Saint Patrick
St. Patrick was a real person. Learn about his simple teachings, his historical context and his journey through Celtic spirituality.
Placing St. Patrick in Context
Patrick lived in the fifth century, a time of rapid change and transition. In many ways we might say that those times of turbulence and uncertainty were not unlike our own. The Roman Empire was beginning to break up, and Europe was about to enter the so-called Dark Ages. Rome fell to barbarian invaders in 410. Within ten years of that time, the Roman forces began to leave Britain to return to Rome to defend positions back home. Life, once so orderly and predictable under Roman domination, now became chaotic and uncertain. Patrick entered the world of that time.
The British Church of Patrick's time was also intimately connected with the Roman Empire. Missionaries from the continent followed the development of Roman towns, travelling over the system of good Roman roads. This was an urban Church with bishops establishing their centers in these Roman towns. The great ecumenical councils, beginning with that in Nicea in 325, doctrinally solidified a developing and common faith throughout this Church.
As Ireland had not come under the Roman Empire, it was for the most part unnoticed and untended by the developing Church. There were some Irish Christians, mostly on the eastern and southeastern coast. Many of these were probably British slaves who had been taken into captivity by the Irish. There is a record of a Bishop Palladius being sent to Ireland before Patrick. But the mission of Patrick was unique. There had been, up to this time, no other organized or concerted missionary effort to convert any pagan peoples beyond the confines of the Roman Empire. Patrick's efforts to do this, in fact, were criticized as being a useless project. His call had come to him in a personal vision. Although it must have been validated by some ecclesiastical superior, it was a cause of jealousy and ridicule on the part of other churchmen. The more we see Patrick in the setting of his time, the more we must admire his courage, vision and faith. But we also see that his path brought him pain and suffering. Acclaimed as a great hero in ensuing centuries, he himself felt nothing of the sort in his own time.
Patrick, then, is an intensely human person and not a plaster saint to admire from afar. He offers us a Christian vision of life honed out of his own experience and trials. He offers us a challenge to live our own Christian life today in changing and turbulent times. He comforts us when we are criticized and ridiculed. He gives to us the Celtic vision of the intimate presence of God in creation, in the Church, in people and in Scripture. He is a model for us, giving us an example to follow as we struggle to live authentically our own Christian lives in our own difficult times.

Timothy Joyce, O.S.B., is a Benedictine priest with a licentiate in sacred theology from Gregorian University in Rome. He is the author of  Celtic Christianity: A Sacred Tradition, a Vision of Hope (Orbis Books).
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