Not being of Irish descent, I have always been a bit confused by the feast of Saint Patrick. I remember getting pinched every Saint Patrick’s Day as a boy because I refused to wear green. While in college, I observed that this feast of the patron saint of Ireland had become an occasion for many to consume large amounts of beer. I am not certain that those doing so attended Mass with any frequency or could even claim to have ethnic roots in the Land of Saints and Scholars.
There are quite a few charming legends about and even prayers attributed to Patrick, many of which are of dubious historical value. Most historians regard the Confession of Saint Patrick and Patrick’s Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, both written in Latin, as originating from the man who would later come to be known as the Apostle to Ireland.
From these two sources, we learn that Patrick was probably born somewhere on the island of Britain in the 380s into a Roman Christian family. His father was both a deacon and Roman Imperial magistrate and his mother a near blood relative of the great monk Saint Martin of Tours (316-397).
Around the age of fifteen, Patrick committed a very serious sin, the nature of which is unknown, that placed him under ecclesiastical censure. A year later, he was captured by coastal raiders and taken to Ireland as a slave. During his six years of slavery in Ireland, Patrick tended livestock. Long hours in solitude while pasturing his master’s flock proved to be a salutary remedy for his soul. Having repented of his sins and under the guidance of a heavenly voice, Patrick fled Ireland and returned to freedom in Britain.
Another vision came a few years later that convinced him God was calling him to preach the gospel to the people of land where he been enslaved. Patrick went to a monastery in Gaul (modern-day France) and spent about eighteen years preparing for his missionary vocation and returned to Ireland as a bishop with a handful of monk companions in the 430s. In the thirty years that followed, his Irish mission enjoyed extraordinary results.
While there are many legends attributed to Saint Patrick that seek to explain the remarkable success of his work of evangelization through an appeal to the miraculous, very few today give sufficient attention to the most likely source of Patrick’s conversions, heroic fidelity to the Gospel. His mission to Ireland made concrete our Lord’s words, “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Lk. 6:27-28). This was a man who had been kidnapped and enslaved by the very race to which he went to preach the name of Jesus.
In the centuries immediately following Saint Patrick, the Church in Ireland exhibited the same holy zeal that characterized her apostle. Irish monks were the Church’s best missionaries during the early Middle Ages and were noted for practicing severe penances and rigorous prayer disciplines. Their labors to spread the Gospel were instrumental in the Christianization of Britain and much of central Europe. Irish monasteries were also centers of learning that were unrivaled in all western Europe until well into the High Middle Ages.
There is a great deal of talk about the New Evangelization today in the Church. We who desire to preach Christ to those who have not accepted Him as Lord would do well to imitate Saint Patrick by accepting suffering as chastisement for our sins, observing long periods of solitary prayer, forgiving our enemies and doing good to those who have most hurt us.