Hail, glorious Saint Patrick, dear saint of our Isle
On us thy poor children bestow a sweet smile
And now thou art high in thy mansions above
On Erin's green valleys, look down in thy love.
Today marks the feast day of Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. It is a celebration which is marked throughout the world, when the Shamrock is worn, and the Green is on display.
Much of St. Patrick's life is the stuff of legend, but there are two surviving letters written by him in Latin, which give an insight into his life and his character - the Confession/Declaration (Confessio) and the Letter to Coroticus which tell of his early years, his faith, and his missionary life in Ireland as a bishop.
He was born into a Christian family in Britain in approximately 390 AD. The family were of the Roman official class and were materially comfortable. When he was 16, he was captured and brought to Ireland as a slave, where his own faith was strongly tested. Coming from such a comfortable background, he now faced life threatening situations, isolation and hardship. It was in this context, where he worked for some time as a shepherd and faced his despair and aloneness, that his prayer life deepened and his faith matured. He came to know that God was present.
My faith grew stronger and my zeal so intense that in the course of a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers and almost as many in the night. This I did even when I was in the woods and on the mountains. Even in times of snow or frost or rain I would rise before dawn to pray.
St. Patrick, The Confession
After 6 years, he heard a voice telling him he would soon go home, and this prompted him to make an attempt to escape from his master. He fled 200 miles to the coast and was eventually allowed to board a trading ship bound for Europe. Enduring more hardship, hunger and captivity, he finally made it home to his family in Britain. Profoundly affected by his experience, he decided to further deepen his faith and knowledge by embarking on a period of study of Christianity. It is believed he studied primarily in France, and was ordained by St. Germanus of Auxerre. His writings show his great understanding of the Bible and his familiarity with the earliest Fathers of the Church.
Responding to another vision where he heard "the voice of the Irish" calling him to them, St. Patrick returned to Ireland in approximately 432 AD to help spread the Christian faith. He undoubtedly received much resistance initially and was again held captive at times, but The Confession depicts a time of great conversion when St. Patrick baptised thousands of people, and ordained many priests. He felt this was his true vocation, and was filled with enthusiasm and energy to share his faith with the people of Ireland.
Irish folklore tells how St. Patrick used the three leaves of the Shamrock plant to explain the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit - three persons in one God. The Shamrock remains an important symbol of St. Patrick and Ireland to this day.
Legend also tells how St. Patrick banished the snakes from the island, chasing them into the sea with his staff after they assailed him during a 40-day fast he was undertaking on top of a hill. This may be more symbolic than literal, associating St. Patrick with driving out the old, pagan ways out of Ireland and heralding in a new faith. It is also believed that it was more a merging of the valuable old Irish traditional and cultural beliefs with his teaching which moved forward into this new Christian faith.
Another tale describes whenever Patrick was teaching about Christianity, he would thrust his ash walking stick into the ground. On one spot at Aspatria (ash of Patrick), it is told that it took a long time to convince the people, that his ash stick had taken root before he had firmly planted his message.
After nearly thirty years of Evangelism, he died on 17 March 461, and according to tradition, was buried at Downpatrick. His life as a missionary was very successful. He endured constant danger, threats and further times of captivity, but saw "the flock of the Lord in Ireland growing splendidly with the greatest care" (The Confession). He had a deep knowing that God was working through him, guiding and protecting him, and this made him trust completely in his mission without worry for his safety. He had a love and belief in his vocation, and he offers an example to us of a grace-filled life. Patrick has endured as the principal champion of Irish Christianity and is held in great esteem in the Irish Church, and in the hearts of the Irish people. Relics of St. Patrick, including his Bell, are held at the National Museum of Ireland.
As a cultural day, St. Patricks Day is celebrated by the Irish and any other enthusiastic nationality wishing to don the Green for the day. Parades are being held in the major cities across the world, wherever the Irish have replanted themselves over many past generations. From the days of the famine in the 1840s, millions of Irish either chose or were forced to survive elsewhere in the world, bringing their Irishness with them, and hopefully managing to embody it as they welcomed the new cultures of their chosen destinations. On this day, we send our love to our friends and family overseas, we wear our Shamrock, we cheer at our parades, and we count our blessings for each other.
Beannachtaí na Féile Pádraig oraibh!
Image of St. Patrick, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons