By FATHER JOHN C. KIERAN, Commentary | Published March 21, 2017
As a child growing up in Ireland, the only things I knew about St. Patrick were:
- He brought Christianity to Ireland.
- He banished all snakes out of Ireland.
- He explained the Trinity by means of a shamrock.
I imagine little has changed in the minds of schoolchildren today. Still, all three of those statements are false or, at best, pure legend!
For instance, we know that in 431 the pope of the time sent a bishop named Palladius to the Irish people “believing in Christ.” So when Patrick arrived two years later, there were already some Christians in Ireland.
The legend of banishing all the snakes out of Ireland first appeared in a 12th-century book, “The Life of St. Patrick,” by Jocelin Furness. Back then those recounting the lives of saints took liberties. Thus they exaggerated and emphasized at will so as to make their subjects into “wonder-workers.” The truth is snakes have never inhabited Ireland.
Salvador Ryan, professor of ecclesiastical history at the National Seminary, Maynooth, says that the legend of banishing snakes may have begun as a symbolic example of Patrick’s work of expelling evil and paganism out of Ireland. We know that in the Bible a snake represents evil.
The first written evidence of the shamrock story comes in the 17th century. The first image of Patrick holding a shamrock is on a halfpenny coin minted in Dublin in 1674.
So, who is the real Patrick? And why are so many places and persons named after him?
Truly, Patrick was a real man and was uniquely transparent in writing his own life story. In fact, he is the only Roman citizen we know from the fifth century who was taken into slavery in a barbarian land and who lived to tell the tale and write about it. Patrick reveals himself in the two invaluable documents he wrote.
One is a personal “Confessio” about his inner self and his purpose in life. There we find Patrick to be the super evangelist, whose life and work is unquestionable.
His other famous piece is a “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus.” There he condemns slave trafficking and other human abuses. Patrick, of the fifth century, was the first icon to defend the dignity of the human person, in speech and in his written word.
When a youth, Patrick was kidnapped and taken to Ireland as a slave. Despite the hardships of capture and isolation the youth deepened his prayer life. Eventually he found a way to escape and returned to his English homeland.
Some years later Patrick had a vision. He was convinced that God was calling him to return to Ireland and evangelize his former captors.
Patrick says he heard the native Irish calling him to return: “We beg you to come and walk among us again.” At about the age of 47, the missionary Patrick left the comfortable and safe environment of Roman England to evangelize the pagan Irish. He never returned home, eventually becoming “more Irish than the Irish themselves!”
In his lifetime, Patrick securely established Christianity in Ireland. The church was organized, bishops ordained, and thousands converted and were baptized. He preached the Gospel relentlessly and with great success.
To gauge the success of Patrick’s missionary work, consider that within 100 years of Ireland’s conversion, Irish missionaries had fanned out all over Europe carrying on the vision of their spiritual father.
The vigor of this pioneering faith is often attributed to the fact that Patrick and the early Christians of Ireland chose to be “missionary.” Long before the Second Vatican Council proclaimed that “evangelization is the essential mission of the Church,” Patrick made that happen in Ireland.
Our patron said, “I must make known the gift of God and his eternal peace. … I must faithfully spread the name of God everywhere … and leave an inheritance for my spiritual children.”
Truly those early Irish Christians accepted Christ’s challenge more personally, and more urgently, than present generations. Have we silenced the Master’s call: “You are the salt of the earth. … You are the light of the world. … Let your light of faith shine before others” (Mt 5:13-14).
Equally clear is Patrick’s slogan found in his “Confessio.” We are “the letter of Christ, for salvation to the ends of the earth.” We are ambassadors for Christ, one and all.
Yes, Patrick was our super evangelist. His spirit continues in the many churches and cities named in his honor. We, his spiritual daughters and sons, have the challenge and privilege to prolong his missionary undertaking in our own lifetime.
It is no surprise that Patrick, the former slave, also spoke out strongly against human trafficking. The author Thomas Cahill (“How the Irish Saved Civilization”) says Patrick was “the first human being in the world to speak unequivocally against slavery.”
It would take another 1,400 years of protest before England and the U.S. would ban slave trafficking.
There is no doubt Patrick was a strident leader in upholding the dignity of the human person and the evils of human trafficking. In his “Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus,” he wrote: “The Church laments and grieves for her sons and daughters … taken far away to a distant land where wickedness flourishes so abundantly, grievously, and shamelessly. … Christians sold into slavery!”
Patrick the evangelist and Patrick the defender of human dignity are not the most gleeful themes for a St. Patrick’s Day celebration. But if you want to know the “real” Patrick of Ireland, you must dig deeper. The truth is, our Irish patron did massive evangelization work in the fifth century. He started a missionary movement within the embryonic Irish church, which bloomed and grew for centuries, up to recent times.
Furthermore, our icon was the first to name and write about the evil of human trafficking. Thus he put the world on notice: God’s human creation must be respected, honored and safeguarded against any form of human abuse.
The goals of evangelization and human respect that Patrick courageously labored for continue to be cardinal and timeless goals in our church teaching … yesterday, today and forever.
So, today, let us give full thanks to Patrick for his courageous faith, vision and example.
May he intercede for all of us. And may we let our light of faith shine—shine out before others as Patrick did so well in his time.
Father Kieran gave this homily at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Mass at the Cathedral of Christ the King, Atlanta, on March 17, 2017.