March 10, 2009 3:00 PM

Yesterday, I had the Feast of St. Joseph (March 19)--and specifically his Table-- on my mind. Today I've been thinking St. Patrick. St. Patrick's Day is on March 17 (Why didn't I address St. Patrick first, you say? Why don't you get your OWN blog, I say!) and is famously celebrated in America by parades and beer.

In a way, I guess it's bad that we've reduced the impact of one of the finest Christian missionaries to a cartoonish beer drinking event. In still another way, I think that the hundreds and hundreds of years of St. Patrick's patronage yielding itself as it has for Ireland indicates that St. Patrick might be in on the joke and ok with it all. But that's just a hunch on my part.

Curiously though, Patrick himself wasn't Irish. But no one tell this to the slobbering guy in a leprechaun suit in Westport: he was actually Scottish.

No foolin'.

Patrick was born in Scotland sometime around the year 390. His father was Roman and a Deacon in the Church; his mother was part German (what we now call German anyway). His father's territory was the area we now call Great Britain. Christianity had been the official religion of the Roman Empire for less than a century when Patrick was born, but the Faith had apparently been strong in young Patrick.

Ireland was a different case altogether. The island was full of pagans in druid suits worshipping trees and acting like general thugs for the rest of Europe. In one case of thuggery, Irish captors stole a teenage Patrick and drug him back to a life of imprisoned slavery. He was placed in charge of tending sheep.

I think it's interesting how much of Christian history is intertwined with sheep. From my Midwestern American point of view, sheep are curious animals. We're in cattle country and spend more time with cows than sheep; most of Western Europe seems to be the opposite. I don't know if you've ever been around sheep, but they're a strange animal. They're dumb and skittish, they spook easily and kind of hard to be around, they're also very untrusting of new people and run from people whom they do not recognize. They smell bad. So do the people that hang out with sheep. Being a shepherd isn't a very glamorous gig. You have to build up trust with the herd or else they'll run from you whenever you come near. You have to be gentle and calm with them or else you'll make the whole herd panic and run in every different direction. Sheep aren't like cattle, you can't just let them wander in the countryside. Cows just stand there; sheep will wander off cliffs. It takes a special kind of person to be a sheep rancher--it's not something I could do! You have to be gentle and firm, trustworthy and mindful. These kinds of details are lost on 21st Century Americans. Most of us have never seen a single sheep in our lives, much less a herd of sheep and even much less an actual shepherd. Sometimes I think that we've lost a lot of connection to history's context when we don't know what it means for St. Patrick to be thrown into tending sheep or when Christ Himself was called the Good Shepherd. Those were meek and humble jobs for people in the lowest levels of society.

Because of the nature of sheep herding, Patrick was no doubt often alone and lonely--a captive in a strange land with no one else to talk to but God and sheep. It was in this period that Patrick spend a lot of time in prayer. And who wouldn't? I think that if I was looking forward to a lifetime of slavery, I'd pray that God find a way to get me out of there! But Patrick is a nobler man than I. He prayed for his love of the Lord to increase more and more. What a guy!

After six years of prayer in captivity, an angel told Patrick in a dream to head to a part of the Irish coastline where he'd be rescued; he made his escape 200 miles west (an impressive feat; the widest part of Ireland is barely 200 across) when he was around 20 years old. He successfully made it back to England and reunited with his family. Patrick began studying for the priesthood and was ordained shortly thereafter. Patrick's dreams kept going back to Ireland; he'd hear the calls of children imploring him "O holy youth, come back to Erin, and walk once more amongst us!"

Patrick and Pope Celestine I agreed that he be sent back to Ireland to evangelize the pagans; Patrick was named the Bishop of Ireland.

It's funny to think about like this, but St. Patrick was one of the first missionaries of the Roman era and one of the first evangelists since the apostles themselves. The early days of the Church after Christ were a time of vast and fast expansion. The apostles traveled to each corner of the known world to preach the Good News of Jesus. St. Paul would pick up that mantle and be the most successful Christian missionary in history--his words still bring people to Christ. But when Patrick bravely sailed back to the shores of his captivity, no one had been evangelizing to strange lands since the end of the apostolic era.

Patrick was the exact man for the job.

Not only was he one of the few priests on the planet who knew how to speak Gaelic--a quality he picked up as a slave--he was also strong and gentle, affable and gracious. He quickly befriended the kings and noblemen of Eire, he preached to the pagans and the druids and won them over with his gentle spirit and bold courage. The legends say that he baptized thousands; he ordained countless men to the priesthood; he persuaded the wealthy daughters of kings to abandon their wealth and begin convents; he took the barbarous Celts and convinced them of the Triune God with the simple shamrock.

When he landed on the Emerald Isle in 433 A.D., he set out to find his old slave master Milchu and paid his captor the ransom for his freedom. Think of it! This man stole the boy Patrick from his home, pushed him into captured slavery--and as a grown man, Patrick returns to him and pays for his own release. Along the way, Patrick was ambushed by the chieftain Dichu; Dichu raised his sword to slay the Bishop--Patrick commanded that the man's arm be still; Dichu's arm froze like stone and couldn't move until he pledged to be loyal to Patrick. When Dichu consented, he arm became heavy and loose. He dropped his sword, became a follower of Patrick and built him a great hall in Sabhall (pronounced Saul) so that people could come to hear the Gospel. It was the first church dedicated by St. Patrick In later years, that site would become a monastery and church which still exists today.

Patrick would eventually find Milchu; the word was out about this great Christian who was working great miracles. Milchu was terrified of being beaten by his former slave--Milchu gathered all his wealth and belongings and brought it into his house, set the house on fire and threw himself into the flames. An ancient record adds: "His pride could not endure the thought of being vanquished by his former slave".

The stories of Patrick's miracles sound like crazy Hollywood fantasy movies, but they were well attested to in his day and the miracles were pretty widely witnessed. Like when he challenged the Druids to extinguish his Pascal fire (they couldn't), when the druid incantations cast an inky darkness over the land, Patrick's prayer drew the sun from the clouds and blinded the pagans, when the Arch-Druid Lochru cast a spell on himself to fly and attack Patrick from the heavens, Patrick knelt and prayed while Lochru was miraculously smashed to pieces against a huge rock.

Patrick gathered all the chieftains of Eire together in one place. Those men were the most powerful kings in all the country--and in defiance of their own orders, the consented to follow Patrick in following the Lord. The history of Ireland would never be the same.

In just a few short decades, Saint Patrick singlehandedly converted the entire country to the Catholic Church. His disciple students, Beningnus, Auxilius, Iserninus, and Fiaac were themselves all canonized. The monasteries, churches and seminaries that they would found together would, in a few hundred years, export priests, monks, nuns and lay Catholics to every corner of the world.

By the mid-1800s, 59 percent of the priests in the diocese of New York were Irish-born and at the beginning of the twentieth century, 62 percent of the bishops were Irish-American, more than half of them being Irish-born. By 1900 two-thirds of the diocesan priests in the diocese of St. Paul, Minnesota, were foreign-born with more than one-quarter of them being Irish. One-third of the pastors in the Archdiocese of San Francisco in 1963 were born and educated in Ireland, while during the 1940s and 1950s, 80 percent of the priests in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles were Irish-born.
Certainly a young 16-year-old boy slave wouldn't have known the plans in store for him. But this gentle shepherd would become one of the most important Shepherds in the history of the Church.

The story of Saint Patrick is one of the great stories of triumph over evil. Patrick could have hated the country that enslaved him. As a Roman citizen of some prestige, Patrick might have been able to rally armies to overthrow and conquer the primitive island by war. But he chose instead to conquer the island for Christ--and as a result, help conquer the Earth for Him. He is known as the first great missionary of his age, the patron of the land of his capture, the namesake of innumerable Catholic churches, schools, colleges and, yes, parades.

Those Irish Catholics who fled their country for America needed a strong patron and a wise shepherd when they'd land on this foreign soil. Those Irish immigrants would find a hostile land--with xenophobia and anti-Catholic bigotry to welcome them from those oceans white with foam. These first-generation Irish would remember their patron, the man whose similar journey would turn a nation to Christ. They'd name their sons Patrick and their daughters Patricia, they'd cling to their patron like sheep follow their shepherd. And on his feast day, they'd raise a pint and cheer for the land that he saved for Christ.

Those parades that you see popping up (starting next weekend) are big parties where everyone pretends to be Irish for a day. But at the root of those parties is a different kind of hope--it celebrates that dream of Patrick to bring the world to Christ. Does that mean that everyone wants to be Catholic on St. Patrick's Day? Hehehehe. I'll spare you from my fancy ideas. But Irishmen are all born Irish. It is only by His mercy that they baptized Catholic.

St. Patrick died on March 17, 493 A.D. in Ireland. He is buried at Sabhall on the site of his first church where he converted the chieftain Dichu to Jesus. He is the patron of engineers, people who fear snakes, excluded people--and, of course, Ireland.

St. Patrick, pray for us!.


Mary Margaret | March 10, 2009 10:12 PM | Reply

Hey, I'm from middle America (KS) and I actually raised sheep when I was in jr high and high school. We ran about 100 head, and had our own ram, so there! Hope we didn't smell too badly. :)

I love St Patrick dearly, and pray to him regularly for his intercession (yeah, my family is heavily Irish). Although I'm sure some Irish named their daughters Patricia, I would bet money that Mary and Brigid are more common names among those early Irish immigrants. My grandmother (Margaret Agnes) certainly experienced the anti-Irish bigotry (according to my dad-never met the woman, may she rest in peace). I pray at least weekly that the Irish not abandon the Faith. The faithful still exist in Eire, but in some areas, the numbers are seriously dwindling.

Ellis Spear | March 15, 2009 11:50 AM | Reply

Erin Go Bragh,

Joe, once again you have written well. Lots of great things to contemplate and be thankful for and proud of.

Here is a great link to some folks in California who keep alive the spirit of the Irish participants in the American Civil War.


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