By FATHER JOHN KIERAN, Commentary | Published March 8, 2023
Separating the long-standing legends associated with St. Patrick and the man himself is a tricky task. The saint’s fame is worldwide, in every country, celebrated by millions on March 17, the day of his death.
Still our intimate knowledge of the man Patrick is absent, except for two brief writings from his hand. His works—”Confessio,” a personal journey; and “Epistola, Address to the Soldiers of Coroticus”—are the only pieces of literature to survive from that period and our only original source into the mind of Patrick. Reading these documents puts us into contact with a real man of flesh and blood.
Several thousand books and papers have been written on St. Patrick, and other commentaries on these treasured letters. I recommend “Saint Patrick” by Thomas O’Loughlin. O’Loughlin is a professor of historical theology and addresses the oft cited enigma between legend and history of Patrick. O’Loughlin’s insights and commentary are acclaimed by Patrick devotees. His style is readable yet thorough, suitable for anyone interested in reliable research into the mind of Patrick.
A helpful contribution by the author is the listing of all biblical references in the letters mentioned. In an appendix he gives a total of 490 references following the standard order; 141 Old Testament and 249 New Testament. This number confirms that Patrick used the Bible repeatedly and competently.
The author concludes: “Carefully Patrick assembles biblical quotes and precedents into a mosaic to drive forward his argument.” The saint’s many quotes and biblical use clearly show that he was “a man of the book,” who knew the texts and their meaning. At times his quotes are well known verses like “He has bestowed on him all power above every name in heaven and on earth, and under the earth, so that every tongue may confess that our Lord and God is Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:11). In other places he alludes to biblical scenes and God’s intervention; or skillfully links similar Scriptures to know the Master’s will.
Patrick is a super star missionary. His writings adequately confirm his felt call from God to evangelize, even his former captors. The task was critical to him since he believed end times were near; and sadly, those on the “far Western seas had not yet encountered Christ.” “It was not my grace, but God who conquered in me…that I might come to the Irish nations to preach the gospel.”
Patrick prayed: “I thank God without ceasing” for success and in all difficulties in fulfilling my vocation. His commitment of heart to follow God’s call and to be resolute in all its challenges makes him our premier missionary and model saint. He said: “My one and only purpose in going back to that people from whom I had earlier escaped was the Gospel and promise of God.” Truly, Patrick had a passion for Christ and for proclaiming his Gospel.
Admirers of Patrick must accept legend for what it is; sometimes it is dubious conjecture; or stories without historical foundation; sometimes, absolutely untrue, as in the claim that our patron “banished all snakes out of Ireland!” Reading Patrick’s personal testimony in “Confessio” reveals the life of a dedicated Christian who gave himself, heart and soul, to Christ so as to proclaim the Gospel under difficult circumstances during troubled tribal times.
Yes, we rejoice that Patrick is the most remembered celebrity from the fifth century and feted globally on March 17 each year. But Patrick’s priestly life and evangelical work supersedes all revelry. His personal stand and message was: Seek Christ, so that you be ready. No doubt our patron enjoyed his beer… but always in moderation.
Father John Kieran, native of Ireland, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.