Sunday, March 17, 2013

Who was Saint Patrick?

Just so you know: I hold green beer to be an outrage, the defilement of an innocent pilsner that hadn’t done anyone harm (yet). I wait for the Church to add it to the list of sins crying out to Heaven for vengeance.

Other than that, Saint Patrick’s Day is not an optional memorial to me. Nor is it a day solely for getting plowed, whether the instrument be a fine product of the Old Country like Jameson’s or something unnatural and heretical like the vile Presbyterian abomination, scotch. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten drunk on St. Paddy’s; when I did drink to excess, which hasn’t been for a long time, it was because I still thought getting drunk was fun (which started to change about the third or fourth time a night of such excess left me “driving the porcelain bus”).

Lá Fhéile Pádraig is a solemnity in Ireland, which in Church-speak means that Mass attendance is not required but very highly recommended. Instead of purple, the ordinary liturgical color of Lent, the celebrant wears white. In some rural locations, the folk still leave a bowl of porridge on the front stoop, in case the saint should be wandering through and be in need of sustenance. (That’s Irish hospitality for you; if ever you sit down for a meal at an Irish house, your hosts will do all in their power to insure you don’t get up until you’re stuffed.) No fasting and abstinence; instead, festivals, dances (céilithe) and parades, and the Irish government uses the time to promote Irish culture (and economic opportunities).


But who is Saint Patrick? Legends abound, as the Irish not only love a good story but love to embroider good stories as well. But the main facts of his life come from his two known writings: his Confession and his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus.

Saint Patrick was born in Bannavem Taburniae (possibly modern Ravenglass, Cumbria) in Roman Britain around AD 387. His father, Calpornius, was a deacon and his grandfather, Potitus, a priest; Patrick mentions that his birth was “noble” (L. patricius, “noble”), but that may mean merely that he was born to a family of substance and local regard. Nothing is known about his mother other than her name, Concessa. Although the Britons were citizens of the Empire, the Latin of the Confession and Letter are of the lower quality that would later characterize Middle-Age Latin; Patrick probably spoke it as a second language, while his first would have been a Celtic dialect.

Up to his sixteenth year, Patrick says, he wasn’t religious. However, in that year (403), he was kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken across the sea, where he tended swine as a slave for six years. During that time, he began to pray, “and my spirit was moved so that in a day [I said] from one up to a hundred prayers, and in the night a like number,” praying in the snow, the cold and the rain which falls on Ireland so often. Then, moved by a voice in his dreams, he ran away, found a ship near the coast, and returned home … apparently making converts of the sailors who aided him along the way.

His stay at home was only a few years, during which time he was ordained first a deacon then a priest by St. Germanus, who had been sent to Britain to bring the faithful out of the Pelagian heresy. Again he was visited in a dream, this time by a man from Ireland named Victoricus, who handed him a letter titled “The Voice of the Irish”. “And as I was reading the beginning of the letter I seemed at that moment to hear the voice of those who were beside the forest of Foclut [possibly near modern Killala] which is near the western sea, and they were crying as if with one voice: ‘We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and walk again among us.’”

Pope Celestine I had already sent a Roman bishop, St. Palladius, to evangelize Ireland; however, according to later sources, he didn’t make much headway and was eventually expelled by the hostile King of Leinster in 431. By that time, it’s likely that Patrick had begun his own missionary work. Already familiar with Irish culture and language, he succeeded where Palladius didn’t, converting and baptizing thousands, ordaining priests, and administering vows to monks and nuns.

Patrick was not without opposition, not only from the Druids and many chieftains but also from other Christians; his Confession is in part an apologia, refuting residual charges against his good name. Nevertheless, by the time he died (either around 460 or 492), the conversion of Ireland was well underway, and the people of Ireland would have an undying affection for him, creating legends around him so that there are few areas of the Emerald Isle that don’t have some landmark or artifact associated with him.

Ironically, the Empire which had made possible the spread Christianity to Ravenglass was dying in the West. Shortly before Patrick died (if we accept the earlier date), Vandals under Genseric, in reaction to a peace treaty broken by Petronius Maximus, sacked Rome of its valuables, sparing the buildings and people only through the intercession of Pope St. Leo the Great.

Ireland returned the favor of its conversion by sending priests and monks back to the European mainland to reconvert the lands that were lapsing back into paganism under the Goths. With them they brought copies of manuscripts from the classical world that they had collected and saved. Through their efforts, Europe never had a real “Dark Age” … just a period of insufficient light. It’s possible this all may have happened without St. Patrick’s apostolate; the point is, it did happen because of his success.

O God, 
by whose providence 
the blessed Patrick was chosen to be 
the apostle of the Irish; 
that thus the people of Hibernia, 
who had gone astray in darkness 
and in the errors of the Gentiles, 
might be made children of the Most High 
by the laver of regeneration: 
Grant, we beseech thee, 
that by his intercession, 
we may hasten without delay 
to the paths of justice. 
Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
—From the Breviary of Armagh, cited in The Liturgical Year: Vol. 5