St. Patrick’s Day is one of those holidays which has grown so big in scope that it is difficult to dwell entirely on the man whom the feast celebrates. Between people clinging onto their 1/16th Irish heritage, fanciful stories of missing snakes and turning already polluted rivers extra green for the occasion, it is a holiday which, much like Christmas, has lost much of its religious tone in favor of mass appeal.
Yet if we are to put the “Saint” back into Saint Patrick’s day, what exactly about the Emerald Isle’s patron are we to celebrate? Certainly to us of Irish extraction, we owe him gratitude for bringing Christ’s light to our distant outpost on Europe’s Western Edge. But a saint is much more than a symbol of ethnic pride. What was this man’s great virtue? What is it about his story which not only inspires us Irish but inspires all faithful toward a more Christian life?
The simple details of Patrick’s story should be familiar to many. Born in modern day Great Britain at some point in the late fourth or early fifth century, at the age of 16 he was abducted by Irish pirates and was held as a slave in Eire for six years until escaping. He made his way back to Britain, and from there to Gaul (modern France) where he dedicated himself to his Christian faith, was ordained a priest, and then went back to Ireland as a missionary, converting thousands and laying the foundation for a resurgent Christianity across all of Britannia.
These basics are all well and good, but delving deeper into the reality of Patrick’s life and the circumstances surrounding him are of the most interest to us here, as they reveal his true spirit, that attribute for which he should be known and celebrated.
Though it is difficult to date exactly Patrick’s birth, death and the years he spent in Ireland, let us look broadly at wider trends at around the same time. The Eternal City withdrew her military from Britain in 410 A.D., leaving its Christianized citizens at the whims of immigrating Angles, Saxons, and Jutes from Germania to the West, or marauding Gaels, Picts, and Scots from the North and East.
Britannia, much like the rest of Western Europe, was beset on all sides by calamity. Government broke down, plague ravaged the land, war bands pillaged the countryside leaving famine and destruction in their wake. To many, it seemed as though the end of time were near. The only objective was to seek shelter, to defend one’s own civilization against the hordes at the gates, to await the Second Coming as the world descended into brutal, apocalyptic anarchy.
At a time like this, it would be the obvious, rational thing to hide away, to barricade the gates and pray for the enemy to go away, to keep as far from these invaders as possible.
Patrick, however, took up his crosier and sailed back to the land where he had once known bondage, into the heartland of those who had preyed upon a vulnerable Britain, and sought to bring them into the Christian fold.
It would have been easy for St. Patrick to shy away from his former captors, to shun them as barbarians and to minister instead to an already extant flock of believers. This is, however, no way to build a living Church. Turning the other cheek is not some torturous way to wear down your enemies, but a way to bring about change in the world by molding the hearts of men into something new.
St. Patrick, despite having a legitimate reason to hold a grudge against the Gaels, instead returned to them to change their ways, extending an olive branch where many would have brandished swords.
In our times, we should look to Patrick not simply as a great missionary, but as the truly Christian man he was, one we should all aspire to be.
We live in an age where forgiveness — true forgiveness — is lacking. Restitution, revenge, recompense, these are the tools used to settle differences, and in doing so, they engender only hatred and mistrust. We should not be surprised at this. It is a human fault to carry hatred with us, to hold grudges against those who have wronged us, and have suspicion of all who may even distantly be related to our trespassers. A Romano-British person in St. Patrick’s time would surprise nobody by thinking twice about approaching a Saxon, speaking with a Scot, or working together with an Angle.
In this age where the word of Christ has retreated from public life and tribalism abounds, we as Christians, must then turn to St. Patrick. Like so many other missionary churchmen of his age, he went above the petty tribalism and, holding true to the evangelizing call of Christ, approached former enemies not out of a want for blood or vengeance, but with a conviction that the love of God, lived to its utmost by those who profess his name, would conquer all.
Ireland would, in the centuries following St. Patrick’s death, go onto to itself be a hub of missionary activity. Those tribes who had viciously carved out their own kingdoms from Rome’s carcass, laying the groundwork for Europe today, would be met by Irishmen who carried on St. Patrick’s spirit.
Out of the chaos of an empire’s fall, a new world, a Christian world would be formed by those who did not dwell on the past, nor seek to right the wrongs of yesterday, but who looked forward to an age where all men and women from across culture and polity would welcome each other as brothers and sisters in Christ, forging a new world out of the ashes of the old.
Clover in our lapels, let us then go forth to celebrate Patrick for the man he was, and complete the work he set out to accomplish in Christ’s name.