Today, parades, shamrocks, and green beer will be all around. Many Americans will proudly proclaim their Irish roots, even if they have none. Despite the popularity of such cultural things, many Catholics know little about Saint Patrick.
Legends abound about how St. Patrick drove all the snakes out of Ireland and how he used a shamrock to illustrate the mystery of the Holy Trinity—three persons, yet one God. We know from Patrick’s short book, entitled Confession, that he was captured by pirates when he was about 18 years old. He was brought from Britain to Ireland, where he was sold into slavery. Patrick had to tend sheep and suffered extreme hardships. While a slave, he turned to prayer in his time of suffering. He also learned the rudiments of Gaelic.
Patrick managed to escape six years later and made it back to Britain. Patrick could not forget the poverty and suffering he witnessed while he was enslaved. He studied, perhaps in a monastery on the continent, and eventually was ordained a priest, Patrick felt called to take the faith that had sustained him to the Gaelic tribes in what today is Ireland.
He was immensely successful because of God’s grace and his ability to speak, teach and preach in Gaelic. Today we call such native expressions of our faith enculturation: expressing the faith in the language, signs and symbols of a given people to whom one is missioned. Tribe by tribe Patrick won the hearts of the people.
When I was ministering in the Philippines, I met a number of Irish missionaries—men and women who were serving in various roles in that country’s church. There were Irish priests and brothers from the Redemptorist and Columban orders.
They preached parish missions and pastored churches all around the country. I taught some of their seminarians. There were Irish sisters staffing retreat houses and teaching in colleges and universities. Irish missionaries continue to make great contributions to the missionary work of the church all around the world.