Saint of the Day: St. Patrick – March 17
St. Patrick (Patricius in Latin and Naomh Padraig in Irish) lived from 378 to 493 according to accepted estimates. There is actually very little that we know about him which is not legend. Scholars tend to accept his Declaration (Confessio) as genuine and some will accept a letter addressed to Corotic as the work of the Saint.
What we do know is that he probably came from Great Britain or Brittany and that his family had connections with the Romans who still ruled the area until they left Great Britain in 406. His father was a deacon and his grandfather was a priest. He was captured at age 16 by slavers, along with many of the people on his father’s estate. St. Patrick lived as slave shepherd, exposed to the elements and deprived of adequate food and clothing for six years until he was able to escape. He experienced a very definite call to return to Ireland as a missionary and was ordained a priest.
St. Patrick was not the first missionary to go to Ireland. Palladius, a deacon from Gaul (present day France for the most part), may have been sent by Pope Celestine I, who died in 431. Apparently, Palladius was still active until around 461. Saints Auxilius, Secundus, and Irsenius also appear to have been early missionaries.
In fact, much of what has become attributed to St. Patrick appears to be the blending or conflation of traditions related to Palladius, according to T. F. O’Rahilly’s “The Two Patricks” in a 1942 landmark published lecture. O’Rahilly was a controversial Celtic scholar who brought modern methods of linguistic and historical criticism to bear on Irish history and literature such as St. Fiacc’s hymn of St. Patrick.
The Rev. Alban Butler, in his 1864 Lives of the Saints, presents the more common traditional view of the life of St. Patrick, while avoiding much of the devotional accounts which had no historical basis. Indeed, this absence of historical information has allowed various generations to re-invent St. Patrick in different ways. Irish Catholics see him as the founder and bulwark of the church in union with Rome. Irish Protestants see him as the founder of the Irish Church, with its own particular traditions and identity. St. Patrick is beloved by New Age devotees as the priest who conserves the Druidic relationship to the elements of the earth and the heavens with the sun centered cross. Raucous celebrations of the Saint’s feast day in the United States by Irish immigrants and their descendants began as a defiant affirmation by oppressed and reviled refugees and have developed into a celebration of Irish success and acceptance in a land that had received them with hostility.
What is common in these visions of St. Patrick is his concern for the oppressed, the enslaved, and the forgotten. Obviously, this was the greater part of his motivation to return to Ireland, the land of his captivity. He opposed not only the enslavement of his converts, but the institution of slavery itself, 1300 years before Christianity would take the same stance in the mid 1800’s. Ireland is unique in the early history of Christian expansion because violence was not used to introduce the new religion. St. Patrick and his fellow missionaries helped abolish human sacrifice, limit tribal warfare, and laid the foundations of a culture and civilization that would be one of the marvels of the West, until its conquest and destruction by the English under Cromwell, from 1649-52.
Nevertheless, the spirit of Celtic Christianity has been preserved in the worldwide Irish diaspora and laid the foundation for vibrant Catholic communities in North America, Australia, and the rest of the English speaking world. Just as Ireland kept alive the flame of learning in the Dark Ages and returned that light back to Europe, the oppression of English rule and economic hegemony over the last three centuries has led ongoing waves of Celtic culture to spread around the world. Ireland’s current success as a center of hardware and software development in the Information Age heralds a new day, in which the non-Celtic are coming to the Emerald Isle to find peace and prosperity.
Every culture and civilization has its foundational myth. In St. Patrick ( and Palladius), Ireland has a founder whose faith and enduring achievements are not only the subject of legend but the historical basis of the Irish trajectory in world culture.