St. Patrick

(d. 461 A.D.)

Those of Irish blood are most fond of St. Patrick their apostle; and his popularity is well-deserved.

Patrcius Magonus Sucatus, like many missionaries of all times, was not a native of the country that he converted. He was born somewhere in western Britain, the son of Calpurnius, a Romanized Briton, who was both a town official and a Catholic deacon. How Patrick first came to Ireland is a dramatic tale that he himself later recorded in his book of “Confessions.” One day, around 403, when he was about 14, he and some of his neighbors were set upon by wild pagan Irish raiders, and taken back to Ireland as slaves. For six years thereafter, Patricius tended the flocks of his master, who seems to have lived in Ulster, Ireland’s northern province. When captured, Patrick, by his own admission, was a careless Catholic. During the hardships of his captivity, however, he learned the expertise of prayer, so that “the spirit was fervent within,” despite his exposure to “snow and frost and rain.”

At the end of the six years, Patrick, now about 20, was advised in a dream to escape his owner and make his way to a certain spot on the coast. There a shipmaster would give him passage back to his native land. The youth obeyed the command, and made contact with the shipper, who took him over to Gaul (now France). Eventually, Patrick got passage from Gaul to Britain and rejoined his family, who begged the long-lost son to stay with them forever.

Perhaps Patrick would have stayed home forever, but new dreams now came to him in which Irishmen begged the “holy youth” to “come and walk among them once more.” He felt that he could not resist that cry. So, he first prepared himself to go back as a missionary by returning to Gaul, learning there the ways of the monastic life and seeking ordination to the priesthood. Then he offered himself to his Gaelic bishop as a missionary to Ireland. For some time his request was rejected. Finally, in the year 432, St. Germanus, bishop of Auxerre, consecrated him a bishop and sent him to his adoptive people.

Bishop Patrick faced no easy task. A crucial achievement was the compact he concluded at Tara in County Meath with the Irish High King. This gave him leave to preach in the whole island. He now proceeded systematically through all four of Ireland’s provinces. In addition to the physical trials of his journeys, he encountered strong opposition and threats from the pagan Druids. As he went about, he organized the church and appointed a few regional bishops. Meanwhile, he did not allow this remote island to fall out of communication with the church at Rome. One of the rules he set down was that, if any problem of faith should arise in Ireland, it should be carried to the pope for settlement.

There was no doubt about Patrick’s stunning success as a missionary. He himself writes of the “so many thousands” whom he personally baptized and confirmed. He marveled at the generosity of their response; “Sons and daughters of Scottic chieftains are seen to become monks and virgins of Christ.” There were still enemies of the Faith who would have liked to do him violence. But he persevered to the end in his missionary career confident that the Lord in whom he trusted would protect him and his work.

In his last days, Bishop Patrick climbed up the stony heights of the mount called Croagh Patrick, and after 40 days of fasting and prayer he was shown by God the ultimate fruit of his labors. From that summit, he gave his final blessing to the whole Irish race. When he died, not long afterward, he was buried at Saul on Strangford Lough.

Ever since their saint’s death, devout Irish people have undertaken annually a penitential barefoot climb to the top of Croagh Patrick. Perhaps it is their willingness to do stern penance that has preserved among the Irish the tradition of Christian piety that they learned from the bishop who first preached Christ crucified in the “island of saints and scholars.”

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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