(St Patrick's Day is 17 March. He is believed to have died on that day in the year 461 C.E.)
As with so many ancient saints, it is difficult to get to the actual truth about Patrick. One thing we can say, with some certainty, is that he was not born an Irishman. All the ancient writings about him agree that he was a Roman-Briton born in about the year 390 of Christian parents in the latter years of the Roman Empire in Britain. The exact place of his birth has never been identified. Claims from places in West Britain as far apart as Dumbarton and Cornwall have been made; but present day opinion favours the neighbourhood of Carlisle.
It is said that he was captured by Irish raiders when he was sixteen years old and taken to Ireland as a slave. After six years of caring for animals, he escaped and seems to have gone to continental Europe. He eventually found his way back to his own family, where his nominal Christian faith grew and matured. He returned to Gaul and was there trained as a priest and much influenced by the form of monasticism evolving under Martin of Tours. When he was in his early forties, he returned to Ireland as a bishop, ministering first at Saul near Downpatrick, and later making his base at Armagh, which became the centre of his See. He evangelized the people of the land by walking all over the island, gently bringing men and women to a knowledge of Christ. Although he faced fierce opposition and possible persecution, he continued his missionary journeys.
Patrick left two pieces of writing which are accepted as genuine, his Confession and a Letter to Coroticus. These are of immense value as they reveal Patrick the man, humble and aware that all he achieved was by the grace of Christ. Irish Christians today, of all traditions, equally identify with this holy man and draw inspiration from his life and writings.
There are many legends of Patrick – but the most famous are probably the two about the snakes and the shamrock. For the legend of Patrick ridding Ireland of snakes, a degree of scepticism is probably in order. According to natural historians and fossil hunters, Ireland had been devoid of snakes ever since the last ice-age, 10,000 years ago. Certainly, no fossils of snakes since the ice retreated have ever been found. Like many such legends, the power of the story is encompassed in its myth. The snake has always been seen as a symbol of evil, ever since the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Patrick certainly succeeded in pushing pagan worship from Ireland in his time, and many would have regarded paganism as evil, in those days. Perhaps the chasing of snakes from Ireland was always intended as a metaphor for Patrick chasing the dark forces of paganism.
As for the shamrock – that is rather a more believable story. It is said that Patrick was trying to explain the dogma of the Trinity, during his evangelistic tour of Ireland. He seized upon the shamrock, with its single leaf with three ‘bumps’ as a useful way of illustrating how one God could exist simultaneously in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There’s no reason to be sceptical of such a story. It’s what good evangelists do: they use what is around them to draw their listeners into the life of faith. Jesus talked about boats, and fishing for men, and Samaritans, and sowing seeds – because those images meant something to the people of his day. Patrick used the shamrock, because it was a familiar plant to all the Irish.
Traditionally, Patrick brought Christianity to Ireland. But, recent scholarship has uncovered documents which refute that claim. At the time of Patrick’s arrival, there were already a small number of Churches in the land. But Patrick’s extraordinary mission certainly fanned the flames of that early faith – and he is responsible, without doubt, for the spread of Christianity all over Ireland.
By the way, the obligatory drinking of Guinness on St Patrick’s day has no historical, legendary, or even metaphorical link! That’s just a clever marketing ploy!
So what might St Patrick have to teach us? He’s undoubtedly one of the great Saints of the so-called British Isles. Well, I think there a few strands worth pulling out from his story…
First, Patrick appears to be someone who didn’t let nationality get in the way of his ministry. Born a Roman-Britain, travelling extensively in Europe, and then adopting Ireland as his home, Patrick didn’t let national borders stop him telling the good news.
He was fearless in his proclamation of God’s love, even to the warlike, pagan, Irish tribes. When you or I feel fearful of letting our friends know that we go to church, let alone that God loves them, perhaps we could all do with a little of Patrick’s courage?
His use of the shamrock was inspired. It was a great example of using something culturally relevant to engage people with the reality of God. Whilst I love our ancient traditions here at St Faith’s, and I especially love the ancient words of the Book of Common Prayer, we must never forget that our communication of God’s love needs to be culturally relevant too, especially if modern people are to hear the good news.
And finally, there’s this. According to our best scholars, Patrick arrived in Ireland at a time when Christianity was weak, and small. Only a tiny proportion of the population were Christians. It sounds rather like our own times, when you think about it. Only around 2% of the population can be found in English churches on a Sunday – which is quite startling, especially to those of us for whom our entire lives are centred around the church. Patrick saw that the need for God was very real, and very present, in the society he went to serve. We too need to grasp the importance, and the urgency of that task. Amen.
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