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Patrick, the Man Behind the Myth

Sometimes I find it really amazing to think that St Patrick’s Day is celebrated the world over.  The name of our national saint is known far and wide across the globe. Of course, it has to be acknowledged that what was primarily a religious feast day has become widely secularized.

This year because we are unable to ‘celebrate’ as we would have prior to 2000 we have the opportunity to examine what it is all about, or ideally should be about if we were to be true to the real man, Ireland’s great spiritual shepherd.

What lies at the heart of our commemoration of Patrick has nothing to do with parades, green beer, funny leprechaun hats, or marching bands.  It also has little to do with snakes or shamrocks, which make for interesting stories but can be seen to be the stuff of legend when we go back to the original documents.

I am Patrick

This was what the makers of the docudrama I Am Patrick had in mind last year when they released this film about the saint’s life.  The Christian Broadcasting Network relied almost exclusively on St Patrick’s own writings the Confessio and the Epistola, using the translations of Fr Pádraig McCarthy and Professor Thomas O’Loughlin.  These writings are seen as rugged witnesses to his simple holiness.  Both are letters and in the latter, he excommunicates the soldiers of the slave owner, Coroticus.

They are singularly important because Patrick was the only one who left a name and any account of evangelisation in Ireland.  Prior to the mid-seventh century, there seems to have been little or no awareness of Patrick in Ireland, but by the end of that century, a picture of Patrick had been created that remained almost unchanged and unchallenged until the 1960s.

His feast day, the day he died, was observed locally by his followers.  They kept his memory alive and preserved his writings.  By the seventh century, his story had been embellished by several biographers, including a writer, called Muirchú and he was made a saint by popular demand.  In 1631 Pope Urban VIII added the feast day to the official calendar of the Roman Church.

Once Patrick is transformed that feast day becomes not just the feast day of his own little group but becomes a feast day throughout the whole of Ireland and within a couple of generations is being celebrated right across the Latin Church.

Bringing the Gospel to the ends of the Earth

Christianity arrived in Ireland, probably in the fourth century, with slaves taken from Roman Britain; slavery was big business as Patrick’s writing and experience show us.  When he was taken from his home, probably in Wales, he was living in well-to-do and privileged circumstances. Captured by Irish pirates he was destined for a life in a dark land.

According to Harvard divinity scholar, Philip Freeman, “the few references to Ireland in classical sources are largely complaints that the island was a land of savages who brought terror to the good people of the Roman Empire with their vicious attempts and pirate raids”.  The country was divided into small kingdoms known as the Tuatha.  It was a land of barbarians at the end of the world.

Patrick’s life was in danger all the time and this was one of the reasons why the call to return to Ireland actually terrified him.  He returned to the people who had enslaved him, hearing them say  “We ask thee, boy, to come and walk with us once more”, while other voices were ringing in his ears telling him his mission was doomed to fail.  However, he realized that he had changed from the young boy he had been before the capture. He had escaped from Ireland in his early twenties and back home followed his father and grandfather (priests could marry then) into the clergy.  He writes that later in a vision he was told to return to Ireland and preach in those areas “at the ends of the earth where no one had preached before”.

One of the Church’s criticisms of Patrick was that he would not preach in Latin; he preached in Gaelic which he had learned while a slave.  Patrick and the people he trained were all very good at finding ways to explain the Christian message in ways that made sense for local Irish people.  He so effectively preached the Gospel that soon the whole island was Christian and he did the job so well that within a century Ireland was a powerhouse of faith with monasteries, scholars, and missionaries of her own.

One of the messages that Patrick offers us in our lives today is that the living God will come to us, speak to us and guide us as he did Patrick.  He is proof that if you have God you can change Nations.

Written by Marie – Therese Cryan

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