St. Patrick: myth, mystery, mysticism and history

Bishop of Charleston

In celebrating the feast of St. Patrick we are actually dealing with myth, mystery, mysticism, and with just a little history. Not much is known about St. Patrick, yet this saint is very well known. It is generally conceded that Patrick did not chase the snakes out of Ireland; it is not really known whether he used the shamrock to teach converts about the Trinity; and it cannot be identified for sure when Patrick was born, when he was ordained a bishop, and when he died. Yet, this Patrick, born Patricius somewhere in Roman Britain, is the great and glorious St. Patrick whom the Irish have named the father of our country and whom the Church has named patron saint of Ireland.

Some 1,500 years ago, this teenage boy was kidnapped in a raid, transported to Ireland, enslaved to a local warlord to work as a shepherd, and escaped six years later, returning to his home. Patricius undertook studies for the priesthood and returned to Ireland convinced that he had been handpicked by God to convert the entire country to Christianity. His two brief documents: “Confessions” and “Letter to Coroticus,” are the basis for all we know about St. Patrick; and by the time he wrote these, Patrick was recognized by both Irish natives and the Church hierarchy as Bishop of Ireland. Also by this time, Patrick had clearly made a permanent commitment to Ireland and intended to die there. Scholars have no doubt that he did.

In the past 10 years two books and one magazine article have emphasized certain things about St. Patrick which ring bells and strum harps in our present experiences and challenges.

Noel Dermot O’Donoghue, O.D.C., a discalced Carmelite, is the first author. In his 1987 biography “Aristocracy of Soul: Patrick of Ireland,” O’Donoghue gives the reason why Patricius felt called by God to evangelize the Irish — it was because Patricius was a mystic. Most of the major events in the life of Patricius were preceded by a dream or vision. The visions were simple but they were also vivid. His first vision occurred six years into his servitude; it was a mysterious voice that spoke to him in his sleep: “Your hungers are rewarded; you are going home; look, your ship is ready.”; and, some 200 miles away, there it was. The second vision, which came to him after he had returned home, had Victor, a man Patrick knew in Ireland, handed Patrick a letter entitled “The Voice of the Irish.” Reading this title, Patrick heard a multitude of voices crying out to him: “Holy boy, we beg you come and walk among us once more.” Here God used the plea of the Irish to call Patricius to the priesthood, to the missions, to Ireland, to sainthood. Would to God he would call more Patricks from among us to minister in this land where so many of St. Patrick’s priest descendants have labored so effectively for so many years. Your prayers for vocations, please.

Thomas Cahill is our second author who, in 1995, gave us his national bestseller: “How the Irish Saved Civilization.” A highlight of this work is Cahill’s telling that Patrick’s conversion of Ireland made possible the preservation of Western thought through the early dark ages by the monks and scribes in Irish monasteries. When the lights went out all over Europe, a candle still burned in Ireland. That candle was lit by St. Patrick. But two other works of St. Patrick have resonance among us here in the south and here in the Church of Vatican II. Cahill points out that while the papacy did not condemn slavery as immoral until the end of the nineteenth century, St. Patrick saw it and called it for what it is in the fifth century. Having been enslaved himself, Patrick knew the evil of human slavery. To this, Patrick added a second dimension. Women find a great advocate in St. Patrick. He preached that it was the woman kept in slavery that suffered the most and he worked so hard for their liberation and dignity, that by the time of his death the Irish stopped slave trading and they never took it up again. Would that we had a St. Patrick to help us overcome what we call violence to the human person: bad housing, slave wages, poor education, unattainable health care, abortion, euthanasia, capital punishment.

Anita McSorley is the author of a magazine article in this month’s “St. Anthony Messenger” under the title “The St. Patrick You Never Knew.” She gives us the line that not since Paris absconded with Helen of Troy has a kidnapping so changed the course of history. She also reminds us of the old legend that on the last day, though Christ will judge all other nations, it will be St. Patrick sitting in judgment on the Irish. Blarney? Maybe. But it is not all bad, because of the rough times Patrick had and because of the great encouragement he gives to us in our struggles. Patrick had failed early on in life, but he came to know that having a failure is not the same as being a failure. In Jesus and Patrick, God brought victory out of failure. That is why I shall end this homily with St. Patrick’s encouraging words to all of us here today: “In this life we shall never reach perfection; but, if we try very hard, we shall come twice as close.”

Let’s try!