The life of Saint Patrick is celebrated the world over on March 17, when everyone is a little bit Irish. Solemnity and sobriety may be in short supply on Patrick’s feast day, but this great man merits serious contemplation.
Born a Roman citizen on the west coast of Scotland around 400 A.D., Patrick was kidnapped from his home at age 16 by kinsmen of Niall of the Nine Hostages, Ireland’s most powerful ruler, and held as a slave for six years. It was a brutal time, but one for which the Saint would eventually thank God. Only through the misery of bondage, and his miraculous escape, did Patrick find his true calling.
He missed the major portion of his formal schooling and this made him insecure his whole life, causing him to write very little. When he did take up his quill in later years, Patrick apologized profusely for the quality of his prose: “Anyone can see from the style of my writing how little training in the use of words I got.”
What an irony that the Patron Saint of Ireland, a nation of outsized authors, was not, in fact, Irish, and lamented his own lack of skill for the written word. But Patrick was a gifted speaker, able to find the natural tone that resonates with listeners, whether they are learned or not. As scholar Donnchadh O’ Flionn opined of Patrick’s oratory, “How his unbookish common sense must have baffled those suave and contriving learned opponents of his!”
And opponents, he certainly had. Both within the Church and without, Patrick was surrounded by those who doubted his credentials, his motives, his character and his message. Despite his lifelong knowledge of Christianity (his father had been a church deacon), Patrick did not appreciate the value of faith until he lost his freedom. After escaping to England on a ship that was transporting dogs, Patrick embarked on a lightning clerical career that saw him elevated to the rank of Bishop. Over the course of years, he had visions and dreams of his former captors in Ireland, calling him back to teach them about Christ. He knew that his mission would be hard and folks would doubt him. Yet Patrick persevered, stating, “I came to the Irish heathens to preach the Good News and to put up with insults from unbelievers.”
Patrick understood that, through him and others, God would embrace a new country. In his Confession, he quoted Romans 9:25: “I shall say to a people that was not mine, ‘You are my people,’ and to a nation I never pitied, ‘I pity you.’” To be sure, Patrick believed he was helping to fulfill this prophesy in Ireland.
But discard any idea that Patrick strode onto the Emerald Isle, plucked up a shamrock (derived from the Irish word seamrog, meaning “summer plant”), explained the Holy Trinity to the pagans using its three leaves, then everyone settled into a chorus of Danny Boy (the non-Irish derivations of that song being another discussion entirely). It was a far harder slog. Patrick was imprisoned and robbed repeatedly, attacked, vilified, and he lived in constant expectation of murder.
Gradually, throughout his eventful life, Patrick became aware of his place, if not in history, in God’s plan. He did not think of himself as special; rather, he took pains to point out that his faith, mission, and even his suffering were gifts from God and, perhaps to prove a point, the Almighty had chosen an unlearned former slave, rather than a brilliant scholar, to spread His message.
It is often observed that Patrick led the only bloodless revolution in the whole troubled history of Ireland. Author and Irish Bishop Joseph Duffy notes, “The later compilers of saints’ lives, who were by no means given to understatement, tell of only one martyr in his entire missionary career.” The pen may be mightier than the sword, but Patrick used neither. Instead, his simple faith and plain speaking changed the course of his adopted country.
Writers largely ignored Patrick for more than 100 years after his death around 480, but he was rediscovered in the 7th Century. It was not until 1681 that we find the first reference to wearing the shamrock on St. Patrick’s Day, and this was the same century wherein “Patrick” became the most common Christian name in Ireland. Like any number of ancient tales, the facts of Patrick’s life are disputable but the larger point remains. To wit, a selfless life is worth living.
Patrick had a special relationship with young people, and some suppose he strove to give them a hope and happiness his own childhood had lacked. But were it not for his early suffering, could Patrick have become such a seminal figure of faith? How many people, afflicted as Patrick was, might decide they deserve a comfortable dotage? What, then, urged him on? As he put it, “Surely it was not without God or for worldly purposes that I came to Ireland. Who compelled me?…I sold my birthright without shame or regret for the benefit of others…Thus I am a servant of Christ in a far-off nation on account of the indescribable glory of eternal life which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”