St. Patrick Was Beloved by Many — But Not by His Bishops

Patrick and his companions arrived in Ireland with a dual mission: to minister to the small number of Christians there and to convert the Irish.

Illustration from ‘Ireland’s Crown of Thorns and Roses’ by Frank J. Ryan and P.F. Holden
Illustration from ‘Ireland’s Crown of Thorns and Roses’ by Frank J. Ryan and P.F. Holden (photo: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Ryan and Holden – St. Patrick
Illustration from ‘Ireland’s Crown of Thorns and Roses’ by Frank J. Ryan and P.F. Holden
Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 

“Everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day,” the saying goes. But technically, about 32 million Americans — 9.7% of the total population — identified as being Irish in the 2020 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. A love of St. Patrick followed wherever the Irish immigrated throughout the world, particularly in the United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia — all places where St. Patrick’s Day is widely celebrated. 

In the Detroit area where I grew up attending St. Alphonsus in Dearborn, St. Patrick’s Day gave us a break from wearing our uniforms so that we could all wear green. Never mind that half the kids were Polish.

St. Patrick was my patron saint when the name Patricia (Patti) was given to me. My dad, who was 100% Irish from Irish immigrant parents, had a devotion to him that I inherited. On those dress days, I don’t think I was ever out-greened by anyone. One year, I even painted a pair of old shoes green and managed to find green stockings and green nail polish to match my green dress and hair ribbons.

In Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day has traditionally been a religious occasion beginning with Mass. Shops and businesses (excepting restaurants and pubs) were all shut down on that day.  During the 1990s however, the Irish government began to take advantage of the opportunity to bring in tourism. Cities and towns throughout Ireland now host parades, sporting events, parades, concerts, fireworks and theater productions on St. Patrick’s Day.

Even those without a drop of Irish blood can celebrate St. Patrick with gusto. After all, he was not Irish either. He was born in 387 in Britain, which was beginning to transition from Roman control at the time.


Kidnapped!

In the fifth century, living on the edge of the Roman empire was dangerous. It was collapsing, and barbarians roamed about. Patrick was kidnapped by Irish raiders at the age of 16 and enslaved in Ireland. 

What is known about his life comes from his two short works: his Letter to Coroticus, a denunciation of British mistreatment of Irish Christians, and his Confession, which he wrote so that others would “understand that to which I have committed my soul.”

Patrick believed God had allowed his six years of slavery as a shepherd to shake him out of his “complacency and out of a way of life where God didn’t matter for me.” Daily depravation led him to deep reflection. He wrote:

There, the Lord opened up my understanding to my unbelief so that however late, I might become conscious of my failings and then remembering my need, I might turn with all my heart to the Lord my God. For it was he who looked after me before I knew him. Indeed, as a father consoles his son, so he protected me.

While tending sheep, the love of God grew in Patrick. He would awaken before dawn and pray 100 times a day, according to him. “The spirit was fervent within me,” he wrote. He would fast even when he was starving to demonstrate his love and faith beyond his prayers. 

One night, he heard a voice: “Patrick, well have you fasted. Very soon you shall travel to your homeland. Behold, your ship is prepared.” He fled on foot. The ship was around 200 miles away through a patchwork of kingdoms and boglands without roads. The risk of being recaptured was ever present. 

“I traveled in the power of God who directed my path towards the good, and I feared nothing,” he wrote. When Patrick found the ship but was denied passage, he responded by praying. Before he finished, a crew member shouted for him to come aboard. Challenges to his faith and life were always overcome by prayer, leaving an impression on those around him.

Patrick returned home a very different person, seeking to live in union with God. In a dream, he heard God calling him back to Ireland. But first, he studied to become a priest.


Return to Ireland 

After his ordination, Patrick and his companions arrived in Ireland with a dual mission: to minister to the small number of Christians there and to convert the Irish. There had been some missionaries who had come to the land previously, but without great success.

According to, St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography, Ireland was a land ruled by a king and influenced by pagan Druid practices. It was an Easter Sunday standoff between Patrick and Druidism that opened the heart of Ireland’s King Laoghaire and paved the way for Catholicism to really take root.  A decree had gone out the previous day that all fires must be extinguished throughout the kingdom until the signal flame would be started at the king’s castle, under punishment of death. Patrick went ahead and lit the Easter vigil fire first. King Laoghaire called St. Patrick to come to see him the next day.

During that time, a cloud of darkness spread over the area. Patrick challenged the Druids and magicians to remove the cloud, but all their incantations failed. Patrick prayed and the cloud lifted, revealing the sun’s bright rays. This impressed the King, who then granted Patrick permission to preach the Gospel throughout the kingdom.


Not Loved by His Bishops 

Patrick became beloved throughout Ireland. Yet, his own fellow bishops were not so enamored. They demanded that he leave the Emerald Isle to face charges in his native Britain. The complaints centered on their dislike of his methods, such as allowing uneducated Irishman into seminaries. 

When charges were brought against him from the bishops in Britain, Patrick refused to return to face them. “I am not finished,” he said. “I’m not going back to Britain. ... I pray that God gives me perseverance, that he grant me to bear faithful witness to him right up until the passing of this life for the sake of my God.”

He sustained much sadness and witnessed martyrdoms, slave traders and raids on some of his established communities. Patrick wept and suffered alongside his beloved Irish, preaching the Gospel until his death on March 17, 461. 

 

An Old Irish Blessing
(Adapted from St. Patrick’s Breastplate)

May your days be many and your troubles be few.
May all God’s blessings descend upon you.
May peace be within you, may your heart be strong.
May you find what you’re seeking wherever you roam.
May the strength of God pilot us, may the wisdom of God instruct us.
May the hand of God protect us, may the word of God direct us.
May thy Salvation, O Lord, be always ours this day and for evermore.
Amen.

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