Some 1,500 years ago a teenage boy from what is now
Great Britain was kidnapped and enslaved by marauders from a
neighboring country. Not since Paris absconded with Helen of Troy has a
kidnapping so changed the course of history.
invading marauders came from fifth-century Ireland. The teenager they
captured eventually escaped, but returned voluntarily some years later.
In the meantime, he had become convinced that he was handpicked by God
to convert the entire country to Christianity.
Apparently, he was right.
the process of converting the primitive people of Ireland, however, the
former slave experienced a conversion, too. In the years that followed,
he not only shared God with the people of Ireland, but also grew in his
understanding of God through them.
And so it was
that a young Briton named Patricius died an Irishman named Patrick. And
neither Ireland nor Christianity was ever quite the same. This
conviction of Thomas Cahill, Catholic author of the best-selling book How the Irish Saved Civilization, was made clear in an exclusive interview for St. Anthony Messenger last August.
Patrick in Myth and History
No, Patrick never chased the snakes out of Ireland. Nor
do we really know whether he used the shamrock to teach converts about
the Trinity. But what we do know about St. Patrick is far more
interesting than many of the legends that grew up around him.
the fact that we know anything about him at all is as great a miracle
as any that later traditions ascribe to him. For Patrick is literally
the only individual we know from fifth-century Ireland or England. Not
only do no other written records from Britain or Ireland exist from
that century, but there are simply no written records at all from
Ireland prior to Patrick's.
however, scholarly debate about the authenticity of what Patrick left
us is almost nonexistent. The chronology of his life is very confused.
Indeed, we can't even identify for sure when he was born, ordained a
bishop or died! Experts agree, however, that the two examples of his
writing that we have are clearly written by the same man, the man we
know as Patrick.
These two brief documents, Patrick's Confession
and his "Letter to Coroticus," are the basis for all
we know of the historical Patrick. The Confession, because
its purpose was to recount his own call to convert the Irish and
to justify his mission to an apparently unsympathetic audience
in Britain, is not a traditional biography.
the "Letter to Coroticus," apparently an Irish warlord whom Patrick was
forced to excommunicate, is a wonderful illustration of Patrick's
prowess as a preacher but doesn't tell us much by way of traditional
The uncontested, if somewhat unspecific, biographical facts about Patrick are as follows:
was born Patricius somewhere in Roman Britain to a relatively wealthy
family. He was not religious as a youth and, in fact, claims to have
practically renounced the faith of his family.
in his teens, Patrick was kidnapped in a raid and transported to
Ireland, where he was enslaved to a local warlord and worked as a
shepherd until he escaped six years later.
returned home and eventually undertook studies for the priesthood with
the intention of returning to Ireland as a missionary to his former
captors. It is not clear when he actually made it back to Ireland, or
for how long he ministered there, but it was definitely for a number of
By the time he wrote the Confession
and the "Letter to Coroticus," Patrick was recognized by both Irish
natives and the Church hierarchy as the bishop of Ireland. By this
time, also, he had clearly made a permanent commitment to Ireland and
intended to die there. Scholars have no reason to doubt that he did.
Stranger in a Strange Land
Though Patrick's writings tell us little in terms of
names and dates, they do reveal much about Patrick the man. But
traditional biographies of Patrick, suggests Thomas Cahill, author and
former religion editor for Doubleday, don't really do him justice.
think they missed a lot of what Patrick was about because they
approached him as a kind of plaster-of-paris saint. Two things," he
says, "really shine through his Confession: his humility and his strength. That strength is what has been missing in the earlier biographies and portraits of Patrick."
fact, Cahill says, "The Patrick who came back to Ireland with the
gospel was a real tough guy. He couldn't have been anything else—only a
very tough man could have hoped to survive those people. I don't mean
to say he wasn't a saint—he was a great saint—but he was a very rough,
And he was his own man, writes Noel Dermot O'Donoughue, O.D.C., in his 1987 biography Aristocracy of Soul: Patrick of Ireland.
When Patrick receives the vision that he believes calls him to
evangelize the Irish, he doesn't hesitate, despite the fact that in 400
years no one had taken the gospel beyond the boundaries of Roman
civilization. "He goes his own way following his own dreams and divine
'responses,'" says O'Donoughue, even though by doing so he is
challenging the structure and ordinances of the Church he serves.
doesn't take a scholar to recognize how he was able to do this. Patrick
was so certain that he had been specifically called by God to do
exactly what he did—return to the land of his captivity and convert the
barbarians to Christianity—that his Confession leaves even the
modern reader little room for doubt. In this certainty, Patrick finds
his strength—strength sufficient, in fact, to overcome every obstacle
he will encounter in the remaining years of his life.
first obstacle was his education. The six years Patrick was enslaved in
Ireland put him permanently behind his peers in terms of his classical
education. His Latin would always be poor. Later in life when he used
Latin less frequently, it was practically unintelligible at times.
the fact that Patrick would be self-conscious about his literary
limitations to the end of his days, he was not uneducated. One
suspects, however, that he was primarily self-educated. His use of
biblical quotations, Cahill says, "is far more accurate and appropriate
than many of the Fathers of the Church."
although almost any other qualification pales by comparison to
Patrick's zeal for his mission, he must have set off equipped with an
intellect both subtle and supple. For he not only decided,
unilaterally, to do what no man in 400 years of Christian history had
done before him—to carry the gospel message to the ends of the
earth—but he also found a way to do it.
It's hard to
grasp just what an accomplishment that was, says Cahill. When Patrick
decided to "willingly go back to the barbarians with the gospel,"
Cahill explains, "he had to figure out how to bring the values of the
gospel he loved to such people. These were people who still practiced
human sacrifice, who warred with each other constantly and who were
renowned as the great slave traders of the day.
was not a simple thing. This was before courses were given to
missionaries in what is now called inculturation—how to plant the
gospel in such a culture," Cahill says. "No one had ever even thought
about how to do it; Patrick had to work his way through it himself.
know that Paul is referred to as the first missionary," Cahill says,
"but Paul never got out of the Greco-Roman world, nor did any of the
apostles. And here we are, five centuries after Jesus, who had urged
his disciples to preach to all nations. They just didn't do that. And
the reason they didn't is because they did not consider the barbarians
to be human."
Patron Saint of the Excluded
enslavement as an adolescent had to have been a critical factor in the
development of his unique attitude toward the Irish. Even in captivity,
he must have come to know them as human, hence, deserving of the
gospel. This set the stage for his call to convert them.
a result of his enslavement, Cahill, whose particular interest is the
"hinges of history," says, "Patrick grew into a man that he truly would
not otherwise have become. So you would have to say that Patrick's
kidnapping was a great grace, not just for the people of Ireland, but
for all of Western history."
he never been kidnapped, it seems quite likely that it would have been
decades, probably centuries, before Ireland was converted. It certainly
would not have been in a position to "save civilization," as Cahill so
dramatically puts it in his book, when the Roman Empire crumbled and
literacy was lost—lost, that is, by all but the Irish monasteries
planted by Patrick and his successors.
surprisingly, his own experience in captivity left Patrick with a
virulent hatred of the institution of slavery, and he would later
become the first human being in the history of the world to speak out
unequivocally against it.
papacy did not condemn slavery as immoral until the end of the 19th
century," Cahill says, "but here is Patrick in the fifth century seeing
it for what it is. I think that shows enormous insight and courage and
a tremendous 'fellow feeling'—the ability to suffer with other people,
and to understand what other people's suffering is like."
fact, although he is renowned as the patron saint of the country and
the people he evangelized, a better advocate than Patrick cannot be
found for anyone disadvantaged or living on the fringes of society.
really is one of the great saints of the downtrodden and
excluded—people that no one else wants anything to do with," Cahill
find a great advocate in Patrick. Unlike his contemporary, St.
Augustine, to whom actual women seemed more like personifications of
the temptations of the flesh than persons, Patrick's Confession
speaks of women as individuals. Cahill points out, for example,
Patrick's account of "a blessed woman, Irish by birth, noble,
extraordinarily beautiful—a true adult—whom I baptized."
he lauds the strength and courage of Irish women: "But it is the women
kept in slavery who suffer the most—and who keep their spirits up
despite the menacing and terrorizing they must endure. The Lord gives
grace to his many handmaids; and though they are forbidden to do so,
they follow him with backbone." He is actually the first male Christian
since Jesus, Cahill says, to speak well of women.
Fathers of the Church had the most horrible things to say—it's
frightening to read what people like Augustine or John Chrysostom had
to say about women. As remarkable as anything about Patrick is that in
his writings there is never anything remotely like that."
fact, there are clear instances of him saying warm and appreciative
things about women. O'Donoughue adds, "It is clear that the man who
wrote the Confession and "Coroticus" is deeply and sensitively
open to women and womanhood....But he does not take refuge in either
'the pretentious asceticism, nor yet in that neurotic fear of and
contempt for the feminine' that has entered so deeply into the
attitudes and structures of the Christian Church....In this respect he
is a complete man."
Patrick the Mystic
Catholics might have a hard time reconciling the portrait of the rugged
individualist that Cahill describes with the current notion of a
mystic. Yet O'Donoughue says that in the Confession, "the main
lines of Patrick's spiritual development show through, and they are
unmistakably the lines of a mystical journey." In fact, his biography
of Patrick is the first in a series of works edited by Michael Glazier
called "The Way of the Christian Mystics."
So what makes Patrick a mystic?
First, as recounted in the Confession,
most of the major events in Patrick's life are preceded by a dream or
vision. The visions were usually simple—almost self-explanatory—but
they were also very vivid and carried enormous emotional impact with
first vision, which he received after six years of servitude in
Ireland, came by way of a mysterious voice, heard in his sleep. "Your
hungers are rewarded: You are going home," the voice said. "Look, your
ship is ready." Indeed, some 200 miles away, there it was. (Patrick was
nothing if not tenacious.)
second vision—the one that came to him after he'd returned home and
that called him back to Ireland—was equally straightforward.
Victoricus, a man Patrick knew in Ireland, appeared to him in this
dream, holding countless letters, one of which he handed to Patrick.
The letter was entitled "The Voice of the Irish." Upon reading just the
title, he heard a multitude of voices crying out to him: "Holy boy, we
beg you to come and walk among us once more." He was so moved by this
that he was unable to read further and woke up.
the dream recurred again and again. Eventually Patrick tells his
dismayed family of his plans to return to evangelize Ireland and soon
begins his preparations for the priesthood. What is interesting about
this dream calling Patrick to his lifelong mission to the Irish is that
it comes not as a directive from God, but as a plea from the Irish.
is also significant, O'Donoughue says, that "the voices in the dream do
not ask for preaching or baptism but only that Patrick as one specially
endowed should come back and share their lives, come and walk once more
with them." In other words, at least according to his recollections
decades later, Patrick wasn't commanded to bring civilization or
salvation to the heathens. He was invited to live among them as
he finally returns to Ireland, he proceeds to treat the barbarians with
the respect implicit in his dream. From the outset, Patrick feels
humbled and honored that God has selected him to convert the Irish.
Apparently he never doubted that he would be able to do so.
even came to see his own kidnapping as a grace, Cahill says. From the
time Patrick sets off on his 200-mile journey to his "waiting ship," he
is convinced "once and for all that he is surrounded by Providence and
that he is really in the hands of God. And that is what gets him
through the rest of his life. That is what enables him to do the
incredible thing that he does by returning to the barbarians." And that
closeness to God in no way diminishes as the years progress.
was a mystic who felt the presence of God in every turn of the road,"
Cahill says. "God was palpable to him, and his relationship to him was
very, very close." In fact, he says, it was very much like the
relationship in the Bible that Jesus has with God the Father. "It is
very familiar and comfortable, and that is how Patrick saw God at work
in the world."
Patrick's Lasting Legacy
Patrick looked back at the end of his life on his service to Ireland,
Cahill says, he must have been pleased with his accomplishments.
the time of his death, or shortly thereafter, "the Irish stopped slave
trading and they never took it up again." Human sacrifice had become
unthinkable. And although the Irish never stopped warring on one
another, "war became much more confined and limited by what we might
call the 'rules of warfare.'
think that though he probably died knowing that he had succeeded [in
his mission]," Cahill adds, "he also died hoping that success would be
permanent and not temporary."
fact, Patrick's success couldn't have been more permanent. Not only had
he accomplished what he'd set out to do—convert the nation to
Christ—but in the process he'd retrieved from obscurity the primary
objective set by Christ for his apostles: the spread of the gospel to
the ends of the earth.
The inadvertent results of his conversion of Ireland, however, were equally astonishing and long-lasting. First, as Cahill makes the strong case in How the Irish Saved Civilization,
it is Patrick's conversion of Ireland that makes possible the
preservation of Western thought through the early Dark Ages by the
Irish monasteries founded by Patrick's successors. When the lights went
out all over Europe, a candle still burned in Ireland. That candle was
lit by Patrick.
by converting the Irish pagans to Christianity without making any
attempt to romanize them as well, he founded a new kind of Church, one
that was both Catholic and primitive.
with Patrick's introduction of Christianity to Ireland, Cahill says,
the faith was introduced for the first time into a culture free of the
sociopolitical baggage of Greco-Roman civilization. Prior to Patrick's
gift of the faith to Ireland, to be Christian was to be Roman, or at
least to be a product of Roman civilization.
conversion of Ireland, however, sees the faith thrive in an entirely
different environment—in a culture that celebrates rather than
abnegates the natural, a culture in which, according to Cahill, there
is a "sense of the world as holy, as the Book of God—as a healing
mystery, fraught with divine messages."
this tradition, Cahill explains, "there is a trust in the objects of
sensory perception, which are seen as signposts from God. But there is
also a sensuous reveling in the splendors of the created world, which
would have made Roman Christians exceedingly uncomfortable."
a result, Cahill says, "The early Irish Christianity planted in Ireland
by Patrick is much more joyful and celebratory [than its Roman
predecessor] in the way it approaches the natural world. It is really
not a theology of sin but of the goodness of creation, and it really is
since it was the Irish monks who served as the bridge between classical
Christianity and the Middle Ages, medieval Christianity tends to
reflect the celebratory nature of Irish spirituality rather than the
gloom and sin-centeredness of its classical predecessor.Finally,
Patrick gave the Irish himself—knowingly, willingly, joyfully, proudly.
He did this despite the fact that, even at the end of his life, "after
30 years of missionary activity," Cahill says, "he knows he's still
living in a very scary place. You don't change people—people who offer
human sacrifice and who war on one another constantly—you don't change
change them he eventually did. And the example of his life—his courage,
his intelligence, his compassion and his incredible, indomitable
faith—made the lives of all Catholics, even those living 1,500 years
later, just a little easier.
millions of modern-day Catholics, an Ireland without Patrick is
unthinkable. But so, too, Cahill says, is the prospect of modern life
without saints like him. The saints are for the ages, and ours no less
than any other.
"Life would be almost unbearable without such people," he says. "I think it would be
unbearable. The saints are for everyone—believer, unbeliever,
Christian, non-Christian—it doesn't really matter. They are the people
who say by their lives that human life is valuable—that my life is
valuable—and that there is a reason for living. Without them, history
would just be one horror after another."
Patrick at the Judgment
is no question that Patrick taught us by his example that all life is,
indeed, precious. Yet it's hard to imagine that there isn't a soft spot
in his heart reserved just for the Irish.
fact, there is an old legend that promises that on the last day, though
Christ will judge all the other nations, it will be St. Patrick sitting
in judgment on the Irish.
When asked whether that spelled good news or bad news for the Irish, Cahill doesn't hesitate.
"That's great news for the Irish," he says with a laugh.
Anita McGurn McSorley is associate editor of The Leaven, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Kansas City, Kansas. She has also written for Columbia. Last year, she interviewed Father Edward Hays, founder of Shantivanam House of Prayer, for St. Anthony Messenger. She is a member of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City.