March 15, 2004
Friar Jack's Catechism Quiz:
The Real St. Patrick

by Julie Zimmerman

This week we celebrate the feast of St. Patrick, the patron of Ireland and one of the best-loved saints in the Catholic Church. Sometimes it seems that Patrick can't be separated from the myths about him and the cultural trappings associated with his feast day: the snakes and shamrocks, the green beer, corned beef and cabbage.

But the real story of St. Patrick is a fascinating one, full of adventure, faith and grace. Today we examine what we do know about this 5th-century bishop, myth and culture aside. We hope learning more about this great saint will add a new dimension to your St. Patrick's Day celebration. We are also happy to share responses to "God's World Is Holy," Friar Jack's most recent musing. Read Friar Jack's inbox.


This Month's Quiz: (peeking encouraged!)

What do we know about the life of St. Patrick?
How did Patrick decide to return to Ireland?
What was life like during Patrick's time?

Friar Jack's Inbox:

Readers reflect on Friar Jack's musings

What do we know about the life of St. Patrick?

Patrick 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. It is not clear when he actually made it back to Ireland, or for how long he ministered there, but it was definitely for a number of years.

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.

These two brief documents are the basis for all we know of the historical Patrick. The Confession, because its purpose was to recount his own call to convert the Irish and to justify his mission to an apparently unsympathetic audience in Britain, is not a traditional biography.

And the "Letter to Coroticus," apparently an Irish warlord whom Patrick was forced to excommunicate, is a wonderful illustration of Patrick's prowess as a preacher but doesn't tell us much by way of traditional biography either.

Adapted from St. Anthony Messenger.

How did Patrick decide to return to Ireland?

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—almost self-explanatory—but they were also very vivid and carried enormous emotional impact with Patrick.

The first vision, which he received after six years of servitude in Ireland, came by way of a mysterious voice, heard in his sleep. "Your hungers are rewarded: You are going home," the voice said. "Look, your ship is ready." Indeed, some 200 miles away, there it was. (Patrick was nothing if not tenacious.)

The second vision—the one that came to him after he'd returned home and that called him back to Ireland—was equally straightforward. Victoricus, a man Patrick knew in Ireland, appeared to him in this dream, holding countless letters, one of which he handed to Patrick. The letter was entitled "The Voice of the Irish." Upon reading just the title, he 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.

But the dream recurred again and again. Eventually Patrick told his dismayed family of his plans to return to evangelize Ireland and soon began his preparations for the priesthood. What is interesting about this dream calling Patrick to his lifelong mission to the Irish is that it came not as a directive from God, but as a plea from the Irish. According to his recollections decades later, Patrick wasn't commanded to bring civilization or salvation to the heathens. He was invited to live among them as Christ's witness.

When he finally returned to Ireland, he proceeded to treat the barbarians with the respect implicit in his dream. From the outset, Patrick felt humbled and honored that God had selected him to convert the Irish. Apparently he never doubted that he would be able to do so.

Adapted from St. Anthony Messenger.

What was life like during Patrick's time?

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 10 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.

Adapted from A Retreat With St. Patrick: Discovering God in All.

Friar Jack's Inbox

A note from Friar Jack: I want to take this opportunity to thank the hundreds of you that have taken the time to respond to me in recent months and offer your own thoughts about my musings or the Catechism Quiz. Often your thoughts are very profound and heartfelt and indeed illuminating to me, not to mention inspiring. They can also be challenging, even sharply so, causing me to reconsider and often to broaden my horizons. Many also include kind words of appreciation and touching pledges of prayerful and loving support. My most heartfelt thanks to all!!

It is my intention and that of my coworkers that each of you who sends me an e-mail response receives an automatic response indicating that I am very grateful for all communications from you, read each one of them and pray for all who write me, as well as for our entire online community. I want to confirm that all of this is true.

I am told, at the same time, that there can be glitches. After the newsletter goes out we must disengage the automatic response temporarily to avoid being bombarded by "out of the office" notices and other responses. Being technologically challenged I don't understand such things, but this problem has been mentioned to me more than once. So if you don't always receive a response from me, it's not that we don't have good intentions.

Let me also explain that it is simply impossible for me to answer personally the large volume of e-mails that come in. This is painful to me, because I am often deeply touched by your comments, insights and sincere questions. This was especially true of many responses to my last musing, "God's World Is Holy." My heart wants to answer and engage in dialogue with you, but because of the many hats I wear here at St. Anthony Messenger Press and unrelenting deadlines, it is simply impossible for me to do so.

One thing that amazes me about your responses is that they come from all around the world and from people of different religious backgrounds. We are truly an international and "ecumenical" community. This is a good lead-in to this month's Inbox. Last month we printed an e-mail from a reader who said the Muslim majority in Malaysia persecutes Christians. Two readers from Malaysia wrote to take exception with that assertion. Here is one of the two e-mails:

Dear Friar Jack: I am a Chinese living in Malaysia. I am baptized as a Catholic in year 2002. Previously I was a Taoist. I write in response to the statement made by Miss Erina that "Christians in Malaysia are persecuted and imprisoned." The statement seems so general and misleading. I myself observe harmony, freedom and respect in whatever religion one chooses to embrace in the country. My family is staying in a neighborhood where the majority of the residents are Muslims. Though there are a lot of differences in cultures, beliefs and mindsets between Muslims and Christians, as far as my neighborhood is concerned we are able to live harmoniously and respectfully with each other. Diplomacy and peace will not come by themselves. They have to be developed. I believe we as Christians are always called by God to live peacefully with all people and to love everyone. Though it is hard to practice humility, it is the root to understand and accept people and their beliefs. "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me..."—June

Dear Friar Jack: I sometimes cannot understand the difference between my human life and my life of GOD. I hope (and know that I will) stand face to face with him so to thank him for all he has given to me. I do understand that my GOD, Maker and Savior gives to me all I need to get through what we call life. Why is it that he looks to me with a love as if I am the only thing in this universe? My GOD is an awesome GOD and I tell him so each day.—Chester

Dear Chester: You express with great reverence and humility the mystery of God and the close relationship you seem to have with God. Jesus also spoke of this mystery from God's point of view: "I am the vine, you are the branches" (John 15:5).

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