March 17: Saint Patrick, Bishop—Optional Memorial
c. 387–c. 460 or 493 (Actual dates are uncertain)
Patron Saint of Ireland
Invoked against snake bites
Liturgical Color: Purple (Lenten Weekday)
I, Patrick, a sinner, a most simple countryman, the least of all the faithful and most contemptible to many…was taken captive. I was at that time about sixteen years of age. I did not, indeed, know the true God; and I was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people…And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God… ~Confession of Saint Patrick
Patrick was born in Roman-ruled Britain to loving parents, perhaps as an only child. His father was a senator and a deacon, and his grandfather was a married priest. Despite his Christian upbringing and the clerical influences of his father and grandfather, Patrick struggled with his faith, stating later that when he was young he “did not know the true God.” This testimony, and the quotes to follow, come from his own hand, preserved in his Confessio, Saint Patrick’s short autobiographical confession about the workings of God’s grace in his life and ministry.
At the age of sixteen, Patrick’s life took a dramatic turn for the worse; at least, that’s how it first appeared. Gaelic slave traders from Ireland arrived by ship and raided Patrick’s village. Though young women and children were often their preferred targets, a young, healthy boy could also profit them. Patrick was captured and “was taken into captivity in Ireland with many thousands of people.”
At the time of Patrick’s captivity, Ireland was a pagan country made up of more than a hundred small, family-based clans governed by local chiefs. Most clans united with other clans to form several larger kingdoms. Their religious beliefs were a mixture of polytheism, in which gods were honored and called upon, and animism, in which the natural world was believed to contain spirits who could be communicated with. Their druids (priests) engaged in demonic spells, incantations, curses, and dark magic.
It was Patrick’s conviction that, because he and his fellow slaves had drawn away from God and did not keep God’s precepts, the Lord brought down upon them the “fury of his being,” permitting them to be scattered throughout Ireland as slaves. But God’s just punishments are always inflicted upon his children for the purpose of converting their hearts, which is exactly what happened to Patrick. “And there the Lord opened my mind to an awareness of my unbelief, in order that, even so late, I might remember my transgressions and turn with all my heart to the Lord my God, Who had regard for my insignificance and pitied my youth and ignorance.”
While in captivity, Patrick was made a swineherd for one of the clans and spent much of his time in the forests, enduring the snow, ice, and rain. But his time alone, experiencing the suffering and loneliness of captivity, greatly benefited his soul. At first, Patrick didn’t know God. Then, he began to think about God. Then he began to speak to God. Within six years, he was praying a hundred prayers every day and a hundred prayers every night. As a result, Patrick testified that “the Spirit was burning in me at that time.” After receiving chastisements from God for his lack of faith, Patrick’s heart was changed and filled with gratitude for all that God had done in his soul. He realized that his only “way to repay Him is to exalt Him and confess His wonders before every nation under heaven.”
Once Patrick had converted, God’s plan for his life changed. While asleep one night, Patrick heard a voice say to him, “Soon you will depart for your home country,” and shortly afterward, “Behold, your ship is ready.” By an intuition of grace, Patrick knew what he had to do. He escaped and ran 200 miles (about 184 modern miles). God directed him on the way and led him to a ship where Patrick convinced the captain to let him board. Three days later, they were back in Britain on a remote shore. Patrick and some pagans disembarked from the ship and began a twenty-eight-day journey through the wilderness to find civilization. On the journey, the pagans mocked Patrick’s faith, but when they ran out of food, Patrick prayed and God miraculously provided them with a herd of pigs. The pagans were impressed and Patrick won their respect. This was the first of many times that God used Patrick to change hardened hearts. Then, Patrick was reunited with his parents at last.
Back in Britain, Patrick continued to pray, study Scripture, and learn the Catholic faith. His prayer led him into deep union with God. He had dreams and visions, including a vision in which he heard the voice of the Irish say to him, “We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us.” Patrick knew that he had to return, not as a slave, but as a missionary. Despite opposition from his family, Patrick was determined to answer God’s call.
Since Patrick had learned much about Irish culture and language, he was an ideal candidate for missionary work. After years of study, probably in France, he was ordained a bishop and sent by the Church back to Ireland to convert the pagans, his captors, to Christ. And that he did. It was by the courageous witness of his character, aided perhaps by miraculous signs and unwavering faith, that one of the kings converted. After being successful in one kingdom, Bishop Patrick moved to another. When he arrived in a new territory, he always sought to convert the local king and chiefs first. Once they were open to the Gospel, the people followed.
During the fewer than thirty years that Patrick evangelized the people of Ireland, he endured many hardships, including another short captivity, the constant danger of being killed, and staunch opposition from the druid spiritual leaders. But he also converted countless pagans, baptized and confirmed “so many thousands,” built churches, established religious life, ordained native clergy, and changed pagan Ireland as a whole into one of the greatest Catholic nations on earth.
Saint Patrick’s influence on Ireland was so profound that many later biographers have attributed numerous legends to him. Though most of these legends cannot be verified, the stories highlight the remarkable spiritual transformation of a hostile pagan nation by the faith and courage of one man. God humbled Patrick, changed his heart, set him on fire, and then used that fire to purify many thousands of people. In the centuries that followed, those converts went forth to the ends of the earth, bringing the same Gospel to others that Patrick first preached to them.
As we honor Saint Patrick, seek to imitate him by joining him in his initial humiliation. See your sins and pray that God purifies you by any means necessary. Convert your heart. Increase your daily prayer. Allow your heart to become inflamed by God’s Spirit. Say “Yes” to Him when He calls, and go where He sends you. Like Saint Patrick, God wants to send you on a mission, but He cannot do so until you fully convert your heart to His.
Saint Patrick, you were captured and made a slave. God used that captivity to change your heart and draw you to Himself. Once converted, you chose to become a holy slave of Christ, bringing His saving message to a hostile and pagan land. Please pray for me, that I may imitate your conversion and place myself at the service of the will of God. Saint Patrick, pray for me. Jesus, I trust in You.