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The First Irish Saint (Hint: It Ain’t Patrick)

November 5, 2015 Featured Today No Comments

By RAY CAVANAUGH

If asked to name the first Irish saint, there’s a good chance someone would say St. Patrick. As it turns out, though, Patrick wasn’t even born in Ireland. He was born in Britain, and brought to Ireland against his will, having been taken captive at age 16 by a band of pagan-Irish marauders on the hunt for slaves.
The first canonized saint who actually hailed from Ireland was St. Malachy, whose canonization was authorized by Pope Clement III on July 6, 1199, according to The New Catholic Encyclopedia (second edition).
Malachy’s feast day would have been on November 2, the date of his death, but it was fixed at November 3, so as not to conflict with All Souls’ Day.
There are several current-day parishes in the Midwest and the Northeast that have Malachy’s name. Among these is the St. Malachy Church in Burlington, Mass., which also provides the website saint-malachy.org.
Malachy was born in the Northern Ireland city of Armagh in 1094. His father, who was a teacher, died when Malachy was age seven.
As a young man, Malachy submitted to the religious discipline and tutelage of Imar O’Hagan, described by saint-malachy.org as “a holy recluse residing in a cell near Armagh Cathedral.”
Ordained a priest at the age of 25, Malachy then launched a crusade: to return Ireland to its former Christian glory.”
In the early-11th century, Ireland was in a spiritual slump. Beforehand, Christianity had flourished for centuries in Ireland, which, because of its geographical separation from the European continent, had not been overrun by pagan barbarians.
Then, in the ninth century, the Vikings laid siege to Ireland: Monasteries were sacked, monks were slaughtered, and the marauders — having scant use for books and libraries — were glad to destroy them as well.
With the Church plunged into disarray, Christianity suffered. Eventually, there was religious apathy, and by Malachy’s time, paganism had resurfaced in some parts of Ireland.
As part of his crusade, Malachy reinstituted marriage as a sacrament, along with Confirmation and Penance. He also brought reforms to the way Mass was presented, particularly by introducing the Roman liturgy. Additionally, he established a seminary and other centers of piety.
Though the Irish populace was generally receptive to Malachy’s contributions, not everyone was pleased. There were secular Irish princes who did not appreciate their declining influence, and Malachy had to spend some of his days on the run, though he was able to stay put long enough to be appointed archbishop of Armagh in 1132.
In 1140, Malachy set out for Rome in order to give an account of the Irish situation to Pope Innocent II. During his journey, he stopped at a Cistercian monastery in Clairvaux, France, where he was so enamored by their way of life that, upon reaching Rome, he asked the Pope to strip him of his title as archbishop, so that he might become a monk at Clairvaux.
The Pontiff was hearing none of it, and reminded Malachy that he was needed in Ireland, where he was the foremost ecclesiast of his era.
Though Malachy did not join orders at Clairvaux Abbey, he made a return appearance there eight years later, after having set out to visit Rome once again. During this journey, Malachy — then in his 50s — had fallen ill. He was brought to Clairvaux, where he died on November 2, 1148, in the presence of all the monks.
The monastery’s leader, Bernard, would become Malachy’s main biographer, writing The Life and Death of Saint Malachy, the Irishman. The opening line of this biography is striking: “Our Malachy was born in Ireland of a barbarous tribe.”
Having established Malachy’s “barbarous” pedigree, the biographer proceeds to say: “How delightful it is that crude barbarism should have given us so worthy a man, a fellow citizen with the saints, and a true member of the House of God.”
What is not mentioned in Bernard’s biography on Malachy is a curious phenomenon known as the “Prophecy of the Popes.”
Some accounts hold that Malachy, while visiting Rome in 1140, went into a trance-like state, and foresaw all of the remaining Popes until the end of days.
Though he did not provide specific names, he wrote down a few cryptic words about each future Pope in a document that was stored in the Vatican Archives, where it reportedly was rediscovered in 1590 and published in 1595 by a monk and historian named Arnold de Wyon.
This work of prophecy holds that, beginning with Pope Celestine II (who was elected in 1143), there would be 112 more Popes until Judgement Day. According to the papal scorecard of many, our current Pontiff, Francis, is the 112th Pope since Celestine II.
On the face of it, this is quite unsettling news. However, for those among us who currently feel unprepared for Judgment Day (or who feel prepared, but wish to wait a bit), there is some consolation in the views taken by the scholarly community.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia described the prophecies as “a 16th-century forgery.”
Fr. Thomas J. Reese, SJ, of Georgetown University has stated that “St. Malachy’s prophecy is nonsense.”
Given these judgments from academic sources, it seems that the “Prophecy of the Popes” was a hoax.
One wonders what, Malachy, the no-nonsense Church reformer, would think of these “prophecies” attributed to him.

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On this painful Palm Sunday I pray that we can all cling to the joy that the Lord Jesus is keeping His Promise, He is still with us. It is excruciating not to receive Him in Communion but He awaits us “in the room next to us” May Spiritual Communion place us in His Real Presence

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