St. Patrick: Why His Message Still Matters
Brother Colmán Ó Clabaigh, OSB
March 17 is upon us again, and all over the world everyone is an honorary Irishman or Irishwoman for 24 hours. St. Patrick's popularity is a result of the wanderlust of the Irish, and there is no corner of the world in which his name is not honored.
Yet, if his name is known, his story is less familiar and his message often gets drowned out by the parades, the plastic shamrocks and the green-dyed beer.
The little knowledge we have of him comes from two letters he wrote in the course of his missionary work in fifth-century Ireland.
In one, he fearlessly condemns a warlord who carried off some of his converts into slavery. The other document, known as his "Confession," gives a moving account of his conversion and his work as a minister of the Gospel.
Patrick was born in the year 389 into a comfortable Christian background in Roman-occupied Britain. Like others, he took his family, his faith and his good fortune for granted.
All this changed when a group of Irish raiders captured him and sold him and his young companions into slavery. Snatched from the comfort of his Roman villa, he found himself herding sheep and fending off wild animals on the side of an Irish mountain.
Exiled, abused and exploited, Patrick turned to Christ in his desperation, and the relationship of faith that followed transformed his own life and the lives of the Irish people.
Escaping from captivity, he returned to his family and became a priest.
He would perhaps have settled into a comfortable clerical career had it not been for a dream in which he heard the "voice of the Irish" begging him to "come and walk once more amongst us." This he took as a summons to return and proclaim the freedom of Christ in the land of his captivity. It was a courageous decision and one that demanded all his reserves of courage and forgiveness.
But Patrick's story doesn't end there. From the "Confession" we learn that his mission was anything but an easy one: He was subjected to threats and extortion, his converts were enslaved and brutalized, and his own personal integrity was called into question.
For Patrick had a dark secret. Around age 15, he had committed a very serious crime. What the nature of this offense was he does not reveal, but it would have been an obstacle to his ordination had it been disclosed.
He confided this to a close friend, who subsequently betrayed his trust. In consequence, Patrick's mission was called into question and the "Confession" contains an anguished defense of his ministry in the face detractors, whom he dismissively addresses as "you men of letters, sitting on your estates."
God working within
All this is a long way from the sanitized image of the saint banishing the snakes from Ireland in his green vestments, bishop's staff and over-sized shamrock.
However, the reality of St. Patrick as revealed in the "Confession" shows us someone in whom the grace of God was powerfully active. The Lord habitually uses weak and fragile people to accomplish his will, to build up his kingdom: "My grace is enough for you, my strength is made perfect in weakness" (
Patrick himself recognized this; he was conscious of being "rustic, exiled, unlearned," of lacking the sophistication of other bishops. But more than this, he was conscious of the power of God working within him.
Anyone familiar with the stone-walled fields that partition the Irish countryside will appreciate the image that he uses to describe this: "I was like a stone lying in deep mud; and he that is mighty came and in his mercy lifted me up, and raised me aloft and put me on top of the wall. And therefore I ought to shout out aloud and return something to the Lord for the great mercy he has shown me now and for all ages."
Weak though he was, Patrick's success lay in his recognition of the Gospel's power to transform, transfigure and uplift, and this is as true for us in the 21st century as it was for him in the fifth.