Saint James was the apostle of Spain, Saint Augustine the apostle of England, Saint Boniface the apostle of Germany, Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius the apostles of the Russian and the Slavic nations, but there is no nation in the world that is so intimately identified with its apostle as Saint Patrick is for Ireland. His is a stature of mythical proportions.
There are all sorts of traditions about the very early days of the Faith in Ireland. There are traditions that an Irishman was witness to the crucifixion; if true, he may have been a Jew living in Ireland. There also are traditions of saints in Ireland before Saint Patrick: Saint Declan, Saint Kieran, and Saint Biotus. But these are very few and the records of their lives very fragmentary. Yet, concerning the plenitude of fascinating details, anecdotes, and legends about the adventures of our saint that have survived over fifteen hundred years since his death, there is possibly much that may be exaggerated. Even still, legends (literally, “things that must be read”) are based upon heroic characters or epochal events the memories of which inspired nations. Father Feeney used to say: If you doubt that there is any truth behind legends go and start your own, and see how far you get.
We know that Patrick was born about 386. That is also the year of the death of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, one of the thirty-six Doctors of the Church. The second important date in Saint Patrick’s life is the year 432; that is the year that Saint Patrick returned to Ireland as a bishop and a missionary. One year earlier, the great Council of Ephesus took place. This is the council that defended our Lady’s divine maternity by defining her title, Theotokos, Mother of God, against the heretical patriarch Nestorius, who had attacked it. And the third date in Saint Patrick’s life is 461, the year he died.
For thirty years Saint Patrick labored in Ireland, bringing the Faith to a nation that has kept it ever since, although today, like the rest of what was once Chistendom, Ireland has gone the way of secularism and the Church is in dismal shape.
Ireland is not a huge nation geographically. It’s about the size of Maine, and throughout much of its history it has had a population of somewhere around ten to fifteen million, that is, until very recently. The population of the whole island of Ireland right now is only about six million. How was it that the Irish race accepted the true religion so rapidly, so tenaciously, and with such little resistance? Surely, miracles had to be involved? Yes, miracles had a lot to do with it; but, ultimately, miracles do not necessarily change a man inwardly — grace does.
Patrick was born somewhere close to the coast of Northern France, near Calais, of the Breton race, a Celtic people that occupied parts of Wales, and England, and northwestern France. Saint Patrick’s mother, Conchessa, was the sister of Saint Martin of Tours, both of whom were born in Hungary (ancient Pannonia) to pagan parents, the family moving to Italy when Martin was still a child.
Patrick’s father, Calpurnius, in the employ of imperial Rome, was stationed in Brittany when, his sixteen-year-old son, Maewyn (later, Patrick), was seized by some Irish coastal raiders and taken into slavery. The young man ended up working as a swineherd for a prince in the north of the Emerald Isle, near Armagh, where he would later establish his Primatial See. Maewyn was in servitude for seven years, and he wrote in his Confessions that those were the years of his conversion — that is, from mediocrity to a consuming inferno.
Miraculously escaping from captivity, Maewyn, returned to his native home, but he could not rest on account of recurrent dreams of the Irish people calling out to him to come back to their land and to free them from their slavery to sin and to the demons of idolatry. The Irish people at that time were in subjection to a sun-worshiping, astrological religion headed by a priestly caste of sorcerers called “druids.” The son of Calpurnius determined that he would answer the people calling out to him in these visions, so he left Brittany to visit monasteries throughout Gaul in the hopes of becoming a Catholic priest. In addition to his uncle, Saint Martin, who had become the Bishop of Tours, he also visited the island of Lerins where the illustrious Saint Vincent popularized a kind of monastic school of learning off the southern coast of Gaul; and, too, he imbibed the true doctrine of grace from Saint Germanus of Auxerre, who was then in the midst of his battle against the heresy of Pelagius. Finally, Maewyn went to Rome and was consecrated a bishop by Pope Saint Celestine, who gave him the name Patricius, and commissioned him to go and to preach the gospel to the Irish people and be a spiritual “father” to them.
Although Saint Patrick was not the first missionary to come to Ireland, nor was he the first bishop (the faith had taken root in the south of the island more than a century before the apostle’s arrival), he was the first missioner to cover the entire island and convert every pagan clan. In order to achieve this, God gave our apostle the gift of working abundant, constant, and stupendous miracles, greater than any of the other apostles of nations. During his thirty years of labor, Patrick raised thirty-nine people from the dead, some of whom had been dead for many years. A number of these were raised back to life in order to be baptized. Of these, some (like Lazarus in the Gospel of Saint John), remained living for years afterwards, others died immediately upon receiving the saving sacrament and professing the true Faith.
It is simply astounding to read about his confrontations with the Druids, especially those at Tara who were employed by the mighty high-king, Laoghaire (pronounced Leary), whose diabolical prodigies were always outdone by the servant of the true God. In reading these accounts, the moving of the very elements of nature: the sun, the clouds, lightning, snow, and rain, among other things (such as evicting all the snakes from the isle), one is reminded of Moses doing battle with the magicians of Pharaoh. In fact, some historians opine that druidism may well have been brought to Ireland by Gaelic migrators who, more than a thousand years before Christ, are thought to have left ancient Galatia in Asia Minor and, passing through Egypt on their journey westward, tarried by the Nile for a long enough time to have their pagan priests initiated into the occult arts of the magicians of the pharaohs.
Not only did Saint Patrick convert the entire Emerald Island in thirty years, but he also left behind five legions of indigenous clergy, ordaining about five thousand priests and 350 bishops. The apostle built approximately seven hundred churches, and this number does not include hundreds of others that were erected in the same time period by all the bishops he had consecrated. No apostle of any other nation left behind such a legacy, changing a sun-worshiping, incendiary people, addicted to internecine warfare, a people who knew nothing of mercy or chastity, into a land of saints and scholars. As noted by so many historians, and not only Irish ones, from the fifth century to a little after the end of the first millennium, about one of every four Irish men and women entered religious life. It was said, without exaggeration, that from the time of Saint Patrick’s death, and for centuries afterwards, a young maiden could travel from coast to coast in Ireland without fear, without escort, confident in every locale that she would be treated as a daughter of the Church which had so wonderfully exalted women from being objects of mere selfish pleasure to being images of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
In this little capsule of a sketch, I have merely highlighted the spiritual phenomenon that is the man whose feast day still rallies the Catholic sons of Erin. Would that these sons would do more to fight the enemies of Jesus Christ and His Blessed Mother than just wearing green in the middle of March and strutting in a parade. In truth, the authentic sons of Saint Patrick would do far better by insisting that their priests and bishops commence teaching the true Faith again. Encouraging penance and reparation for the rampant soft apostasy and clerical degeneracy, setting the example themselves, would go a long way with our Merciful Lord. Only then can the Irish clergy reclaim their heritage and once again lead the way in the re-conquest of Europe for Christ — just as her zealous missionary monks did when they purged the Church of the pusillanimous disease of semi-Arianism in the early middle ages. Long live the spirit of Saint Patrick!