St. Patrick’s Day is a religious holiday in Ireland and a pagan festival in this country. I believe St. Patrick would have felt at home in both. After all, pagans were his “peeps” and he was their missionary.
I learned about Patrick by reading How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill. The book chronicles how the Irish recorded human knowledge at the same time the rest of Europe was sinking into the chaos of the Dark Ages. Patrick was a key figure in nurturing the Irish to become “lovers of learning.”
Patricius was born into a well-to-do Roman family that lived in Britain. He led a comfortable life until the age of 16. That’s when Irish pirates kidnapped him and sold him as a slave to an Irish king named Miliucc. This king ruled a hilly region of Antrim and used Patrick to watch over his herds. As a shepherd, Patrick was cold, hungry and lonely.
To survive, he turned to prayer, saying countless prayers and becoming a religious mystic, who saw visions and heard voices. After six years as a shepherd, Patrick heard a voice that said he was going home and, “Look, your ship is ready.”
Patrick escaped and walked 200 miles to the sea. There he saw a ship loading a cargo of Irish hounds to sell in mainland Europe. When they arrived in Gaul (now France) it had been devastated by invading German tribes. Patrick, the sailors and even the dogs were dying of hunger. The captain taunted Patrick for being a Christian. Patrick’s faith told him God would provide. A herd of pigs mysteriously appeared and provided the nourishment they needed.
After these harrowing adventures, Patrick was finally reunited with his family. His parents begged him not to leave them again but he heard a voice. It was the voice of the Irish: “We beg you to come and walk among us once more.”
Patrick felt called to become a missionary to the Irish. He received formal training at a monastery and was ordained as a missionary bishop.
He was not the first Christian missionary. The Apostle Paul had traveled the Roman Empire, preaching in its major cities. Ireland did not have cities. It also had never been part of the Roman Empire. Though they ruled Britain for 400 years, the Romans did not invade Ireland. The Irish were a rustic people who were branded as savages.
When the Irish met Patrick, they were impressed by his courage. He had returned to minister to the people who had enslaved him. Patrick never forgot the horrors of slavery and preached against it. The Irish slave trade came to an end during his lifetime. Patrick planted monasteries and convents throughout Ireland. He took the Irish virtues of faithfulness, courage and generosity and turned them into the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity.
In his last years, he could see that Ireland had been transformed by his teachings. Chaos and violence gripped the rest of Europe, while Ireland had become more civilized. Patrick taught that the sword was not the only way to settle differences. The Irish warriors could instead “seize the everlasting kingdom” of heaven.
Patrick did not drink alcohol, so he would have made an ideal designated driver this Friday. He also did not chase the snakes out of Ireland. We don’t know if he used a shamrock as a teaching tool. It made me proud, though, to learn about Patrick and how he helped his people save civilization.
So let’s raise a toast to the real St. Patrick.