Celebrities from the Past: Who was Saint Patrick?

by Michael Strickland

"St. Patrick's Day in America celebrates not only a great saint, but a put-upon people who immigrated to a new world, took the meanest jobs, endured prejudice and exclusion, and rose to prominence; it is not just for the Irish, after all." - Pat McNamara in Why St. Patrick's Day Matters, for Everybody  

St. Patrick of Ireland is one of the world's most popular saints. A 5th-century Romano-British Christian missionary and bishop, he is known as the "Apostle of Ireland," the primary patron saint of the country.

Patrick is also venerated in the Anglican Communion, the Old Catholic Church and in the Orthodox Church as Equal-to-the-Apostles, and The Enlightener of Ireland. 

Two Latin letters survive which are generally accepted to have been written by St. Patrick, the Declaration and the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus. From these texts come the only generally accepted details of his life. The Declaration is the more important of the two. In it, Patrick gave a short account of his life and his mission and wrote his memoir: The Confession.

According to the Confession, at the age of just sixteen Patrick was captured in Britain by a group of pirates. The raiders brought Patrick to Ireland where he was enslaved and held captive. Patrick writes that the time he spent as a slave was critical to his spiritual development. At the time, Ireland was a land of Druids and pagans. While in captivity, Saint Patrick worked as a shepherd and strengthened his relationship with God through prayer. Patrick says that God had mercy on his youth and ignorance. He converted to Christianity. After six years of this, he heard a voice telling him that he would soon go home, and that his ship was ready.
Recommended reading for the whole family includes Patrick: Patron Saint of Ireland by Tomie dePaola. The book summarizes the story of Patrick's life, from his noble birth in Britain, to his being captured and taken to Ireland by a group of bandits, to the "dreams" that led him to convert the Irish people to the Christian faith. DePaola also retells several well-known legends, including the story of how Patrick got rid of all the snakes in Ireland.
Patrick's captivity lasted until he was twenty. Fleeing his master, he traveled to a port, two hundred miles away. There, he found a group of sailors and persuaded the captain to take him back. After three days, they landed and apparently all left the ship, walking for 28 days in a "wilderness." They became faint from hunger before encountering a herd of wild boar. This was shortly after Patrick had urged them to put their faith in God. Thus, his prestige in the group greatly increased. After various adventures, he returned home to his British family.

A few years later, Patrick saw a vision he described in his memoir:
Source: WikiCommons
"I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: 'The Voice of the Irish.' As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea-and they cried out, as with one voice: 'We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.'" 
The vision prompted his studies for the priesthood. He was ordained by St. Germanus, the Bishop of Auxerre, whom he had studied under for years, and was later ordained a bishop and sent to take the gospel to Ireland. Patrick arrived in Slane, Ireland on March 25, 433. There are several legends about what happened next, with the most prominent claiming he met the chieftan of one of the druid tribes, who tried to kill him.  Patrick was able to convert the chieftain and preach the Gospel throughout Ireland for 40 years, building churches across the country.

Patrick often used shamrocks to explain the Holy Trinity and entire kingdoms were eventually converted to Christianity after hearing his message. He is generally credited with being the first bishop of Armagh, Primate of Ireland. After years of living in poverty, traveling and enduring great suffering -- he died March 17, 461 at Saul -- where he had built the first Irish church.

Saint Patrick's Day is observed on the date of his passing. It is celebrated inside Ireland and around the world as a religious and cultural holiday. In the dioceses of Ireland, it is both a solemnity and a holy day of obligation; it is also a celebration of Ireland itself.

St. Patrick is said to be buried at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down, alongside St. Brigid and St. Columba. His grave was marked in 1990 with a granite stone. Patrick was a man whose love and total devotion can be a shining example to each of us. So complete was his trust in the importance of his mission, he feared nothing, not even death.


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