Patrick of Ireland is revisited every year by Irish Americans in a quasi-nationalistic-religious way in the days leading up to March 17. The songs of the many revolutions and dreams of the Irish are sung and cried over; the dancers kick up their heels; the marchers parade, and the drink is passed around freely. Aside from the initial greeting of “A Happy St. Patrick’s Day to ye,” few even mention the man for whom we have the holy day/holiday.
That is unfortunate because Patrick indeed deserves the place he holds in the Church and among the Irish. The many myths surrounding him about shamrocks, snakes and deer pale in comparison to the reality of his life. Patrick was born a citizen of Rome in the area known today as Great Britain. He was the son of a deacon and the grandson of a priest. (The Roman Catholic Church had married priests up to the 11th century.)
At 16, Patrick was captured by a raiding party of Irish warriors and brought to Ireland as a slave. He was forced to shepherd sheep on distant hills. Knowing nakedness, hunger and cold during these years of solitude, Patrick began to pray as he had never done in his life.” And then the lord opened the consciousness of my unbelief so that I might turn with a whole heart to the Lord my God.” The God of Patrick’s father and mother became the God of Patrick – real and loving, a God who “kept watch over me before I knew him.”
After six years of slavery, Patrick had a dream in which he heard the words, “Your ship is waiting.” He escaped from Ireland and eventually returned home. Again a dream disturbed him. He heard the Irish calling to him, “Come and walk among us again.” Patrick was “stabbed to the heart” and began another journey back to the Irish.
This demanded years of study and preparation for the priesthood before he could return as priest and bishop to his people. Going to the “remote parts where there was no man beyond,” Patrick became the first missionary bishop to go beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire. Ireland became the first and only country to accept Christianity without bloodshed.
The Irish Church flourished under Patrick. Churches and monasteries sprang up. These great centers of learning and spirituality were soon to nourish the church of Europe which had failed with the collapse of Rome. Missionaries from Ireland began at once to spread the Gospel to regions far from the Irish shore, a tradition which exists to this day.
Patrick left the Irish with faith in a loving God and with zeal to spread the Good News. Christianity transformed Irish society. Slavery ended with the arrival of Christianity. Patrick and Brigid, both slaves, knew that it was incompatible with the Gospel. Most wars ceased during their time as well. Unfortunately as much as Patrick and Brigid preached against wars and violence, the Irish have not been unanimous in following their example.
Patrick, like all prophets, had his enemies and he was forced to defend himself verbally against them. This was the rationale for his writing his “Confession.” With chiseled clarity and naked vulnerability, Patrick confessed his life before God and those who were attacking him. All that Patrick knew and valued was Christ and his Gospel. To celebrate Patrick is to celebrate the Gospel and to accept responsibility for its spread among all people, especially its challenge of peace.
Sister Patricia McCarthy is provincial for the Congregation of Notre Dame. For many years she taught troubled children and victims of abuse.