by Jack Long
Saint Patrick is the patron saint of Ireland and his feast is a yearly excuse to drink to excess. These excessive celebrations of St. Patrick’s Day at least coincide with the commemoration of the life of a heroically good man. Thanks to the missionary work of St. Patrick, Ireland has become Catholic to its core. Yet few are aware that they owe their belief to a foreigner oppressed by the Irish.
In contrast to his legendary reputation, Patrick begins his Confessio by introducing himself as a “a sinner, most rustic, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many.” This is no coincidence, as Patrick uses a similarly self-deprecating introduction (“I Patrick, – an unlearned sinner indeed”) in an epistle to an excommunicated warlord. This focus Patrick puts on his lack of power and control seems to derive from his humiliating experience as a sixteen-year-old slave removed from his country by pirates and brought into an unfamiliar land with a foreign tongue. In the six years of captivity, during which Patrick endured hunger and pain, he went from irreligion to fervent prayer and a newfound love for God. Patrick only found freedom from slavery when a miraculous voice lead him to a ship leaving for Britain. After a grueling month-long journey, “the least of all the faithful” returned to his country, his parents, and his native tongue, before having to give it all up again.
Patrick continued to be granted visions from God, including one where the famous missionary Victoricus presented him with a letter that simply said “The voice of the Irish.” Reading that sentence caused the saint to hear the voice of the Irish people calling him back.
In accordance with one of the last acts of Pope Celestine I, St. Patrick began his mission to use his knowledge of the Gaelic language to spread the Gospel to the violent island that forced him into servitude for half a dozen years. His ministry was in the end one of the greatest successes in the history of Christianity, but converting an island did not come easily.
Irish warlords and their soldiers would regularly steal, sell, and slaughter baptized Christians (even if the soldiers themselves were baptized) as the bishop of Ireland himself nearly died from at least twelve different such incursions and “God often freed [him] from slavery.”
While only so much could be done about the pagans threatening him, St. Patrick had no patience for his Christian brothers who did evil to their fellow baptized. He wrote in his epistle to Coroticus that seeing Christians who do evil out of greed, “[t]he angel of death will drag such a one away, to be crushed by the anger of dragons.” Yet despite these harsh challenges and persecutions, Saint Patrick managed to baptize thousands throughout his life, turning a nation of pagans into a nation of Christians that that over a thousand years later still celebrates “an alien among non-Roman peoples, an exile on account of the love of God.”
One of the most iconic events in St. Patrick’s life is his confrontation and subsequent conversion of the Irish King Leoghaire. According to tradition, St. Patrick recited a long prayer in preparation for the encounter, which is known as the Breastplate of St. Patrick, wherein he entreated God to protect and strengthen him. The Breastplate uses imagery and language which seems to have been used by the various pagan priests in Ireland and sublimates it to the power and action of the Trinity, highlighting God’s power over all things as the Creator of all things.