Today we celebrate the feast of Saint 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 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.
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.
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.
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. But this holy man of God pushed on and never stopped evangelizing thanks to the grace of God. Many lessons can be gleaned from his life and legacy—lessons from which our children can learn.