Saint of the Week: St. Patrick of Ireland

About ten years ago, one of the many unfunny For Better or for Worse cartoons at least had a bit of a kick to it. A group of Canadian students are sitting in a pub drinking the usual green beer, the pub decked in green with shamrocks for St. Patrick’s Day. One wonders what St. Patrick did; another quips that he drove the snakes out of Ireland. What else? Brought Christianity. An Irish friend of theirs approaches, and they ask him what St. Patrick did, besides bringing Christianity to Ireland. His response, ‘Isn’t that enough?’

Indeed. Isn’t bringing Christianity to a dark place enough and more than enough to be celebrated?

I have no doubt St. Patrick would be a bit disappointed at the booze fest his feast has turned into, with green beards and pagan leprechauns everywhere. Still, the bringing of the light of the Gospel into a pagan land is a good thing, is it not?

When we consider the polydaimonic/animist nature of much traditional pagan nature religion from Italy westwards, there is very often an element of fear. We like to romanticise this paganism, imagining these close-to-nature druids and bards who can speak with the very earth and commune with trees. Do not forget farmers who fear forests due to what lurks within, who have a very real fear of mounds due to the metaphysical beings who may dwell therein. If the surviving fairy stories from the period following Christianisation have any resemblance to pre-Christian beliefs, I’ve a feeling the supernatural was not something to be enjoyed but, rather, feared.

When the Inuit of the Central Arctic came to Christ, they found freedom from a world full of spirits seeking to be appeased, a harsh, hostile world with no Great Spirit of the southern First Nations of Canada and the USA. They found eternal security in the person and actions of Jesus Christ, and were thankful for the Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries who brought this great Good News of freedom to them.

Considering how given over to Christ the Irish were to become following St. Patrick, no doubt they felt the same.

St. Patrick (c. 387-460/493) brought Christianity to Ireland in the early fifth century. He was born six years after the triumph of Nicene Christianity over Arianism at the First Council of Constantinople in 381 and one year after the conversion of St. Augustine of Hippo; he was enslaved seven years before the Roman legions left Britain; the earlier date for his death is one year before Pope Leo I, the later date is 17 years after the fall of the last Roman Emperor in the West. St. Patrick is patristic, a missionary of the Late Antique world.

Having read his Confession (hopefully this link will do the job, let me know if it fails), I’m of the opinion that he was of Romano-British stock; he was certainly from Roman Britain. When he was sixteen, he was captured and sold into slavery in Ireland. Although he made a daring escape, he made the decision to return thither later on and bring the light of Christ to the unconverted beyond the Empire’s borders.

This was the result of a dream:

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. (from the Wikipedia entry)

(There may have been a few Christians lurking in Ireland before Patrick, but I’ve found conflicting dates for the other early Irish saints.)

Patrick went to Ireland and preached, converting and baptising many thousands. He refused all gifts, for salvation is the free gift of God to all who believe. One story that I read somewhere was of a pagan prince upon whose feet Patrick inadvertently leaned with his staff during the baptismal rite. The young man endured the pain and said nothing, believing it to be part of the ceremony — such was their zeal for incorporating themselves into the glorious freedom of Christ’s Gospel as proclaimed by Patrick.

There are also many tales of Patrick’s encounters with Irish priests (druids?), whom he outdid in miracles, and many people whom he exorcised.

His was a mission of preaching and miracles, much like our Lord’s. Much also like that of St. Columba, St. Aidan, and St. Cuthbert in Britain. The power of the Gospel was evident in the life of St. Patrick, saving the people of Ireland not only from captivity to the unclean spirits but also from captivity to the unclean spirit of each person’s own sinful soul.

Shall we bring this Gospel of love and light to our neighbours? Shall we help cleanse their lives from the snakes of sin and fear?

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