Paddy’s Day buffoonery distracts from understanding what Patrick achieved
I am often saddened that the binge drinking and buffoonery which often accompanies events around St. Patrick’s Day, often prevents people from understanding what St. Patrick achieved in Ireland and the abiding legacy he has left to the universal Church.
Today, Saint Patrick’s Day is celebrated, not just in the cities of the traditional Irish diaspora in the U.S., Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. People also celebrate Patrick in Europe, Asia and Latin America.
So, who was Saint Patrick and what is his legacy? The first thing to say about him is that he was not Irish. Neither his Confessio nor his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus tell us much about his early years except that he was born in a place called Bannavem Taburniae. We are not sure whether it was in the Severn Valley in Wales or in northeast England, near modern-day Carlisle. He does tell us that prior to his capture by Irish slave traders, he was not very committed to his Christian faith. In fact, he writes in the Confesssio that he and his young friends “turned away from God and paid no heed to the priests who admonished us concerning our salvation.”
His comfortable life as a middle class person in Roman Britain fell apart when he was captured by Irish raiders and sold into slavery. This experience of Patrick unfortunately has a modern ring about it. When I was growing up in Ireland in the 1950s, I naively thought that slavery was a thing of the past. Unfortunately, this is not true. UN statistics tell us that an estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked each year across the globe. Eighty per cent of these young people, mainly girls, end up in the $33 billion-a-year sex industry, one of the fastest growing industries in the world.
Apart from trafficking, tens of millions of people are forced by economic or other reasons to move from their homes in search of employment elsewhere. In China alone, it is estimated that more than 200 million migrant workers have moved from the countryside into China’s rapidly growing cities. Many are construction workers and others do menial tasks, but, because of China’s bizarre registration systems, they cannot access social services for themselves or education for their children in the places where they are now working. With the demise of the Celtic Tiger, many young Irish men and women are forced, because of lack of jobs at home, to emigrate to Australia, Canada or wherever they can find work. Despite skype and rapid air transport, the “curse of emigration” has once again torn young people from their families and local communities and sent them wandering across the globe in search of work and a more secured life. The pain of what is involved can be seen at the airports of Ireland after the Christmas holidays, when thousands of young people bid, teary farewell to their parents and friends.
Patrick would have no problem understanding the anxieties and humiliations which many migrants experienced in every era. We know from his Confessio that he spent six years tending pigs in a mountainous area, probably on the hill of Slemish in County Antrim. During this exile he developed a deep, intense prayer life. He writes that “He (God) protected and comforted me as a Father would his son.”
Eventually, Patrick escaped and made his way home, where his family pleaded with him never to leave them again. Despite the humiliation and pain he experienced in Ireland, in a “vision of the night” he heard the “voice of the Irish” pleading with him to return to Ireland and share the Gospel with them.
In preparation for his mission, Patrick studied for the priesthood, probably at the monastery of Lérins off the coast of Provence. Before returning to Ireland, probably in the second half of the 5th century, he was ordained a bishop.
It wasn’t an easy mission. He tells us that he “journeyed everywhere in many dangers, even to the farthest region beyond which there lived nobody.” But he rejoiced “to see the flock of the Lord in Ireland grow splendidly.” Without persecution or violence, the faith took such deep roots in Ireland that “sons and daughters of kings became monks and virgins of Christ.”
According to the Oxford historian, Charles-Edwards, by the second half of the sixth century the conversion of Ireland had been achieved. Columban who was born in 543 AD contrasted “the flourishing Christianity in Ireland with the half-heartedness of Gaul.” Patrick was so successful as a missionary mainly because of the integrity of his own life and the fact that he respected the people among whom he preached the Gospel. This form of missionary witness is as relevant today as it was in Patrick’s time.
• Fr Sean McDonagh SSC is a member of the ACP Leadership Team