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St. Patrick (March 17)

March 17, 2005

In the late 300’s (as now) the British Isles were divided.
Great Britain, conquered by the Romans the century before Christ,
had been transformed by the introduction of Roman civilization,
and, in the years after Christ’s death, by Christianity.
Ireland, which had been left relatively untouched, remained a land of localized tribes and pagan gods,
ruled by Celtic chieftains and druids.
The druids were the intelligentsia.
They educated the nobility and presided over religious rituals (including human sacrifice).
They also served as physicians (because of their knowledge of herbs), magicians, and judges.
They believed in a form of reincarnation, saying that souls passed from one body into another at death.
They did not believe in keeping written records, and passed on their knowledge by word of mouth.

It was in Roman Britain (whether in the north, in Scotland, or in the southwest, in Britain, is uncertain)
that today’s saint was born, and in Ireland that he fulfilled his vocation.

St. Patrick was born in the year 387 (give or take a decade or two)
to a Roman official named Calpurnius and his wife Conchessa
(said by some to have been a close relative of St. Martin of Tours).
Calpurnius was a deacon, but doesn’t seem to have been very devout, as Patrick later wrote:
“quite drawn away from God, we did not keep His precepts, nor were we obedient to our priests
who used to remind us of our salvation” (Confession of St. Patrick, 1).
It was in this state of religious indifference that Patrick,
a youth of about 16 who had been accustomed to a relatively comfortable life,
was seized along with many others by a raiding band of pirates.
He was taken to northern Ireland where he became the slave of a Druidic high priest named Milchu.
As a slave, Patrick was put in charge of the flocks (possibly sheep, pigs or both)
and spent many cold days and nights out on the mountains or in the forests.
There his faith awakened.
He began to pray, and his soul began to grow in love and reverence for God.
He recalls saying as many as a hundred prayers during the day and as many at night.

After six years of slavery, a voice came to Patrick during his sleep:
“You do well to fast: soon you will depart for your home country.”
Not long after, the voice came again. “Behold, your ship is ready” (Confession of St. Patrick, 17).
At that, Patrick ran away from his master, traveled 185 miles (200 Roman miles) to the coast,
and came upon a ship ready to embark.
When he requested passage, the sailors required him to pledge loyalty to them after the local custom.
Patrick proposed to pledge his loyalty through allegiance to Christ,
which at first the sailors would not accept.
After he prayed, however, they called him back and allowed him to come on board.

After three days at sea, they landed in a desolate spot and spent the next month or so on foot.
Their food ran out and there was none to be found in the land through which they were traveling.
Finally the sailors turned to Patrick.
“Why is it, Christian? You say your God is great and all-powerful; then why can you not pray for us?
For we may perish of hunger; it is unlikely indeed that we shall ever see another human being.”
To which Patrick responded confidently, “Be converted by faith with all your heart to my Lord God,
because nothing is impossible for Him, so that today He will send food for you on your road,
until you be sated, because everywhere He abounds” (Confession of St. Patrick, 19).
Already Patrick was practising those missionary skills that would serve him so well in years to come.
A short time later, they came upon a herd of swine, which the men slaughtered and ate,
giving praise and thanks to God.
From that day on, they always had plenty of food.
During this journey, Patrick was again taken captive, but God delivered him after two months.

Finally Patrick returned home and was reunited with his family, who begged him to stay with them.
There he had yet another vision, in which he was given letters from the Irish.
He had just begun to read when he heard a cry,
“We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us”
(Confession of St. Patrick, 23).
Deeply moved by this experience, he began religious studies to prepare himself
to become a missionary to the Irish.

He met with a great deal of opposition.
A sin he had committed as a youth (before his conversion) and confessed many years before
was brought up as a source of scandal.
Worse, it was broadcast by a friend to whom he had confided in private.
Patrick nearly gave up his dream of preaching to the Irish,
but another vision, assuring him of God’s approval
(“He who touches you, touches the apple of my eye”, Confession of St. Patrick, 29),
gave him the courage to persist.
His family tried to dissuade him too, again begging him to stay with them
and saying he was foolish to endanger himself for the sake of those barbarians.

Eventually, however, Patrick was ordained a priest, then consecrated a bishop
(so he would be able to ordain native Irish priests)
and commissioned to evangelize Ireland.
He landed in Ireland on March 25, 433 (the Solemnity of the Annunciation,
although it may not have been celebrated as such so early in Church history).
He was probably in his mid-forties.

Again, he met with great opposition, this time from the druids and local chieftains.
He and his companions were in constant danger, and were captured several times.
He writes: “daily I expect to be murdered or betrayed or reduced to slavery if the occasion arises.
But I fear nothing, because of the promises of Heaven;
for I have cast myself into the hands of Almighty God, who reigns everywhere.
As the prophet says: ‘Cast your burden on the Lord and he will sustain you’”
(Confession of St. Patrick, 55).
He lived in poverty, using his own money to pacify chieftains
and refusing the gifts that were offered to him,
lest they become a source of scandal.

Despite these difficulties, Patrick’s mission was wildly successful.
God had called him and God provided a great harvest of souls,
preparing the hearts of those who listened and backing up Patrick’s preaching with many miracles.
Patrick traveled throughout Ireland, baptizing thousands, ordaining many native priests,
and establishing many monasteries of monks and nuns.
He organized the Irish church into dioceses and held councils to settle matters of Church discipline.
He also brought with him the Roman standard of scholarship
(including an emphasis on writing, contrary to druidic practise),
which the Irish church would keep alive during the Dark Ages
until the Continent was ready to receive it again.
By the time he died on this date in 461 (or thereabouts), Ireland was a Catholic nation.

St. Patrick, please pray for us,
that we may have your courage to proclaim the power of the Gospel through the way we live,
even in the face of opposition.


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