Ireland celebrates Saint Patrick every March 17. But how many of us can really say that we know who he is – or who he was – and how relevant he is in today’s secular, and for the most part pagan, society?
Saint Patrick is not only the Patron Saint of Ireland, but he is also the Patron Saint of Australia, Nigeria and Montserrat, which gives him a universal recognition in the Church and in the world. He is also ‘Apostle’ by God’s design to the Irish worldwide in the same genre as Saint Paul was ‘Apostle to the Gentiles’. Saint Patrick also becomes the Patron Saint on March 17 in almost every country of the world, as people celebrate their “Irish-ness” or links with Ireland through family and friends.
Saint Patrick is also probably the best known Saint around the world, after Saint Therese of Lisieux. Not only are many people named after him, with some 7 million bearing his name, but many establishments, institutions and churches are called after him. Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York being the most famous of all.
By all historical accounts Patrick was captured by an Irish raiding party somewhere along the west coast of what is known today as Great Britain, more than likely Scotland because of its proximity, although many would say Wales. We know that there were boats leaving from, Strangford Lough, in Larne at that time, around the year 426 AD (one can see Scotland from Larne on a clear day; it’s about 10 miles away).
Raiding parties, with warriors known as the “Picts” people would land somewhere on the coast, and if the place was inhabited would usually do a “smash and grab job” of looting: young people, animals, clothes, weapons etc, and if they were opposed by anyone, they would have killed them in order to get what they wanted. They were able to run inland for about three miles non-stop, while leaving a handful of men to guard their vessels.
On one such raid Patrick was snatched and brought to Ireland as a slave. His job was to mind the sheep at night in case wolves, wild dogs, foxes or even wild bears would take them or their lambs. He did this on the slopes of the Slemish Mountains in County Antrim.
We know from our history that Patrick’s father was a deacon and, therefore, a good Catholic. He was one who taught the faith in his own community, and no doubt one who prayed unceasingly for Patrick, in a special way after his son's kidnapping, asking the Lord for his safe return. (We know some of the sources that give testimony to these facts from Patrick's “Confessions,” and the “Epistle against Coroticus” and a number of “Ancient Lives,” including the Book of Armagh II, held in Trinity College Dublin).
Although Patrick was only 16 years old when taken into slavery, he was able to escape six years later and return home. He recounts a “dream” (vision) he had, when an angel of the Lord came in the night, and told him of a ship that was leaving Ireland, and how he might be able to take it by traveling south, near Dublin. By this time having spent six years in virtual isolation away from people, Patrick who was often cold, hungry, and lonely, had turned to prayer and, like his father, had prayed non-stop asking God to deliver him. His prayers were finally heard and God had designs on him. In fact, it would be fair to say, that Patrick had become somewhat of a mystic at this stage, so intense was his prayer life and his constant communication with God.
He arrived home to the delight of his parents and was re-united with his family and friends. He later began to realize that he may have a vocation to the priesthood, or some ministry of prayer in the Church. At this time the Church was already established somewhat in Ireland. There was already an Archbishop of Armagh by the name of Pallidus, who may well have come originally from Scotia again given the proximity of the North of Ireland to the west coast of Scotland.
Ireland was not ecclesiastically independent at the time, but came under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Arles in France, which is connected to the great Mediterranean Sea by the Rhone River and from there by a direct link to Rome. Patrick often thought about the Irish and prayed for their conversion to the faith. In his time in Ireland even though he was a slave, he had developed a profound relationship with God and a great ability to pray. Later as he said himself in his “Confessions” he was tormented by the “Voice of the Irish” whom he had heard calling in the night “Come back to us Patrick.”
Once Patrick was ordained a priest and had learned Latin and French, he asked to be sent as a missionary to Ireland, or, as it was known then, Hiberniae, which means the “Land of Winter.” Patrick had a great missionary zeal and was soon to become Ireland’s second Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of all Ireland. This he undertook and gave himself two mandates, first to evangelize the pagan Irish, and secondly to setting up the ecclesiastical structures and dioceses with a view to achieving independence from Arles, which was supporting the missionary activity in Ireland up until that time.
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