Today millions around the world celebrate the feast of one of the Church’s greatest sons, the “Apostle of Ireland” St. Patrick. The revelry that so characterizes the day is rooted more in cultural pride than anything else. Little is remembered of St. Patrick. He drove the snakes out of Ireland, entered contests to the death with the pagan Druids and used the shamrock to explain the the Trinity. Besides these pious tales, however, rarely is anything more known about him. Which is a shame, for the true story of his labors to convert Ireland is more compelling than the later medieval legends. The saint’s two short letters: Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus and Confession make for good reading on this feast day to best come to know his captivating story, which is from start to finish a divine adventure.
But this St. Patrick’s Day is not like the others. It is the first since last spring’s referendum, in which 66.4% of the Irish population voted to legalize abortion, leaving us to wonder, have the snakes returned to Ireland? This appalling result epitomizes the rapid decline of the Church in a land Pope Saint Paul VI once called “the most Catholic country in the world” and Pope Saint John Paul II once lauded as “semper fidelis”—always faithful.
As the Church celebrates the Feast of St. Patrick today, are we left with the sad conclusion that the work of the “Apostle of Ireland” has been undone?
In many ways the answer is simply “Yes.” The Church’s own failings in the child sexual abuse crisis have played no small part in this. The structure of the Church that Patrick built up remains, but the soul of the nation is far from God. It held out longer than most, but Ireland must now be added to the list. Just as Italy needs a new Peter, Spain a new James, Germany a new Boniface, France a new Denis, and England a new Augustine, Ireland is in need of a new Patrick to re-evangelize this once great Catholic nation. As we pray for this on today’s feast, let us take both insight and inspiration from how the Gospel took hold of Ireland in the first place.
Traditionally, today’s saint has been credited with converting the entire Irish race from paganism in the very short period between 432 and 461. This is, however, not quite the case. Even lesser known than the actual glories of Patrick’s missionary endeavors is the Christian presence on the island that preceded him.
Christianity arrived on the shores of Ireland probably in the fourth or early fifth century through the trading links that existed with Britain and Gaul. British captives seized by Irish raiders are another possible means for the arrival of Christianity on the island, as in the famous case of Patrick himself. At the time, Christianity only really took root in the south of Ireland. In the medieval period, there was a dispute between the See of Armagh in Ulster to the north and the local churches of Munster to the south. Armagh claimed supremacy over the other churches on the island as the primatial see due to its having been established first by Patrick himself. Local churches to the south were resistant to this claim, particularly in response to the financial obligations imposed upon them as a subordinate church. They countered by claiming their own missionary founders arrived before Patrick and thus, Armagh did not have priority over them. Tales of the miracles and wonders worked by Ailbe, Declán, Ibar and Ciarán—the four pre-Patrician saints of Munster derive from this period amid the dispute.
The first recorded missionary to Ireland was the bishop, St. Palladius from Auxerre in Gaul. He was an archdeacon of Pope Celestine, and was assigned to assist with the Church’s mission in combating the Pelagian heresy in Britain. When a letter arrived on Pope Celestine’s desk from a group of Christians in Ireland requesting a bishop for themselves, Palladius was thought to be a good candidate. It was an opportunity for the Pope to ensure an anti-Pelagian bishop was rooted in Ireland in case that heresy began to flow into the country across the Irish Sea.
In 431 Pope Celestine sent him on a mission to “the Irish believing in Christ”. Thus, we know for sure that Patrick was not even the first bishop to set foot on Irish soil, nevermind the the first Christian. Palladius was ordained a bishop and sent. Though little is known of his mission, all the Irish annals agree in their account that it was a failure. It is said he was banished by the King of Leinster and forced to return to Britain. The early medieval Irish historian and monk Muirchú relates: “The wild men of Ireland would not listen to his preaching nor did he himself wish to remain in a foreign land. He decided to return to Celestine, but after crossing the Irish Sea, died in Britain during his journey home.” (The above information on the arrival of Christianity in Ireland and quotations were taken from Philip Freeman’s 2004 book St. Patrick of Ireland: A Biography).
He was immediately replaced by Patrick whose mission to Ireland began in 432. Perhaps Patrick met with success because he knew Ireland well, and understood its people, language, and customs from his time in captivity there as a youth.
Patrick devised a successful and settled strategy in his mission to the Irish. Whenever he entered a district he would first present himself to the local king and give him gifts in accord with the proper Celtic custom. He would request two favors which were usually granted: a title to a plot of land to build a church and permission to preach the Gospel to the locals. Though the kings were reticent to embrace Christianity lest the social order which was favorable to them be disrupted, their children were eager to learn. As Patrick recounts in his Confession:
How wonderful it is that here in Ireland a people who never had any knowledge of God—who until now have worshipped idols and impure things—have recently became a people of the Lord and are now called children of God. You can see the sons and daughters of Irish kings have become brothers and virgins for Christ…But many of them do this against the wishes of their parents. Indeed, their families sometimes punish them cruelly and make all sorts of horrible accusations against them. Still, the number of such virgins who have chosen this new life continues to grow so that I can’t keep track of them all.
Patrick was willing to risk death at the hands of his enemies the Druids and travel to what was then considered the ends of the earth to win the souls of the Irish for Christ:
For your sake, my Irish Christians, I traveled everywhere among great dangers. I even went to the most remote parts of the island—places at the very edge of the world, places no one had ever been before—to baptize and ordain clergy and confirm people in the faith. I did it all, with the help of God, gladly and joyfully for your sake.
All this laid the groundwork for the mass conversion of the Irish as Patrick relates having personally baptized “countless converts”.
The church founded by Patrick had three distinct characteristics: it was Celtic, monastic, and missionary. The native Celtic culture was transformed by the Gospel from within without being eradicated. By the 500s monastic foundations had spread throughout the country. Though intended as secluded places of prayer, they soon become the object of the patronage of the kings and the wealthy and people were drawn to build settlements around them and they became centers of economy and learning. From the monasteries came missionaries: first to the pagan Picts of Scotland and later to the barbarian tribes settling in the ruins of the Roman provinces of northern Europe. The two most famous of these missionaries, St. Columba (or Colm Cille), established the famous monastery at Iona of the western Scottish coast in 563, and St. Columbanus, who made it as far as Lombardy in Italy where he is buried at Bobbio Abbey.
It is for theses reasons that Ireland is known as the land of “Saints and Scholars” as their production of books and missionaries was a source of light in the dark period of early medieval history when the Roman Empire fell to pagan tribes.
God knows what the future holds for Ireland. There is still faith on the island despite the common impression there is nothing left in light of last year’s abortion referendum. There are still more practicing Catholics than in most western European countries. Could God’s rightful place at the center of Irish society be restored and this small country once again become a light to the nations?
I think this work will have to be built off the foundation of two currents: the pro-life movement and monasticism. Just think of what the pro-life movement has meant to the Church in our own country since Roe v. Wade in 1973. The horror of abortion has jolted many of the lukewarm into a fervent practice of the Faith, and the Church’s pro-life witness has inspired many conversions. A similar effect could happen in Ireland. But, as our Lord says, a demon such as this can only be cast out by “prayer and fasting” (Matt 17:21). The evangelization or re-evangelization of any society must be rooted in prayer and penance offered to God. I am greatly impressed by the new monastic foundation of Silverstream Priory in Co. Meath, which was established in 2012. After so many Irish priests and monks were sent to the ends of the earth as missionaries, American monks have now come to Ireland to “return the favor” by starting a fresh work for the good of the Church there. These monks are dedicated to ceaseless prayer before the Blessed Sacrament in a spirit of reparation. Their numbers are growing rapidly, which is a sign of great hope.
Through the intercession of St. Patrick, may the work of re-evangelization return Ireland and all of the Christian West back to it its greatest legacy, the Catholic Faith.
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