By: Franciscan Media editors
Some 1,500 years ago a teenage boy from what is now Great Britain was kidnapped and enslaved by marauders from a neighboring country. Not since Paris absconded with Helen of Troy has a kidnapping so changed the course of history.
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The invading marauders came from fifth-century Ireland. The teenager they captured eventually
escaped but returned voluntarily some years later. In the meantime, he had become convinced that he
was handpicked by God to convert the entire country to Christianity.
Apparently, he was right. And so it was that a young Briton named Patricius died an Irishman named Patrick. And neither Ireland nor Christianity was ever quite the same.
Patrick in Myth and History
Patrick never chased the snakes out of Ireland. Nor do we really know whether he used the shamrock to teach converts about the Trinity. But what we do know about St. Patrick is far more interesting than many of the legends that grew up around him. Two brief documents, Patrick’s Confession and his “Letter to Coroticus,” are the basis for all we know of the historical Patrick. The Confession’s purpose was to recount his own call to convert the Irish and to justify his mission to an apparently
unsympathetic audience in Britain.
The “Letter to Coroticus,” apparently addressed to an Irish warlord whom Patrick was forced to excommunicate, is a wonderful illustration of Patrick’s prowess as a preacher.
This is what we know about Patrick: He was born Patricius somewhere in Roman Britain to a relatively wealthy family. He was not religious as a youth and, in fact, claims to have practically renounced the faith of his family. While in his teens, Patrick was kidnapped in a raid and transported to Ireland, where he was enslaved to a local warlord and worked as a shepherd until he escaped six years later. He returned home and eventually undertook studies for the priesthood with the intention of returning to Ireland as a missionary to his former captors.
By the time he wrote the Confession and the “Letter to Coroticus,” Patrick was recognized by both Irish natives and the Church hierarchy as the bishop of Ireland. By this time, also, he had clearly made a permanent commitment to Ireland and intended to die there.
Stranger in a Strange Land
Traditional biographies of Patrick don’t really do him justice, suggests Thomas Cahill, author of the bestselling book How the Irish Saved Civilization.
“I think they missed a lot of what Patrick was about because they approached him as a kind of plaster-of-paris saint. Two things,” he says, “really shine through his Confession: his humility and his strength. That strength is what has been missing in the earlier biographies and portraits of Patrick.”
Patrick was certain that he had been called by God to do exactly what he did—return to the land of his captivity and convert the Irish natives to Christianity. In this certainty, Patrick finds sufficient strength to overcome every obstacle he encountered in the remaining years of his life.
One obstacle was his lack of formal education. The six years Patrick was enslaved in Ireland put him permanently behind his peers in terms of his classical education.
Despite the fact that Patrick would be self-conscious about his literary limitations, his use of biblical quotations, Cahill says, “is far more accurate and appropriate than many of the Fathers of the Church.”
And although almost any other qualification pales by comparison to Patrick’s zeal for his mission, he must have set off equipped with an intellect both subtle and supple.
When Patrick decided to “willingly go back to the barbarians with the gospel,” Cahill explains, “he had to figure out how to bring the values of the gospel he loved to such people. These were people who still practiced human sacrifice, who warred with each other constantly and who were renowned as the great slave traders of the day.
“That was not a simple thing. This was before courses were given to missionaries in what is now called inculturation—how to plant the gospel in such a culture,” Cahill says. “No one had ever even thought about how to do it; Patrick had to work his way through it himself.
Patron Saint of the Excluded
As a result of his enslavement, Cahill says, “Patrick grew into a man that he truly would not otherwise have become. So you would have to say that Patrick’s kidnapping was a great grace, not just for the people of Ireland, but for all of Western history.”
Had he never been kidnapped, it seems quite likely that it would have been decades, probably centuries, before Ireland was converted. It certainly would not have been in a position to “save civilization,” as Cahill so dramatically puts it in his book, when the Roman Empire crumbled and literacy was lost—lost, that is, by all but the Irish monasteries planted by Patrick and his successors.
Not surprisingly, his own experience in captivity left Patrick with a hatred of the institution of slavery, and he would become famous for speaking out unequivocally against it. “The papacy did not condemn slavery as immoral until the end of the 19th century,” Cahill says, “but here is Patrick in the fifth century seeing it for what it is. I think that shows enormous insight and courage and a tremendous ‘fellow feeling’—the ability to suffer with other people and to understand what other people’s suffering is like.”
“He really is one of the great saints of the downtrodden and excluded—people that no one else wants anything to do with,” Cahill says.
Women find a great advocate in Patrick. Patrick’s Confession, for example, notes “a blessed woman, Irish by birth, noble, extraordinarily beautiful—a true adult—whom I baptized.” Elsewhere, he lauds the strength and courage of Irish women: “But it is the women kept in slavery who suffer the most—and who keep their spirits up despite the menacing and terrorizing they must endure. The Lord gives grace to his many handmaids; and though they are forbidden to do so, they follow him with
Noel Dermot O’Donoughue, O.D.C., author of Aristocracy of Soul: Patrick of Ireland, remarks, “It is clear that the man who wrote the Confession and “Coroticus” is deeply and sensitively open to women.... But he does not take refuge in either ‘the pretentious asceticism, nor yet in that neurotic fear of and contempt for the feminine’ that has entered so deeply into the attitudes and structures of the Christian Church.... In this respect he is a complete man.”
Patrick the Mystic
O’Donoughue says that in the Confession, “the main lines of Patrick’s spiritual development show through, and they are unmistakably the lines of a mystical journey.”
So what makes Patrick a mystic? As recounted in the Confession, most of the major events in Patrick’s life are preceded by a dream or vision. The visions were usually simple, but they were also very vivid and carried enormous emotional impact for Patrick.
In the first vision, which he received after six years of servitude in Ireland, a mysterious voice said, “Your hungers are rewarded: You are going home. Look, your ship is ready.” And indeed the ship that would carry him home was at that time some 200 miles away.
The second vision, which called him back to Ireland, was equally straightforward. Victoricus, a man Patrick knew in Ireland, appeared to him holding countless letters, one of which he handed to Patrick. Upon reading the title, “The Voice of the Irish,” Patrick heard a multitude of voices crying out to him: “Holy boy, we beg you to come and walk among us once more.” He was so moved by this that he was unable to read further and woke up. When the dream recurred, Patrick told his dismayed family of his plans to return to evangelize Ireland and soon began his preparations for the priesthood.
It is also significant, O’Donoughue says, that “the voices in the dream do not ask for preaching or baptism but only that Patrick...should come back and share their lives, come and walk once more
Patrick eventually came to see even his own kidnapping as a grace, Cahill says. From the time Patrick sets off on his 200-mile journey to his “waiting ship,” he is convinced “once and for all that he is surrounded by Providence and that he is really in the hands of God. And that is what gets him through the rest of his life.”
“Patrick was a mystic who felt the presence of God in every turn of the road,” Cahill says. “God was palpable to him...and that is how Patrick saw God at work in the world.”
Patrick’s Lasting Legacy
By the time of Patrick’s death, or shortly thereafter, according to Cahill, “the Irish stopped slave trading and they never took it up again.” Human sacrifice had become unthinkable. And “war became much more confined and limited by what we might call the ‘rules of warfare.’”
Not only had Patrick accomplished what he’d set out to do—convert the nation to Christ—but in the process he’d retrieved from obscurity the primary objective set by Christ for his apostles: the spread of
the gospel to the ends of the earth.
The inadvertent results of his conversion of Ireland, however, were equally astonishing and long-lasting. Cahill makes the strong case that Patrick’s conversion of Ireland made possible the preservation of Western thought through the early Dark Ages by the Irish monasteries founded by Patrick’s successors.
The conversion of Ireland sees the faith thrive in an entirely different environment—in a culture that celebrates the natural, a culture in which, according to Cahill, there is a “sense of the world as holy, as the Book of God—as a healing mystery, fraught with divine messages.”
In this tradition, Cahill explains, “there is a trust in the objects of sensory perception, which are seen as signposts from God. But there is also a sensuous reveling in the splendors of the created world.
To millions of modern-day Catholics, an Ireland without Patrick is unthinkable. But so, too, Cahill says, is the prospect of modern life without saints like him. The saints are for the ages, and ours no less than any other.
“Life would be almost unbearable without such people,” he says. “The saints are for everyone.... They are the people who say by their lives that human life is valuable...and that there is a reason for living. Without them, history would just be one horror after another.”
Happy St. Paddy's Day
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Although St. Patrick’s Day might be best known as a day for parties and wearing green, we should remember to celebrate the real reason for the day: St. Patrick and his life of service in Ireland. Here are some ways to celebrate this saint’s feast:
• Decorate with shamrocks. According to legend, Patrick used the shamrock to help explain the nature of the Trinity.
• Prepare a traditional Irish meal by making dishes such as, corned beef and cabbage, Irish stew, or soda bread.
• Wear a Celtic cross. These ancient symbols dot the countryside of Ireland and are a recognized emblem of Irish spirituality.
• St. Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland, but a number of other saints are linked to the country. See if you can identify some of the other Irish saints and learn more about their lives. (Here are a few to get you started: St. Brigid, St. Kevin of Glendalough, St. Columba, St. Brendan.) Check out SaintoftheDay.org for more information.
• Send a St. Patrick e-greeting from CatholicGreetings.org.
• One of the most famous prayers associated with St. Patrick is “The Breastplate of St. Patrick.” Pray it as a family.
The Breastplate of St. Patrick
I bind unto myself today
The strong Name of the Trinity,
By invocation of the same,
The Three in One and One in Three.
I bind this day to me for ever.
By power of faith, Christ's incarnation;
His baptism in the Jordan River;
His death on cross for my salvation;
His bursting from the spicèd tomb;
His riding up the heavenly way;
His coming at the day of doom;
I bind unto myself today.
I bind unto myself today
The virtues of the starlit heaven,
The glorious sun's life-giving ray,
The whiteness of the moon at even,
The flashing of the lightning free,
The whirling wind's tempestuous shocks,
The stable earth, the deep salt sea,
Around the old eternal rocks.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.
Adapted from “The Patrick You Never Knew,” by Anita McSorley, St. AnthonyMessenger, March 1997.