Will the Real St. Patrick Please Stand Up?
St. Patrick, pray for us!
Hagiography, the study of the lives of holy men and women, can be a daunting field. One must distinguish between facts that are absolutely true, data that is probably true, stories that are possibly true and just flat-out pious tales.
All the saints are encumbered with such stories but this isn’t a fault per se. rather, it’s a sign of how much love we have for them that they are magnified in our imaginings.
St. Patrick is a case in point.
How do we know what we know about St. Patrick?
St. Patrick’s Confessio and the Letter to Coroticus are the major sources of biographic information about the saint.
Patrick's family lived on outside the village of Bannavem Taburniae―though it can’t be located on any modern map of England or Wales. His father, Calpurnius, was a deacon. His paternal grandfather, Potitus, was a priest from Banna Venta Berniae. Despite coming from a devout family, Patrick wasn’t a great believer. He wrote in his Confessio that his time as a slave was crucial to his spiritual development. He explains that the Lord had mercy on his youth and ignorance, and afforded him the opportunity to be forgiven of his sins and to convert to Christianity.
Though Patrick loved the Irish, he wasn’t of that tribe. In fact, he was Romano-British, a people of Celtic language and custom which survived the fall of classical Rome Empire. These people survived attacks from the Anglo-Saxon invaders and probably used vernacular Latin when writing and speaking formally/academically. To put things into perspective, Roman legions withdrew from Britain in AD 410 and St. Augustine of Canterbury arrived to AD 597. St. Palladius―whom the Book of Armagh also calls “Patrick”―was sent to Ireland in AD 431 and died in AD 457. Patrick got there somewhere between those last two dates.
Is Patrick his real name?
Nope. That was the name he took upon being consecrated bishop. He was actually born Maewyn Succat.
What is Patrick’s initial association with Ireland?
According to his Confessio, St. Patrick was kidnapped by Irish pirates at the age of 16 and sold as a slave. He claims this was punishment for his lack of belief in God:
I was taken into captivity in Ireland―at that time I was ignorant of the true God―along with many thousands of others.
This was our punishment for departing from God, abandoning his commandments, and ignoring our priests who kept on warning us about our salvation.
He labored for six years tending sheep and pigs around Slemish just outside Ballymena in what is now County Antrim. He spent his solitary time in pray and practicing his homilies to his sheepdogs. He was a hardy child as he “would wake up before daylight to pray in the snow, in icy coldness, in rain, and used to feel neither ill nor any slothfulness, because, as I now see, the Spirit was burning in me at that time.”
How did he escape his slavery in Ireland?
After being a slave for six years, an unseen voice told him to walk 200 miles to Wicklow so he could return to his family. In an effort to escape his slavery, Patrick stowed away on a boat headed for Britain. The boat sailed for three days and finally landed in Britain. He and the stranded crew walked for 28 days in a wilderness without eating. Patrick prayed and the crew came across a herd of wild boar.
Miraculously, it landed not far from where his parents lived and he finally made his way home to his family.
His return to Ireland.
Patrick recounts that he had a vision a few years after returning home:
I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: "The Voice of the Irish." As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: "We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us."
This Victoricus might be St. Victricius, fourth century bishop of Rouen, who had visited Britain as an envoy from the Pope in AD 396.
Upon receiving this vision, Patrick decided to study for the priesthood in Gaul and become a missionary to the Irish―his former slavers. He studied at the monastery of St. Martin's in Tours and at Auxerre, France where he was personally taught by St. Germanus (Germaine) of Auxerre who later ordained him a priest.
Did St. Patrick bring Christianity to Ireland?
Nope. It was there already by the time Patrick started preaching there. In fact, Pope Celestine I, the Pope who sent Patrick, had previously sent St. Palladius to be Ireland’s first bishop. Patrick was Ireland’s second bishop. That’s not too shabby.
He returned to Ireland as a Christian missionary.
Pope Celestine I elevated Patrick to bishop and commissioned him to preach to the Irish heathen. Patrick made his way to the mouth of the river Inver-dea in Wicklow, County. The river is currently called Vartry.
However, St. Patrick wasn’t initially greeted warmly by the pagans there and so set out once again a bit further north. He sojourned for a few days on the islands off the Skerries coast. In fact, one of these islands still bears the name Inis-Patrick in reference to the saint.
St. Patrick’s actual sanctuary was at Saul. It was here where Benin (aka Benignus), son of the chieftain Secsnen, joined Patrick’s fellowship.
Patrick baptized many thousands of people.
Though he was highly successful in converting Irish pagans to Christianity and fostering a great number of vocations, Patrick admits in his Confessio that some Christians, probably his missionary buddies, lodge charges against him at a trial. However, Patrick never describes the accusations in detail. However, as a result of these accusations, he returns all gifts given to him by pagan converts and promises to never accept any payment whatsoever from anyone again.
However, this works against Patrick as he was a foreigner in Ireland without any political or personal ties. Gift giving, and receiving, was a means by which to cement relationships―legally he was without any protection. On one occasion, he was beaten, robbed of his possessions, put in chains awaiting execution but was ultimately released. He also wrote in his Confessio about how many years later he was imprisoned again for 60 days, though, characteristically, he doesn’t go into details.
Despite this, Patrick speaks highly of Irish converts:
Never before did they know of God except to serve idols and unclean things. But now, they have become the people of the Lord, and are called children of God. The sons and daughters of the leaders of the Irish are seen to be monks and virgins of Christ!
However, Patrick also wrote about his desire to leave Ireland and see his family and friends once again but he was duty-bound by God to labor in the Irish vineyards:
How I would have loved to go to my country and my parents, and also to Gaul in order to visit the brethren and to see the face of the saints of my Lord! God knows it! that I much desired it; but I am bound by the Spirit
Patrick had run-ins with pagan chieftains, pagan charlatan witchdoctors and even with some local Christian clergy―the later accused him of lacking in modesty. However, these were false accusations considering how humbly Patrick wrote of himself in his Confessio:
I am the sinner Patrick. I am the most unsophisticated of people, the least of Christians, and for many people I am the most contemptible.
I ought unceasingly to give thanks to God who often pardoned my folly and my carelessness, and on more than one occasion spared His great wrath on me, who was chosen to be His helper and who was slow to do as was shown me and as the Spirit suggested.
When did Patrick die?
It’s said that he died at the very ripe old age of 120. Nothing is impossible for God however, perhaps we should take this tidbit cum grano salum.
What About the Snakes?
Nope. Ireland hadn’t had snakes since the previous ice age, if ever. The “snakes” Patrick exorcised from Ireland were probably satanic pagans. Six of one; half dozen of another, I say. Either way, we’re grateful for the saint’s efforts.
And thus, we have the story of St. Patrick in a nutshell. Some facts. Some legends. Some pious tales. And all wrapped up in a great deal of love for this incredible and tireless saint.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day, everyone.
This article originally appeared at the Register on March 17, 2018.