Mar 16, 2017

St. Patrick

St. Patrick and a Land That Defined Him

I am no authority on the life of St. Patrick. His story is told and retold by various works and by many references, not least his own telling account of his life preserved for us in his famous Confession. However, the local land I grew up on, its fields, valleys and glens, along with a distinctive climate characterized by “four seasons in one day,” bear a particular claim to the shaping and moulding of Patrick’s heart and soul. 

Probably one of the last of a diaspora of Irish-born priests who would find themselves in distant California, I was born in 1966 in the town of Antrim, Northern Ireland. From its outskirts, Slemish Mountain is clearly visible on the horizon. It rises like a hardened blister from a green but desolate landscape. It was there, as countless generations of locals attest, the young Patrick spent his teenage years of captivity herding livestock. From the mountain's peak, on a clear day, he would have gazed upon a carpet of fertile green fields and woodlands spread out in every direction. And on the northern horizon, beyond the sea, he could catch the faint line of a distant Scottish coastland, a reminder that he was very far from home. 

Born in the late fourth century, it is well worth remembering that St. Patrick was not a native of Ireland. At the age of 15, then a nominal Christian, the son of what we call today a permanent deacon, he was abducted from his father’s villa in Roman Britain by Irish human traffickers who subjected him to servitude across the sea in Ireland. As a teenage homesick prisoner condemned to forced labor, Patrick had no family, no friends nor mentors to guide him through the difficult years of adolescence. For six years, practically alone and exposed to the damp and windswept surroundings, he had little choice but commune with nature with all its changing moods and temperaments.

However, Patrick’s profound personal sense of isolation also helped awaken him to the nostalgic peace and beauty of his own childhood Christian faith, which had, until now, remained dormant. Cooperating with gentle grace, the teenager was remarkably able to avoid despair and disillusionment. His six years of forced exile from his family and homeland, had matured him in mind, body and soul. To that end, when he was 21 years old, Patrick was able to escape his captors and find his way back home to Roman Britain. He was no longer a boy. He was now a man, and no doubt, a very changed man.  

Although his captivity in Antrim provoked his soul and awakened his spirit, Patrick’s spirituality and understanding of God was not the result of a lonely boy’s conversation with nature nor from a fertile and creative imagination born from boredom. Instead, he had been forcefully immersed in a new haunting language uniquely indigenous to the people, the land and its volatile elements – something that even after his return to the security and comfort of Roman Britain, he could never manage to shake off, not even in his dreams. God had spoken to Patrick in a foreign and mysterious dialect and the young man would come to instinctively understand his life’s vocation. The Church recognized his calling and after ordaining him, sent Patrick back to the land of his early imprisonment – as the first missionary bishop since the days of the apostles themselves. He would be a communicator of the Gospel of Christ to a place considered in its day at the furthest corner of the world.

Upon returning to Ireland, the newly ordained Patrick did not see nor understand his mission as the imposition of a new religion upon the Celtic tribes. Rather, infused by his love of the Scriptures, and reflecting on the life of Christ, instead of an anger or lingering resentment from his past imprisonment, he learnt first to forgive his past enemies. With a soul purified by prayer and nourished by the sacraments, Patrick’s message of the Gospel of Christ, instead announced a revolutionary hope and freedom from the captivity of fear.

What was the reason for his amazing success in bringing Christianity to the Irish? It might be said that it was his sincere honesty. Patrick’s written Confession reveals a truly humble man who processed an incredible self-knowledge, not only of the grace of God in his life but also of his own unworthiness tainted by the memories of past sins. His whole life was an open book but his vocation, as with his ministry, was always in response to a greater mystery always bigger than himself. It was therefore no surprise he was listened to, respected and even feared. Never forgetting the conditions and abuse he endured as a young captive, Patrick’s influence now as a bishop throughout the whole island put a final end to the practice of slavery. He replaced it, no doubt, with planting throughout the land the first seeds of a culture of Irish hospitality.

Patrick would also face fierce opposition and intense jealousy not only by the people he served, but also by brother priests and bishops across the Irish Sea. He admits in his Confession that he grew weary many times of his mission, and was even tempted to despair. But for the persistent grace of God, he continued to persevere, prayed constantly and worked relentlessly for the salvation of the Irish.

A straightforward but gifted communicator, Patrick explained and taught the Christian faith in a language the indigenous people could understand, using the elements of nature itself to explain the hidden mysteries of the true God of the universe. Yet despite the pain of exile he always felt, in 30 years, Patrick transformed a whole civilization of people. Within one generation, all of the Irish – from kings to peasants – accepted the Christian and Catholic faith and were baptized into the Church. Only one other nation in the history of Christianity would witness a mass conversion of its indigenous people without any force or coercion – Mexico, but only after the appearance of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Like St. Patrick, La Virgen Morena spoke to the locals in a language they understood, using imagery from a culture likewise rich in natural elements describing the heavens pouring out over all creation to find a home in the midst of a neglected people of the land.

It therefore bears reflection that when Pope Francis makes his first
visit to Ireland, he will find he has much in common with St. Patrick of old. Both are bishops forced by circumstances beyond their control to minister to a flock far from their native homes. Both have reached out, with God’s grace, to those who live at the peripheries of the world. They both share a common Gospel message proclaiming freedom to those enslaved by the powerful. But let us especially not forget both Francis and Patrick's commitment to go green! The gift of creation and the voice of nature are jointly recognized by these two remarkable bishops as sacred elements of God’s first spoken language common to us all. I, therefore, have little doubt that when the pope arrives for the first time as a missionary apostle to Ireland, like the shepherd Patrick who came before him with the lingering smell of the sheep, Francis too will become an honorary Irishman, a man for all seasons!

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