ST. PATRICK AND THE ‘VOICE OF THE IRISH’

Catholic Ireland

Image Hosted by ImageShack.usEdmond Grace S.J. examines the life and writings of St. Patrick, the Apostle of Ireland, whose feast we celebrated on 17 March. He urges us to see that Patrick’s life is still relevant today.

Just as Patrick was asleep when that call of the people of Ireland first came into his life, so today the power of his story lies dormant.

Now it is we and not Patrick who are asleep and we need to hear these words of Isaiah on the lips of Jesus:

You will listen and listen again, but not understand, see and see again, but not perceive. For the heart of this nation has grown coarse, their ears are dull of hearing, and they shut their eyes, for fear they should see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart and be converted and healed by me. ( Mt. 13:15 )

Part 1: The relevance of St. Patrick today

The story of St Patrick coming to Ireland is like a photographic negative of the bible story of the prodigal son.

The story of Patrick can be compared to the great stories of the Bible. It is like a photographic negative of the story of the Prodigal Son. The Prodigal Son left his father’s house willingly, whereas Patrick was taken by force. The Prodigal squandered his inheritance and ended up in hardship, whereas Patrick during those years of slavery found his true inheritance. The high point of the Prodigal’s return was his father’s beautiful gesture of forgiveness. On the other hand, in the story of Patrick there is a gesture of equal beauty and power when he himself returned to the very people who had destroyed his youth.

The story of the Prodigal Son first took place in the loving imagination of Jesus, whereas what Patrick did happened at a particular time and in a particular place. However, his story can only be relished to the full in the heart of the risen Lord whose love inspired it.

Like Abraham, Patrick was called by God to leave his father’s house and make his home in a distant land where he, in turn, would become the father of a people. After the Jews, the Irish are the most widely scattered people on earth, and wherever they go the story of Patrick is heard.

Like Moses, Patrick led his people to freedom. For both men, the years of early adulthood were spent in exile, and each heard the call to return to a place of slavery to carry out God’s work.

Patrick’s own people

The people of Moses were the Israelites enslaved in Egypt. But who were the people of Patrick?

They were the Latin-speaking Christians of Britain and Europe, citizens of the Roman Empire. He speaks to them in the two pieces of his own writing which have come down to us, namely the Confession and the Letter to Coroticus. Like Saint Paul, the first and greatest missionary, Patrick was proud to be a citizen of Rome. For him, the Empire was a Christian community which was called to honour the liberty of the people of God, whoever they were and wherever they might be. Through his writings, he sought to lead his fellow citizens of Rome, his own flesh and blood, away from the slavery of imperial arrogance.

The people of Patrick included his fellow clerics, who considered him too ignorant to be a bishop, who suspected him of embezzling funds and who thought that the Gospel could not and should not be preached to barbarians. It is clear from his writings, which are addressed in particular to this group, that he felt himself put down and belittled by them. The simple way in which he speaks about this and about his own personal struggles is a Spirit-filled call to clerics of every age to free themselves from the occupational hazard of smugness.

The people of Patrick also included the wild savages living at the ends of the earth, who tore him away from his family, sold him into slavery and later persecuted him, robbed him, and on no less than twelve occasions tried to kill him. These people hated this man and his strange, new teaching. Yet Patrick gave his life for them, not by shedding his blood but by enduring their abuse and their treachery. By doing so, he freed them and their children from the yoke of slavery to tribalism and false worship.

Finally, the people of Patrick were and are those who have heard his story and have been affected by it. In reading his words, we can taste the life of one of the great followers of Jesus. Patrick will always be an inspiration.

Patrick and the people of Ireland

Patrick’s story has a special significance for those of us who live in Ireland because there are places here associated with his name – Croagh Patrick, Lough Derg, St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, and many others. These places call us to stop and think.

The story of Patrick is being re-lived in Ireland today in the many young people whose expectations of a good standard of living have been cruelly shattered. The modern equivalent of slavery is the dole queue, whereby people are stripped of their independence and their standing in the community. Hand in hand with the dole queue is the pain of exile, which is the same today as it was in Patrick’s time.

The story of Patrick is being lived out in the political and religious divisions which are rooted in the age-old conflict between Ireland and Britain. The greatest source of anguish in Patrick’s life was the failure of the peoples of these two islands to live in peace as neighbours and fellow Christians.

Just as Patrick was asleep when that call of the people of Ireland first came into his life, so today the power of his story lies dormant. Now it is we and not Patrick who are asleep and we need to hear these words of Isaiah on the lips of Jesus:

You will listen and listen again, but not understand, see and see again, but not perceive. For the heart of this nation has grown coarse, their ears are dull of hearing, and they shut their eyes, for fear they should see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their heart and be converted and healed by me. (Mt. 13:15)

Part 2: Patrick’s first Irish ‘sojourn’

Patrick, child of a Christian family, was captured and brought as a slave to pagan Ireland.

At the end of the fourth century, Roman Britain experienced what we would describe today as cutbacks. The imperial city itself was threatened by barbarian hordes, and its protection required that the legions be recalled from some of the more remote corners of the Empire. The minor nobility of Britain, to which Patrick’s family belonged, put a brave face on this development and tried to carry on as if nothing had happened. Times were unsettled, with growing problems of lawlessness and little or no defence against raids and kidnappings by Irish savages, but no one doubted that in due course the peace of the empire, Pax Romana, would prevail.

Calpurnius was a prominent official in a town called Bannavan Taburniae and Patrick was his son. Although nobody knows for sure where this place was, it probably stood on the west coast of Britain – anywhere from the Firth of Clyde to the Severn Estuary. As was quite normal for members of the nobility, Calpurnius was also a deacon and his father, Potitus, was a priest. One reason for getting ordained in those days was to avoid the heavy burden of tax, but it would be wrong to assume that these men were motivated solely by self-interest. In later years, Patrick would speak highly about the clergy he knew as a youngster and he regretted having paid no heed to their warnings.

It is likely that Calpurnius and his father were decent, conscientious people who saw their civil and religious duties as part of one allegiance. They were, after all, citizens of a Christian empire. In those anxious years after the departure of the legions, Calpurnius and his fellow magistrates must have struggled to keep up an appearance of normality. Any thought that the legions might not return must have been dismissed as defeatist. They must have spoken about the achievements and values of Roman civilization to their children and this impressed the young Patrick because years later his writings were informed by an eager but thoughtful loyalty to the Empire.

The young Patrick

There is little about Patrick’s early years in his writings but he does speak of one incident which happened within the space of an hour when he was fourteen. He gives no details except to say that in later years it would weigh upon his conscience. At the time, however, it seems to have had little effect one way or another because it did not repeat itself, nor did it alter his casual disregard for what he heard in church. The impression we get of Patrick during those early years is of a lively but easy-going youth with perhaps a single, carefully-guarded secret.

In spite of the growing political uncertainty, Patrick’s home life would have been comfortable and self-assured. The family had slaves who would have done the menial, household tasks and Calpurnius would have been a man of standing in the community. On the coast, not too far from Bannavan Taburniae, the family had a summer residence and it was there, when Patrick was sixteen, that disaster struck. ‘I was taken into captivity in Ireland with so many thousands’ (Conf. 1).

No doubt Calpurnius had often stood on the shore near his house looking out to sea but all the comfort and familiarity of that scene would have been destroyed on the day Patrick was taken prisoner. In the years which followed, even the good memories would have become a source of grief and the place itself must have felt strange and somehow distant:

By the waters of Babylon
We sat down and wept
remembering Zion,
leaving our harps,
hanging on the poplars there. (Psalm 137:1-2)

Captivity and exile

Patrick, a Roman citizen, son of Calpurnius, grandson of Potitus, stood barefoot among sheep in a pagan place. Hardly a month had passed since he had been lying on his own bed in Bannavan Taburniae on the brink of falling asleep. The peace of the night was suddenly shattered. There were shouts and screams. Patrick was about to go and see what was happening when wild men came and took hold of him.

They dragged him out into the night air. As he tried to resist, they beat him and threw him half naked into a boat. Others were thrown into the boat with him, and the voyage which followed was endless and miserable. It was cold and everyone was afraid. In spite of his fear, or perhaps because of it, Patrick was thinking of how he could escape. He had no plans, no ideas, but he was determined to flee for home because he had no other way of imagining the future, no other point of reference, except that hope.

The boat finally reached dry land and in the days and weeks which followed he was constantly on the look-out for an opportunity to run away. But his captors were watching him and he knew that, if he ran, he could not get far because this was their land and he was a stranger. He would be recognised and no one would have any mercy. They had killed before and would not hesitate over killing him. Even if he did escape, he would have to find some way of crossing the sea. Slowly it dawned on him that he was alone on a mountainside in a foreign country with no one to speak to, no one to trust.

Terror and rage

Tears came. Tears of rage. Why did it have to be him? Why was he the unlucky one? Tears of loneliness. Would he ever see his family again? Would he ever see Bannavan Taburniae? Perhaps there was still hope. Soon they would have to send legions to Ireland to liberate all the Roman citizens who had been enslaved. They would never just leave him there.

Tears of dejection. What would become of him? How would these barbarians treat him? He couldn’t spend the rest of his life looking after sheep. Even the most miserable slave in the Empire had a better life than that. It would drive him mad.

He had to spend six years without the companionship and human warmth which are so helpful in the awkward and painful emergence into adulthood. Yet there must have been moments when he was grateful for an unexpected kindness because, in spite of the hardship of his life, a deep love was forming in his heart for those very people who enslaved him.

In the strength of God

Many years later, Patrick wrote about this time, how God made him aware of his lack of faith and his sinfulness and how he came to know God as a loving Father who watched over and cared for him. He prayed at every opportunity – day or night, in the woods or on the mountainside, in snow, frost or rain. He thought nothing of it ‘because the Spirit was fervent within me’ (Conf. 16).

One night, in his sleep, a voice told him that a ship was waiting to bring him to freedom and, as a result, he set out on a journey of two hundred miles. He didn’t know where he was going but ‘in the strength of God who guided my way to the good’ (Conf. 17) arrived at the ship on the day it was to set sail. At first the captain refused to take him but Patrick prayed and the captain changed his mind.

We can imagine Patrick’s happiness during that voyage, being carried to freedom and knowing that, but for the care of a loving God, none of this would have been possible. There, under the sky far out to sea, it must have been a foretaste of heaven:

When the Lord brought Zion’s captives home
it seemed like a dream,
then our mouths filled
with laughter, our lips with song. (Psalm 126: 1-2)

>>Read Parts 3-7

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