That Saint Patrick was a gentleman can hardly be doubted. We can also assume that his family were probably a decent enough lot even though their faith seems to have been slack. After that, the balladeer takes off into a world of fantasy and folk tradition.
Perhaps the most famous representation of St Patrick of Ireland is an engraving made in 1642 by Fr Thomas Messingham. Versions of it dating from the early twentieth century present Patrick as tall and venerable, robed in green vestments, holding up a shamrock as a catechetical aid before King Laoghaire or pointing down to the water at his expulsion of the snakes. When the historians got to work on this image, they showed that the story about the shamrock dates only from the seventeenth century and the one about the snakes probably dates from Viking times, around the year 1,000.
Although these legends are not historically factual, they are not to be dismissed as empty and untrue. They do express truths about St Patrick: the trinity was central to his life and teaching; and while he may not have encountered snakes in Ireland such as the ones you see in the zoo, he did expel the evil that is symbolised by the snake.
Facts of history
But what historical facts do we know? Well, we know that St Patrick existed and roughly when – namely, the fifth century AD. We know ‘that he was a bishop in Ireland; that he came from Britain where his father had been of the roman official class and well-to-do.’ We know that he devoted much of his life to evangelising the Irish people, baptising them in large numbers.
However, the most real and rounded Patrick emerges from the pages of his own writings. Two of these survive, the Confession and the Letter to Coroticus. Together they make up about thirty pages of a modern book. But they are full of information, mainly about ‘his character, his faith, his vision, his understanding of ‘God’. From the two documents it is evident that we are dealing with an able and well-informed man. There are, for example, seventy-two books in the Bible; Patrick, in his few short pages makes reference or alludes to fifty-four of them. He also refers to twenty of those early Christian scholars, theologians and saints whom we know collectively as the Fathers of the Church; and finally, he makes reference to eight church councils. In other words, he is familiar with almost every major meeting of bishops and scholars down to his own time.
Contrary to popular opinion, we are not dealing here with a poor uneducated man. Those who have imagined him to be a simple-minded, inarticulate, incoherent sort of person need to think again. His life is enveloped in the consciousness of being under orders from Christ to bring the gospel to the Irish. This is the basis of his unflinching steadfastness and confidence as he faces criticism of his mission. his genius often comes across, not directly in what he says, but in what he means – a characteristic readily understood in Ireland.
Patrick’s exact place of origin continues to baffle scholars. England, scotland, Wales, and Boulogne-sur-mer in France, have all been mentioned. He was born into a Christian home, and presumably got a good grounding in the faith. But in his own honest way he admits that in his teens he and his companions didn’t pay any great attention to the advice of the priests, and in later years he regretted this.
The first serious crisis in his life occurred when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Ireland. he was sixteen at the time, and if ever a youngster got a rude awakening, it was he.
From his writing, one can glean that his family were, materially speaking, fairly comfortable. now in exile, he was anything but, as he found himself alone in a herdsman’s shed or under the open canopy of heaven. Curiously enough, it was in these surroundings of isolation that he matured in his faith. With all the time in the world to think, and the silence and the darkness of the night around him, he came to realise that in all the upheaval there was one constant element: God. And there in an Irish countryside the homesick teenager fell on his knees to pray – real prayer, a pouring out the contents of his troubled soul to the lord. At sixteen Patrick had grown up. Boredom had vanished. There was determination and direction in his life and God was at the heart of it. Many years later, in his Confession, he wrote:
‘My faith grew stronger and my zeal so intense that in the course of a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers and almost as many in the night. this I did even when I was in the woods and on the mountains. Even in times of snow or frost or rain I would rise before dawn to pray. I never felt the worse for it; nor was I in any way lazy because, as I now realise, I was full of enthusiasm.’
That enthusiasm was to be a hallmark of Patrick’s entire life.
After six years in slavery, Patrick made a successful bid to escape. He walked about two hundred miles across Ireland until he found a trading ship bound for the continent. After some initial disappointment, he was taken on board, and after three days at sea landed in the west of France. For a further twenty-eight days the party journeyed on through desolate lands, encountering nobody and enduring hunger and hardship. He finally made his way to his relatives in Britain but not before enduring a further two months of captivity.
Now that he was home, his relatives wished him to stay, but Patrick, in a dream, heard ‘the voice of the Irish’ calling him to return and walk among them once more. With that generosity of heart characteristic of the man, he studied for the priesthood, was later ordained bishop, and sent on a mission to Ireland. For this he was well fitted, for besides his religious formation, he had from his slavery days, a knowledge of the language and customs of the Irish together with long experience of the climatic conditions of this north Atlantic island.
His missionary career was spectacular. True, he wasn’t the very first to bring the Christian message to Ireland, but his coming was highly significant. Without brag or boast he sets out the facts of what happened. He tells us that he ‘baptised thousands’, ‘ordained clerics everywhere’, ‘gave presents to kings’, ‘was put in irons’, ‘lived in daily expectation of murder, treachery or captivity’, ‘journeyed everywhere in many dangers, even to the farthest regions beyond which no man dwells’, and rejoiced to see ‘the flock of the lord in Ireland growing splendidly with the greatest care and the sons and daughters of kings becoming monks and virgins for Christ.’
His life in Christ
Patrick came to love God because he realised more and more how God loved him first. The very thought of what God had done for him moved him to spontaneous prayer. He had a deep sense of the holy spirit of God living within him, praying within him, supporting, guiding, and guarding him. He tells us, for example, that it was the spirit who persuaded him not to leave Ireland when he felt like a visit to Britain and France. And it was the spirit who ‘called out on his behalf’ in a particularly severe bout of depression. The holy trinity whom he loved and adored inspired all his labours. He was unconcerned about personal material gain or physical security.
Referring to his Confession and Letter to Coroticus, Fr Daniel Conneely (on whose work I am drawing liberally in this essay) says that Patrick ‘shows a real sense of the presence of Christ and of God’s providence in his life. He has absolute trust in God’s loving care for him. He is full of love for God; full of joy and pride in his missionary vocation and of gratitude to God for the gift of it. So great is his prayerfulness and feeling for prayer that talking to God and of God are as natural to him as breathing in the air, or absorbing the warmth and light of the sun.’
He sees ‘everything in his life as a gift from God, both in its small beginnings and in its growth, and perseverance too is to be prayed for. In his latter years – the years of the Confession and Letter – looking back on a life crowded with bodily and spiritual trials, and crowded equally with great joys, he has come to see the pattern: the golden thread of God’s loving providence woven into it all.’
Like St Paul and St Augustine, Patrick sees himself as worthless, but with the grace of God assisting him, he is ready for anything. His mission to Ireland is seen by him as an astounding gift of God. The mission was God’s idea, not his own. God had promised to bring salvation to the ends of the earth, and here was Patrick at the very edge of the known world, gathering in the Irish for Christ. For this he gives unwearying thanks to God and prays unceasingly for the grace to be faithful to the end.
His relevance today
‘Many inspirational benefits are associated with St Patrick’s pastoral letters,’ says Fr Conneely, ‘but their crucial relevance today lies:
(i) in their communication of faith as life with Christ;
(ii) in their proclamation of the absolute value to Christ of every single human being everywhere; and
(iii) in the way in which, while being supremely active and
Practical, St Patrick always kept in sight, like an horizon, that his pastoral objective was transforming minds and hearts.’ ‘In these three aspects,’ he says, ‘the Western world has become seriously flawed as a witness to Christian life.’ It has knowledge of Christianity but doesn’t have much sense of Christ in our midst. It has a kind of technical knowledge of Jesus, rather than a personal relationship with him. For st Patrick, his Catholic faith wasn’t simply belief in a number of truths. It was that, and he lists them, but it was an utterly trusting relationship with Christ Jesus and with the holy trinity. Everything was their gift to him – his conversion, his vocation, his successful mission to the Irish. Every dark cloud coming down upon him, every ray of sunshine illuminating his life, was all interpreted in the light of the grace of God at work in him and around him, a God who held the whole world in his hands and who loved Patrick personally.
Kyrie Eleison and Deo Gratias
One of our most ancient manuscripts, the Book of Armagh, tells us that Patrick wished the Irish to have two phrases ever on their lips, Kyrie Eleison and Deo Gratias; lord have mercy, and thanks be to God. It was between those two prayers that Patrick lived out his own full and saintly life. It is where we, too, will find the fulness of life – trusting in the forgiveness of the One who loves us, and eternally grateful for everything.
Read about more Irish saints in Early Irish Saints published by Columba Books