Most everyone has heard of St. Patrick and nearly everyone celebrates his feast day, but few know the true facts about his life. For example, he drove the Druids out of Ireland, not the snakes and — hold onto your green derby — he was not Irish, but British.
The most reliable historical evidence on St. Patrick comes from two writings that survived him, Confessio and Epistola (Letter to Coroticus). While these documents do not tell the story of his life, they detail some of his experiences and help explain the theology behind his apostolate. In so doing, they offer valuable lessons for us today.
The man who would come to be known as the Apostle of Ireland was born to a Roman official's family in Britain around 389; it's believed they gave him the name Maewyn Succat. At the age of 16, he was kidnapped by a pagan slave-raiding party, was taken to Ireland, and sold to a chieftain named Milchu. He served his master for six years after which time he escaped and returned by ship to Britain.
The Catholic Online Encyclopedia points out that his time as a slave served as preparation for his apostolate: “During his captivity he acquired a perfect knowledge of the Celtic tongue … and as his master Milchu was a druidical high priest, he became familiar with all the details of druidism, from whose bondage he was destined to liberate the Irish race.”
In response to a vision commanding him to evangelize Ireland, St. Patrick began studying for the priesthood. In 431 he returned to Ireland to assist St. Palladius, who was the first bishop of Ireland.
Shortly afterward he was consecrated bishop by Pope Celestine I. Upon his return to Ireland he traveled the island, evangelizing the Druids, baptizing the Irish and establishing churches.
“I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful and utterly despised by many. My father was Calpurnius, a deacon, son of Potitus, a priest, of the village Bannavem Taburniæ; he had a country seat nearby, and there I was taken captive.” So begins Patrick's Confessio.
What we think of as biography today did not exist in St. Patrick's time. The thoughts expressed in his two famous writings were recorded later in his life to share his experiences and offer his opinions. Long considered to be an ill-educated man, St. Patrick emerges in his writings as a man of considerable intellectual stature.
Marie B. de Paor, Irish author of Patrick, The Pilgrim Apostle of Ireland (Veritas, 1998), writes that the elaborate literary structure of Patrick's Confessio parallels line-for-line the Gospel according to Mark. It also draws heavily upon Old Testament imagery and the Psalms, and contains more than 200 references to Scripture.
Paor's analysis compares the literary genre of Patrick's Confessio to the Confessions of St. Augustine. She writes that “while a refutation of both the Arianism of the fourth century and the Pelagianism of the fifth are implicit in Patrick's Confessio, it does not appear to be its overt purpose. … Patrick, after all, was not a professional theologian, nor did he claim to be a philosopher. As priest and bishop, he was pre-eminently a good shepherd, a contemplative in action.”
The Epistola is a completely different kind of document. It is Patrick's denouncement of the British ruler Coroticus for his raid of the Irish coast and his cruel massacre of Patrick's newly baptized Christians.
The letter, which is of great interest to historians as well as devotees of the saint, calls for repentance and the release of the remaining captives of the raid. Of Coroticus, Patrick writes:
“They have filled their houses with the spoils of dead Christians, they live on plunder. They do not know, the wretches, that what they offer their friends and sons as food is deadly poison, just as Eve did not understand that it was death she gave to her husband. So are all that do evil: they work death as their eternal punishment.
“Where, then, will Coroticus with his criminals, rebels against Christ, where will they see themselves, they who distribute baptized women as prizes — for a miserable temporal kingdom, which will pass away in a moment?
As a cloud or smoke that is dispersed by the wind, so shall the deceitful wicked perish at the presence of the Lord; but the just shall feast with great constancy with Christ, they shall judge nations, and rule over wicked kings for ever and ever. Amen.”
St. Patrick is a favorite among Irish and non-Irish, Catholic and non-Catholic.
“St. Patrick has become a symbol of a country more than a person,” says Baptist pastor Ralph Wilson of Joyful Heart Ministries in Rocklin, Calif. “Once you sort through the credible and weed out the incredible, you find a man. St. Patrick was a gutsy guy with faith. I find his fearlessness appealing.”
“Patrick is a man who lived with God a long time and heard his voice,” says Roger Nelson, an actor from Pasadena, Calif., who tours the country portraying St. Patrick in a one-act play. “The fruits of the Spirit were very active in his life.”
As priest and bishop, St. Patrick was pre-eminently a good shepherd — a contemplative in action.
Father Joseph Esper, author of Lessons from the Lives of the Saints: A Daily Guide for Growth in Holiness (Basilica Press, 1999), points out that, for Patrick, being kidnapped is nothing less than a spiritual opportunity. Father Esper quotes from the Confessio:
“But after I came to Ireland — every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed — the love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that, in a single day, I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountains; and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me — as I now see, because the spirit within me was then fervent.”
Father Esper demonstrates that Patrick offers a saintly example of someone whose efforts to serve God bear fruit many years after they were undertaken. Because of his humility, God was able to do great things through him.
“For I am very much God's debtor,” St. Patrick writes, “who gave me such grace that many people were reborn in God through me and afterwards confirmed, and that clerics were ordained for them everywhere, for a people just coming to the faith, whom the Lord took from the utmost parts of the earth, as He once had promised through His prophets. … To Thee the gentiles shall come from the ends of the earth and shall say: ‘How false are the idols that our fathers got for themselves, and there is no profit in them’; and again: ‘I have set Thee as a light among the gentiles, that Thou mayest be for salvation unto the utmost part of the earth.’
“Hence, how did it come to pass in Ireland that those who never had a knowledge of God, but until now always worshipped idols and things impure, have now been made a people of the Lord, and are called sons of God, that the sons and daughters of the kings of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ?”
Patrick needs no snakes, no clovers, no myths or legends to prop him up at all. His story of faith and conversion is extraordinary enough as it is. Here is a man whose life was a sign of contradiction, a saint who fearlessly went about challenging the prevailing pagan culture of his day and calling his contemporaries to love God with all their heart, all their soul and all their might.
A glass of green beer each March 17 may do little harm to the memory of one of the Church's great souls — but would-n't it be far better if, instead, Catholics followed St. Patrick's real example? Our own, increasingly pagan culture could stand a strong shot of his brand of evangelical fervor right about now.
Features correspondent Tim Drake can be reached at email@example.com.