Skip to content

Saint Patrick

March 15, 2018

The story of Saint Patrick, one of the most beloved of all saints, is a strange mixture of history and legend. Patrick was born into a wealthy family in England about 385 A.D. His father was a deacon from a Roman family of high social standing. His mother was a close relative of Martin of Tours. Patrick’s grandfather was a priest in the Catholic Church.

When Patrick was sixteen years old, Irish pirates captured and sold him into slavery in Ireland. Patrick worked as a shepherd for his master, a Druid high priest in the religion of the ancient Celts.

In time Patrick came to view his enslavement as a test of his faith. During his six years of captivity, he became devoted to Christianity through constant prayer. He explained in his Confessions that the Lord had mercy on his youth and ignorance and gave him the opportunity to be forgiven of his sins and to be converted to Christianity.

At the age of twenty-two, Patrick had a dream, encouraging him to escape from Ireland. In that dream, the voice of God promised that he would find the way back to his homeland in England. Patrick began this journey by walking across Ireland to the coast where he convinced sailors to let him board their ship. After three days of sailing, he and the crew abandoned the ship in France and wandered, lost, for twenty-eight days—covering 200 miles in the process. At last, Patrick was reunited with his family in England.

Patrick recounted another vision he had a few years after returning home:

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish.” they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant, to come and walk among us.”

Interpreting this vision as a call from God, Patrick became determined to free the Irish from paganism by converting them to Christianity.  He never lost sight of that vision.

In 431, Pope Celestine consecrated Patrick as Bishop of the Irish and dispatched him to Ireland to spread the gospel. There Patrick met with hostile resistance. He wrote that he was, on one occasion, beaten, robbed of all he had, and put in chains.  Regardless of that reception, it is said that Patrick converted the entire country of Ireland in less than thirty years.

The genius of Patrick’s approach was to mesh the symbols of Christianity with those of their ancient religion. The Celtic cross, for example, combines the most recognizable sign of the passion of Christ with the circle of life central to the fertility religion of the Celts.

According to legend Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to teach the Irish the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Its green color and the number three were already considered sacred in ancient Celtic religion.  For this reason, shamrocks are a central symbol for St Patrick’s Day.

According to legend, Patrick is also credited with banishing all snakes from the Emerald Isle into the North Atlantic Ocean.

In time Patrick brought Christian structures to Ireland by electing Church officials, creating councils, founding monasteries, and organizing the country into dioceses.

Though he was never formally canonized by a Roman Pope, Patrick is on the List of Saints and has been declared a Saint in Heaven by many Catholic churches.

Many believe that Patrick was buried alongside St. Brigid and St. Columba at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down. Nearby on the crest of a hill is a statue of him with bronze panels showing scenes from his life.

Saint Patrick’s Day is observed on March 17, the date of his death.  In the dioceses of Ireland, it is a holy day of obligation; outside of Ireland, it has become a celebration of Irish heritage.

For more than 1,000 years, the Irish have observed St. Patrick’s Day as a religious holiday. Traditionally on St. Patrick’s Day, Irish families would attend church in the morning and celebrate later. On Saint Patty’s Day, many folks enjoy a meal of corned beef, cabbage, and Irish potatoes. Others imbibe green beer and Irish whiskey until they see leprechauns. All of these customs celebrate the feast day of a Celtic Christian saint.

The notion that Saint Patrick initiated the custom of pinching folks who fail to wear green on March 17, the day he died, is silly.

Still, on Saint Patrick’s Day I plan to wear green, just to be sure.

Advertisements

Comments are closed.