voluntarily as an immigrant. His influence however came to define the character of Irish culture and religious life perhaps more than that of any other. The Irish people would themselves become a people on the move over the centuries, leaving Ireland in the hope of fuller lives in England, Australia, and of course the United States, among other places, mindful perhaps of their patron saint, the immigrant Patrick.

My father’s parents left Ireland for New York City during the waning years of Irish immigration to the United States in the twentieth century. My grandmother, Mary, found employment as domestic worker in the homes of the wealthy in Manhattan. They passed away before I was born, but I often think of my grandmother as my colleagues and I work now for immigration reform. I am reminded of the domestic workers today, many of whom are immigrant women, like my grandmother; many of whom are Catholic Christian women of faith like my grandmother; many of whom have only God and their community members to rely on, as my grandmother did, as the prophets and Patrick relied on God, in their toils and hopes.

I wonder if my grandmother remembered Patrick in her prayers, and his journeys. I wonder whether domestic workers and our immigrant neighbors today look to any of the saints and prophets for spiritual company and consolation. I think of the faith-gift Patrick brought to Ireland, and I reflect on the gifts the Irish brought to the United States. I am more than hopeful that future generations with recall the gifts of immigrants today with gratitude. We are all of us a people on the move, and our story continues to unfold as we bear together in faith and hope.