A relic’s return

Who was St. Brigid and why is she inspiring so many 1,500 years after her death?

FILE - People participate in a candlelight pilgrimage walk which makes its way past an ancient well associated with St Brigid to the Solas Bhride Centre in Kildare, Ireland, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. Devotees of St. Brigid in Ireland plan to celebrate on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024, with the scheduled return of a relic associated with the so-called “matron saint of Ireland” — about a millennium after her remains were removed from her hometown of Kildare. It's part of a series of observances in Ireland and around the world marking the 1,500th anniversary of her death. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)
FILE - People participate in a candlelight pilgrimage walk which makes its way past an ancient well associated with St Brigid to the Solas Bhride Centre in Kildare, Ireland, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. Devotees of St. Brigid in Ireland plan to celebrate on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024, with the scheduled return of a relic associated with the so-called “matron saint of Ireland” — about a millennium after her remains were removed from her hometown of Kildare. It's part of a series of observances in Ireland and around the world marking the 1,500th anniversary of her death. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)

Last Sunday, devotees of St. Brigid celebrated her with the return of a relic associated with the so-called matron saint of Ireland. The festivities came about a millennium after her remains were removed from the town of Kildare, where she founded a prestigious abbey and inspired a host of colorful, miracle-filled legends.

The celebration in her hometown, southwest of Dublin, is part of Brigid 1500 -- a series of observances across the world centered around the saint's feast day of Feb. 1, marking the 1,500th anniversary of her death around the year 524.

In a sense, Brigid is on a roll. The commemorations come a year after Ireland began honoring her with an annual public holiday -- the first Irish woman to be recognized with one.

While St. Patrick has long been the saint most identified with Ireland, Brigid has gained a growing following in the 21st century. Devotees draw inspiration from Brigid the saint -- and from Brigid the ancient pagan goddess, whose name and attributes she shares -- as emblematic of feminine spirituality and empowerment. This comes amid growing disenchantment with the patriarchal and historically dominant Catholic Church.

WHO WAS BRIGID?

First question: which Brigid?

Brigid was the name of a prominent goddess worshipped by ancient pagan Celts -- the namesake of the saint who lived in the fifth and sixth centuries.

Brigid the goddess was associated with everything from poetry, healing and metal crafting to nature, fertility and fire. She was honored on the mid-winter holy day of Imbolc, still commemorated on Feb. 1, which also became St. Brigid's Day.

St. Brigid's father is said to have been a ruler, her mother enslaved. Although Brigid's life story has been embellished by legends, she is believed to have been the abbess of a monastic settlement of men and women that became a center of arts and learning and that gave the town its name, Irish for "church of the oak." One legend says that when the local king agreed to give her only enough land for her monastery that could fit under her cloak, she miraculously spread it across the surrounding countryside.

St. Brigid traveled, preached and healed. She's often depicted with images of fire and light and is associated with fertility, care for living things and peacemaking.

According to another legend, Brigid gave her father's jeweled sword to a needy man for him to barter for food.

WHAT RELIC HAS BEEN RETURNED TO KILDARE

Brigid was believed to have been buried at her monastic church in Kildare. Around the ninth century, her remains were moved to the northern town of Downpatrick in hopes of avoiding the pillages of Vikings and others. That shrine was later destroyed by English troops during the Protestant Reformation.

Various churches on the European continent claim to have relics of St. Brigid. This includes a bone fragment from Brigid's skull, which tradition says was taken to a church in Portugal by three Irish knights. A fragment of that relic was returned in the 1930s to Brigidine Sisters elsewhere in Ireland and is stored in a small metal reliquary, shaped like an oak tree, an image associated with Brigid. That's the relic that was returned to Kildare on Sunday.

The relic's new resting place is the Catholic parish church named for St. Brigid, which plans to display it permanently.

WHAT IS A RELIC, AND WHY DO CATHOLICS VENERATE THEM?

Catholic canon law says the church "promotes the true and authentic veneration" of saints because of their pious examples. This can involve veneration of relics -- which can include fragments of bodies of saints, as well as their clothing and other items associated with them.

"Veneration must be clearly distinguished from adoration and worship, which are due God alone," says the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

WHAT IS ST. BRIGID'S DAY?

St. Brigid's Day and Imbolc, a pagan holy day associated with the goddess Brigid and heralding the coming of spring, both fall on Feb. 1, although Ireland is observing the public holiday on Monday, Feb. 5.

WHY IS BRIGID GAINING A FOLLOWING?

Brigid's moment is happening as many Irish are disillusioned with traditional Roman Catholicism and its patriarchal leadership amid a secularizing culture. Even many devout Catholics are dismayed over scandals including the cover-ups of sexual abuse.

Whether devotees honor Brigid primarily as a saint, a goddess or some combination of both, they see Brigid as emblematic of feminine spirituality, environmental care and artistic creation.

Brigid's Day is "an invitation to stop the pointless millennia old war of Christianity versus paganism" and see "the wisdom and beauty in both lineages," wrote Melanie Lynch, founder of Herstory, which campaigned in support of the new national holiday.

HOW IS ST. BRIGID'S DAY BEING COMMEMORATED?

The most dramatic event occurred Sunday with the return of the relic to Brigid's hometown, with a short procession to St. Brigid's Parish Church from Solas Bhride -- a Christian spirituality center led by Brigidine Sisters in Kildare with a mission of welcoming "people of all faiths and of no faith."

The procession was led by three girls riding horses and dressed as the medieval Irish knights who, one tradition says, accompanied the relic to Portugal centuries earlier.

Bishop Denis Nulty of Kildare & Leighlin preached at the Mass that followed, calling on hearers to practice the welcoming values that Brigid championed, particularly at a time when some are protesting migrants being housed in Ireland -- including some at institutions named for St. Brigid, he noted.

"It's too simple to install a relic," Nulty said. Brigid "would call us to do much more. She was hospitable. She was a peacemaker. She was a strong woman of the faith."

David Mongey, chair of Into Kildare, the local tourism board, said Brigid remains highly relevant.

"What amazes me is, 1,500 years later, she's still remembered with love in Kildare and Ireland," he said. "Her words, her wisdom and her actions mean more today than they ever did, when you think about how we treat our land ... how we treat each other and how we treat ourselves."

Several events were being organized this past week by Solas Bhride, Irish for "Light of Brigid," including a noontime "Pause for Peace" on Thursday. Thousands of students planned to mark the pause by making a human formation of a large St. Brigid's Cross, shaped like a square with four symmetrical arms.

Others around the world joined in the pause -- a minute's silence at noon local time -- said Brigidine Sister Rita Minehan, one of the founders of Solas Bhride.

"We are sending out a message that we actively oppose warfare in our world and the proliferation of arms," she said. "It's rather frightening what's happening in our world. It's sorely in need of peace, and Brigid was renowned as a peacemaker."

The group Herstory, which uses arts and education to promote female role models, planned events around Ireland on the holiday and days afterward. These include lightshows in which artistic depictions of Brigid were projected onto historic landmarks.

Elsewhere worldwide, Irish-heritage groups planned to mark the day with cultural events. Churches planned Masses in honor of the saint, while Wiccan and other pagan groups planned meditations and other ceremonies in honor of the goddess.

  photo  Theresa Kilmurray, of the Brigidine Congregational Leadership, center, with Brigidine sisters Rita Minahen, left, and Louise Cleary, right, carries a revered relic of St. Brigid home to Kildare, Ireland, Jan. 28, 2024. Pilgrims and locals welcomed the relic back to Brigid's hometown, about a millennium after her body had been moved from Kildare to a secret grave for safety from Viking attacks. Accompanying the procession are three girls portraying the medieval Irish knights who tradition says brought a relic of St. Brigid to a church in Portugal. The ceremony is part of the 1,500th anniversary commemoration of the death of the woman some call "the matron saint of Ireland." (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
 
 
  photo  Bishop Denis Nulty of Kildare & Leighlin holds a revered relic of St. Brigid as it returns home to Kildare, Ireland, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024. Pilgrims and locals welcomed the relic back to Brigid's hometown, about a millennium after her body had been moved from Kildare to a secret grave for safety from Viking attacks. The ceremony is part of the 1,500th anniversary commemoration of the death of the woman some call "the matron saint of Ireland." (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
 
 
  photo  Bishop Denis Nulty of Kildare & Leighlin holds a revered relic of St. Brigid as it returns home to Kildare, Ireland, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024. Pilgrims and locals welcomed the relic back to Brigid's hometown, about a millennium after her body had been moved from Kildare to a secret grave for safety from Viking attacks. The ceremony is part of the 1,500th anniversary commemoration of the death of the woman some call "the matron saint of Ireland." (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
 
 
  photo  Bishop Denis Nulty of Kildare & Leighlin stands before a revered relic of St. Brigid as it returns home to Kildare, Ireland, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024. Pilgrims and locals welcomed the relic back to Brigid's hometown, about a millennium after her body had been moved from Kildare to a secret grave for safety from Viking attacks. The ceremony is part of the 1,500th anniversary commemoration of the death of the woman some call "the matron saint of Ireland." (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
 
 
  photo  Theresa Kilmurray, of the Brigidine Congregational Leadership, center, with Brigidine sister, Louise Cleary, right, carries a revered relic of St. Brigid home to Kildare, Ireland, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024. Accompanying them are three girls portraying the medieval Irish knights who tradition says brought a relic of St. Brigid to a church in Portugal. Pilgrims and locals welcomed the relic back to Brigid's hometown, about a millennium after her body had been moved from Kildare to a secret grave for safety from Viking attacks. The ceremony is part of the 1,500th anniversary commemoration of the death of the woman some call "the matron saint of Ireland." (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
 
 
  photo  A nun prays beside the new resting place of a revered relic of St. Brigid as it returns home to Kildare, Ireland, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024. Pilgrims and locals welcomed the relic back to Brigid's hometown, about a millennium after her body had been moved from Kildare to a secret grave for safety from Viking attacks. The ceremony is part of the 1,500th anniversary commemoration of the death of the woman some call "the matron saint of Ireland." (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
 
 
  photo  A revered relic of St. Brigid after it arrived home to Kildare, Ireland, Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024. Pilgrims and locals welcomed the relic back to Brigid's hometown, about a millennium after her body had been moved from Kildare to a secret grave for safety from Viking attacks. The ceremony is part of the 1,500th anniversary commemoration of the death of the woman some call "the matron saint of Ireland." (AP Photo/Peter Morrison)
 
 
  photo  FILE - Dancers perform in front of an image of St. Brigid projected onto The Wonderful Barn in Leixlip, Kildare, Ireland, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023 during the Herstory Festival of Light. Devotees of St. Brigid in Ireland plan to celebrate on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024, with the scheduled return of a relic associated with the so-called "matron saint of Ireland" — about a millennium after her remains were removed from her hometown of Kildare. It's part of a series of observances in Ireland and around the world marking the 1,500th anniversary of her death. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)
 
 
  photo  FILE - A woman holds a St. Brigid Cross as she participates in a candlelight pilgrimage walk, which makes its way past an ancient well associated with St Brigid, to the Solas Bhride Centre in Kildare, Ireland, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. Devotees of St. Brigid in Ireland plan to celebrate on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2024, with the scheduled return of a relic associated with the so-called "matron saint of Ireland" — about a millennium after her remains were removed from her hometown of Kildare. It's part of a series of observances in Ireland and around the world marking the 1,500th anniversary of her death. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, File)
 
 

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