Monday, March 17, 2014
Feast of Patrick, Missionary to Ireland
Almighty God, in your providence you chose your servant Patrick to be the apostle of the Irish people, to bring those who were wandering in darkness and error to the true light and knowledge of you: Grant us so to walk in that light that we may come at last to the light of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Today is the Feast of St. Patrick, which is a huge celebration in the U.S.A., with parades and speeches and people wearing green and, from what I remember from elementary school, lots of pinching. I think the celebration of St. Patrick's Day has more to do with the pride of those of Irish heritage in the land of their ancestors than with the actual St. Patrick; leprechauns and green beer and getting plastered have nothing to do with the saint, and such celebrations do not take place in Ireland. Today we are going to remember Patrick as a missionary and bishop, and as the man who helped spread Christianity throughout Ireland.
Patrick did not bring Christianity to Ireland; there were Christians in Ireland in the fourth century, probably as a result of contact between the British, who had first heard the Gospel with the arrival of missionaries in the second century. The Celtic Church was different from the Roman Church; they kept a different date for Easter and their spirituality was different than that of the Western or Roman church.
Patricus was probably born in the year 390 in Britain. Patrick's family were Christians; his grandfather was a priest and his father was a deacon. His father, Calpornius, was also an important official in the Roman imperial government in Britain. Yet even though he came from a Christian family, Patrick, like many young people, didn't really concern himself with the faith or with his education. He regretted his lack of education for the rest of his life. When he was sixteen years of age, his village, Bannavem Taburniae, was raided by Irish pirates or slave-raiders, and he and many other people were captured and taken away. Here is how he tells the story in his Confession: I was then about sixteen years of age. I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people---and deservedly so, because we turned away from God and did not keep His commandments, and did not obey our priests, who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord brought over us the wrath of his anger and scattered us among many nations, even unto the utmost part of the earth, where now my littleness is placed among strangers.
And there the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection, and mercy on my youth and ignorance, and watched over me before I knew Him, and before I was able to distinguish between good and evil, and guarded me, and comforted me as would a father his son.
Patrick was forced to work as a shepherd, and he spent a lot of his time in repentance and prayer. He also had a vision which told him that he would return home: But after I came to Ireland---everyday I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed---the love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountains; and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me---as now I see, because the spirit within me was then fervent. And there one night I heard in my sleep a voice saying to me: "It is well that you fast, soon you will go to your own country." And again, after a short while, I heard a voice saying to me: "See, your ship is ready." And it was not near, but at a distance of perhaps two hundred miles, and I had never been there, nor did I know a living soul there; and then I took to flight, and I left the man whith whom I had stayed for six years. And I went in the strength of God who directed my way to my good, and I feared nothing until I came to that ship.
When he first came and asked the captain for work on the ship, the captain was angry and said, "There is no room and it is no use for you to ask to go along with us." Patrick, discouraged, turned away and started walking down the path. He was praying that God would guide him safely back to his hut, but before he even ended his prayer he heard a sailor calling: "Come, hurry, we shall take you on in good faith; make friends with us in whatever way you like." Patrick thanked God and hoped to bring them all to Christ, as they were all Pagans. Three days later they arrived on the coast of Britain. They left the boat and began traveling by foot. Patrick writes: . . . for twenty-eight days we traveled through deserted country. And they lacked food, and hunger overcame them; and the next day the captain said to me, "Tell me, Christian, you say that your God is great and all-powerful; why, then, do you not pray for us? As you can see, we are suffering from hunger; it is unlikely indeed that we shall ever see a human being again." I said to them full of confidence: "Be truly converted with all your heart to the Lord my God, because nothing is impossible for Him, that this day He may send you food on your way until you be satisfied; for He has abundance everywhere." And, with the help of God, so it came to pass: suddenly a herd of pigs appeared on the road before our eyes, and they killed many of them; and there they stopped for two nights and fully recovered their strength, and their hounds received their fill for many of them had grown weak and were half-dead along the way. And from that day they had plenty of food.
That night Patrick had a dream that Satan was holding him down, and he called out to God and was saved from Satan's grasp, and he realized from that moment on that the Spirit of God would speak and work through him. He eventually left this gang and returned to his family. He also as educated as a Christian and took on Holy Orders, being ordained deacon, priest, and eventually, bishop. All during this time back home he had visions calling him back to the land of his captivity: And there I saw in the night the vision of a man, whose name was Victoricus, coming as it were from Ireland, with countless letters. And he gave me one of them, and I read the opening words of the letter, which were "The voice of the Irish;" and as I read the beginning of the letter I thought that at the same moment I heard their voice---they were those beside the Wood of Covlut, with is near the Western Sea---and thus did they cry out as with one mouth: "We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more." And I was quite broken in heart, and could read no further, and so I woke up. Thanks be to God, after many years the Lord gave to them according to their cry. And another night---whether within me or beside me, I know not, God knows---they called me most unmistakably with words which I heard but could not understand, except that at the end of the prayer He spoke thus: "He that has laid down His life for thee, it is He that speaketh in thee;" and so I awoke full of joy.
Patrick decided to answer this call and return to Ireland, but he was opposed by other bishops and he also suffered a serious illness. Patrick decided that this was for his own good and that he was being purged by the Lord. He finally returned to Ireland in the year 432, arriving not far from the area where he had been a shepherd. He set-up a church in Armagh, which served as his head-quarters, and he traveled throughout Ireland, preaching and baptizing. He usually preached to the chiefs of clans and with their conversion the entire tribe would convert. He also Christianized the old religion, building churches over former Druid holy sites, carving crosses on druidic pillars, and putting sacred wells and springs under the protection of Christian Saints. His conversion of the three High Kings of Ireland put Ireland on the road to becoming a Christian nation. He educated the sons of the chiefs and kings, he established monasteries throughout the land, he ordained clergy and he instituted monks and nuns. The monasteries of Ireland became incredible powerhouses of education and spirituality. He stayed in Ireland for the rest of his life, and probably died around the year 461. We don't know the date of his death, but the celebration of March 17 dates to the seventh century. I doubt that he chased the snakes from Ireland, or that he used shamrocks to explain the concept of the Trinity, and most of the other miracles attributed to him were invented over the centuries. We do know that he was a faithful bishop and loved the people of Ireland.
I will close with the ending paragraphs of Patrick's Confession: Wherfore may God never permit it to happen to me that I should lose His people with He purchases in the utmost parts of the world. I pray to God to give me perseverance and to deign that I be a faithful witness to Him to the end of my life for my God.
And if ever I have done any good for my God whom I love, I beg Him to grant me that I may shed my blood with those exiles and captives for His name, even though I should be denied a grave, or my body be woefully torn to pieces limb by limb by hounds or wild beasts, or the fowls of the air devour it. I am firmly convinced that if this should happen to me, I would have gained my soul together with my body, because on that day without doubt we shall rise in the brightness of the sun, that is, in the glory of Christ jesus our Redeemer, as sons of the living God and joint heirs with Christ, to be made conformable to His image; for of Him, and by Him, and in Him we shall reign.
For His sun which we see rises daily for us because He commands so, but it will never reign, nor will its splendor last; what is more, those wretches who adore it will be miserably punished. Not so we, who believe in, and worship, the True Sun---Christ---who will never perish, nor will he who doeth His will; but he will abide for ever as Christ abideth for ever, who reigns with God the Father Almighty and the Holy Spirit before time, and now, and in all eternity.
Behold, again and again would I set forth the words of my confession. I testify in truth and in joy of heart before God and His holy angels that I never had any reason except the Gospel and its promises why I should ever return to the people from whom once before I barely escaped.
I pray those who believe and fear God, whosoever deigns to look at or receive this writing which Patrick, a sinner, unlearned, has composed in Ireland, that no one should ever say that it was my ignorance if I did or showed forth anything however small according to God's good pleasure; but let this be your conclusion and let it so be thought, that---as is the perfect truth---it was the gift of God. This is my confession before I die.
Patrick was creative in his evangelism, he understood that incorporating what was familiar would do much more to further the message of the Gospel rather than trying to force the Irish into some concept of The Faith Once Delivered. He understood the importance of education and the intellect in Christianity. He was faithful to God and faithful to the Irish. He is an example of a missionary who loved and served the people to whom he had been sent. And that is why we remember him today.