|Sisters at Croagh Patrick, “Ireland’s Holy Mountain,” 6/19/14|
Amid a green-shirt forest the church sang St. Patrick’s Breastplate yesterday. Today kids donned shamrock hats and finished their littleman traps. Tomorrow we’ll chew our corned-beef and cabbage and watch green-beer revelries on the nightly news.
Aye, we’re all Irish this week.
I’m proud to be Irish, and not just on March 17th. Patrick is a huge reason why. I asked the boys if they knew who Patrick was- Oh, sure, a saint, they quipped.
Patrick, a sinner, a simple country person, unlearned and the least of all believers-that’s how he began his Confession. And you, how do you answer: Who was Patrick?
Will the real Patrick please rise?
Patrick was not a leprechaun, nor mere legend, although legends about him abound.
What we do know of St. Patrick comes through two ancient texts: his Confession and his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. Both are in complete form and can by easily accessed here. They were both written by Patrick, handicapped, as it were, by his late-learned Latin skills in the middle 400’s. These two texts are, in fact, the oldest documents in Irish history.
From them we know that Ireland’s patron saint was not Irish but British by birth. Magonus Sucatus Patricius was born to a good Christian family around 390 Roman Briton. He admits, however, that he was not a good Christian growing up.
At age 16 he was carried by Irish raiders into slavery in Ireland. Alone in this “strange, wild land,” Patrick turned to God and grew in faith while herding on the Irish hills.
Six years a slave, he heard a voice call, “Come see, your ship is ready.” Heeding, he fled and reached a port perhaps 200 miles away. At first denied passage, he went away and prayed. Even before he had finished his prayer, a sailor shouted to him, “Come quickly, for they are calling you.”
Patrick reached mainland Europe a few days later with his pagan shipmates and made his way through France to a monastery in Italy. Some years later, he returned to Britain and found home “among my parents,” who joyfully welcomed him, begging him never to leave again.
Then another life-changing vision. A man came to him with countless letters from the Irish people, and I read the beginning of the letter, the voice of the Irish people. While I was reading out the beginning of the letter, I thought I heard at that moment the voice of those who were beside the wood of Voclut, near the western sea. They called out as it were with one voice: “We beg you, holy boy, to come and walk again among us.” This touched my heart deeply, and I could not read any further; I woke up then. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord granted them what they were calling for. (Confession, ch. 23)
St. Patrick is my homeboy.
Patrick’s Christianity, writes Greg Tobin in The Wisdom of St. Patrick, was simple, direct, practical, as earthy as it is mystical, not so much Roman Catholic as baseline Christian, and not so much Irish as truly universal (catholic with a small ‘c’).
Patrick was at once brave, bold pioneer-missionary and humble, servant-shepherd of God’s Irish flock. He was zealous and honest, ever aware of his own short-comings, and forever God’s grateful debtor.
In his final Confession he prays,
… for those who believe in and fear God. Some of them may happen to discover this document and read its words, composed in Ireland by an unlearned sinner named Patrick. May none of them ever say that whatever little I accomplished was a work of this ignorant man alone. No, rather, know this: that it was a gift from God and that it occurred only for God’s good reasons. And that is my confession before I die. (ch. 62)
Irish history is a dramatic tale of turning from idols to serve the living God. It’s a remarkable true story of a pagan world turned totally upside-down, and converted. An unlearned sinner named Patrick had an awful lot to do with it.
Maybe he ought have his own holiday.