“I am Patrick, a sinner, most uncultivated and least of all the faithful and most despised in the eyes of many.”
—Confessions of Saint Patrick
Saint Patrick blamed himself.
“My father had a small estate, where I was taken captive,” he wrote in his Confessions. “I was then barely 16. I had neglected the true God, and when I was carried off into captivity in Ireland, along with a great number of people, it was well deserved.”
Born into an aristocratic Romano-British family in Cumbria around 415, Patrick was the son of a decurion (a local official of the Roman government) and deacon, and the grandson of a priest. He grew up in a Roman-style villa, a precursor of the manors of the landed gentry of later centuries, with a farm estate worked by enslaved people. Taken by Irish raiders of the sort that regularly terrorized the west coast of Britain, he served as a slave himself in what is probably now County Mayo, tending sheep for his master for at least five years.
He learned the Irish language, turned to a life of intense prayer, and began having visions and prophetic dreams. In one such dream, a voice told him, “You will soon return to your own country.” After hearing in another dream that “Your ship is ready,” he walked two hundred miles to the nearest port and sailed for home.
Reunited at last with his family, he was not to remain long on his native soil. He soon began having dreams of Ireland, in one of which a voice said, “Holy boy, we are asking you to come and walk among us again.” Against the urging of his family, that is what he did—and he remained in Ireland the rest of his life.
Although there were already Christians in the south—Pope Celestinus sent Palladius to be the 1st bishop of the Irish Christians in 431—Palladius’ mandate was more custodial than conversionary, and it was Patrick’s zeal that Christianized the Emerald Isle. Intensely self-conscious about his own clumsy Latin and foreshortened formal education which abruptly ended during his period of slavery, he nevertheless believed God had called him to this work. He wrote in his Confessions,
I am, then, first and foremost unlearned, an unlettered exile who cannot plan for the future… Who was it who called me, fool that I am, from among those who are considered wise, expert in law, powerful in speech and in general affairs? He passed these over for me, a mere outcast. He inspired me with fear, reverence, and patience, to be the one who would if possible serve the people faithfully to whom the love of Christ brought me.
Expecting every day to be martyred—“I may lack burial itself, while my corpse be most squalidly toward limb from limb by dogs or wild beasts”—he hardly seemed worth the trouble to Irish chieftains too embroiled in internecine war to persecute Christians. In fact, Patrick found the pagan Irish more receptive to his message than the druidic peoples of Gaul and elsewhere were to Christian missionaries. Irish chieftains often made gifts of money and “used to throw some of their jewelry on the altar,” which led to rumors that Patrick benefitted financially from his mission—a charge he vehemently denied.
Many scholars believe that the Irish druids, unlike their European counterparts, saw in Christ’s death the fulfillment of their own religion of human sacrifice. (In fact, the practice outlived conversion, and the foundations of many early Irish churches were sprinkled with the blood of human sacrifices.) This receptivity would help account for the extraordinary success of Patrick’s mission in his adopted homeland.
During his own lifetime, Patrick managed to put a stop to, or greatly attenuate, the two mainstays of the pagan Irish economy: slave trading and cattle stealing. And as ashamed as Patrick was of his own lack of learning, by the time he died, Irish monks had learned Latin and Greek, and were beginning to learn Hebrew. In fact, the Irish monasteries, along with the early Muslim scholars of North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula, preserved much of what we know today of classical learning from destruction by the barbarian hordes who poured into Europe during the collapse of Rome.
The Spirituality of St. Patrick by Lesley Whiteside (Morehouse 1997)
How the Irish Saved Civilization (Hinges of History Book 1) by Thomas Cahill (Anchor 2010)
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