St. Patrick

     Patrick's story begins in Roman Britain, where he is born into a clerical family. His father, Calpurnius is a deacon of the Church, his grandfather a priest. The age of celibate clergy has yet to be established, despite the intentions of Pope Siricius.

Patrick's home life is comfortable. His father is a member of the gentry and a town councillor to boot, owning land, houses and slaves. By the standards of his locality, Patrick is well placed in life. His boyhood is easy, and compared to his later life, irreligious.

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     How things change. In normal circumstances, Patrick would have a classical education to look forward to, the preserve of the privileged elite. This opportunity is taken from him the day that Irish raiders storm his father's estate. Men are killed, property looted, and sixteen-year-old Patrick taken prisoner in the resulting mayhem.

Patrick isn't alone in this cruel twist of fate. As he is being taken to the curragh on the beach, he sees many other boats, with countless prisoners being loaded into the holds. Needless to say, it is a traumatic experience for the youth and those in the vicinity. The Irish are fearsome barbarians.
In Ireland, Patrick, along with other slaves, is transported far from the east coast to reduce the risk of escape. He is sold to a slave owner in Co Mayo, in the north east of the county, near Killala. He works as a shepherd in the woods and on a mountain in a remote part of the countryside, suffering from exposure to the elements. It is indeed, a harsh change of fortune.
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     Lonely and uncared for in a foreign land, Patrick turns to the only source of help available in such extreme conditions. He begins to pray. The more he prays, the greater his devotion. Patrick arises before dawn, whatever the weather, to begin his daily worship. When his working day ends, his prayers continue long into the night.


Patrick's period in slavery lasts for six years. His flight from captivity is precipitated by a dream, in which he is told that he will soon return to his home country. Aided by his remote location, Patrick is able to make good his escape before his owner notices his absence. He travels east.

This is a desperate time for Patrick, living on the run, taking food and shelter wherever he can get it. Finding his way to the coast, he manages to wrangle his way onto a craft bound for France. It is not so much a desire to visit the continent as the need to get out of Ireland, which motivates Patrick in this regard. It's the only boat he can get on.
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     Patrick's arrangement with the ship's crew quickly turns sour. When they land in France, Patrick is friendless and penniless, and the sailors are wise to his vulnerability. His status as a freeman of the Roman Empire is of no help to him even here within its borders, and the sailors sell him into bondage at the first settlement they encounter.


Patrick's second period of enslavement also stretches into years, though it is not as long as his first, painful experience. Again, his faith in God, and his devotion to prayer, provide his only solace in this bleak environment. He remains in France for the best part of four years.

Finally, Patrick arrives back to his home in his mid-twenties, a changed person from the enslaved adolescent. The carefree youth has grown into a devout and serious young man. As relieved as he is to be home, Patrick's experiences have marked him in such a way that he no longer belongs here in this comfortable place. His life's work, which is God's work, is to be done elsewhere.
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     Patrick's vocation comes to him in a dream. He finds himself back in the west of Ireland, and he hears the voices of the people there, imploring him to return. They cry out in one voice thus: "We are asking you, holy boy, to come and continue to walk among us." It is a turning point in Patrick's life.


So, Patrick wants to return to Ireland to win her people to Christianity; how is such a feat to be achieved? He has missed out on much of his education, and in any event, has not even begun training for the priesthood. He has a long way to go before he can embark on such an ambitious mission. In this way, Patrick's life from his mid-twenties till middle age becomes a time of preparation for his heart's desire.

In due course, Patrick becomes the Bishop of Ireland. He isn't the first such Churchman to minister in Ireland; in 431, Pope Celestine appointed Palladius as "the bishop of the Irish who believe in Christ". However, Patrick is the first bishop who intends to mobilise his office for the sake of converting the pagan hordes.

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     Patrick's intention is unorthodox for his time, and it does not find favour with his contemporaries and seniors in Britain. They have never heard of a bishop's office being used for such a purpose, and they genuinely fear for Patrick's safety among the Irish barbarians. His mission is unique in Europe and he has no forerunners. To venture to Ireland on such business is extremely dangerous - Patrick risks kidnap and murder - but he is a driven man, a force of nature. There is no stopping him.

In Ireland, he travels far and wide with his missionary zeal. Convincing people to abandon the gods of their fathers and forefathers is no easy task, and Patrick's success is limited. He aims at the chieftains, the nobility of Irish society, knowing that the new religion has a far greater chance of gaining a foothold from the top than from the bottom. As in any other offensive, holding the high ground is invaluable.
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     The danger of the work never abates for Patrick, even to the end of his life. Whatever about his ambition to convert the nobility, he makes his conversions in whatever sector of society he can, risking his neck on his roving commission. Patrick's is a small and scattered flock.

To make safe his passage, he resorts to paying protection money to local chieftains. The project is financed by the sale of Patrick's land in Britain. As a member of the nobility, he has sold his birthright to help convert the Irish. He has given his all.
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     Instead of being daunted by the scale and danger of his task, Patrick embraces the possibility of martyrdom, writing in his journal: "I ask God that he should grant me to pour out my blood for his name in company with those strangers and captives." This fate is not to be, however, and he works into his old age.

Patrick leads by example, making himself a source of inspiration for those whom he wishes to convert. He gives an impressive picture of faith, praying, fasting and preaching, rejecting the things of this world. Such holy living is a demonstration of the power and energy of Christianity. It appeals to those who are most open to spiritual ideas, the children of nobility, slaves, the poor and marginalized. As Patrick suffers for his faith, so do those who come to Christ through him.
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     Although missionary activity is Patrick's main reason for coming to Ireland, he also performs the standard duties of his ecclesiastical office. He baptises and confirms people, he ordains clergy, and he supervises those in religious life. The monks of this time are hermits, and nuns live out in the world among the laity. Patrick brings with him the parochial and diocesan system from Britain, and in such a way, begins to organise the burgeoning Church in Ireland. It is tireless work for a man in old age.
At the centre of Patrick's efforts is Armagh, where he establishes his see. The site of his stone church, the Damhliag Mór, is given to him by Dáire, the local chieftain. Armagh is powerful administrative centre, so the choice of it as see has significance for the region as a whole. The new religion has the approval of those in power.

Be that as it may, by the time of Patrick's death, Ireland is still largely pagan. Right up to the end, the work of evangelisation has not ceased to be hazardous in this hostile environment. But through his many ordinations and conversions, Patrick has succeeded in making significant inroads. A good start has been made, a light in the darkness.
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