St. Patrick’s Day March 17, with its concentration on Ireland and the Irish and its celebrations in music and song, parades and parties, has long been the most popular day of the year for many more than the Irish. It has been said with more than a little accuracy that all in New York are Irishmen on St. Patrick’s Day with the green of the Emerald Isle the colouring for everything.
That the day is well known everywhere does not mean that Patrick is any more than a name to very many; and that could apply to Ireland too. People need to be reminded or told that the patron saint of Ireland was a Christian preacher, teacher and writer whose life and work had such an effect on his time and thereafter that he is to be seen as the pivotal person in the beginnings, and development of Christianity in Ireland. As with historical figures generally much has been written about St Patrick.
When the man speaks for himself we learn some things about him. He does that in two writings – his “Confession” and “The Letter to Coroticus”, in five sayings in tin book of Armagh and the hymn, “The Breastplate” which has been attributed to him He tells us he was a Roman Briton from Bonnaven Taberniae. The location of which has been set in Scotland, near Dumbarton on the River Clyde and in North Wales near Milford and we are left with these uncertain choices. His father was Calpurnius, a farmer and deacon of his church and his grandfather was Potitus, a priest. Captured and taken as a slave to Ireland he served a chieftain, Milchu, as a swineherd and cattle drover for six years on Slemish Mountain in Co. Antrim. In his captivity Patrick came to see his dire straits as a punishment for his neglect of God. He described in his Confession how he “earnestly sought God and then I found Him.”
After he escaped from his captivity there followed the “Silent Years” in which at home he worked and trained to be a minister of the Gospel. In a time of religious awakening in Europe Patrick studied in Gaul, France, where his mentor was Germanus, the Bishop of Auxerre, and perhaps in Rome. It was in these Silent Years that he had a Paul-like vision of one Victorious bearing letters and one “The Voice of the Irish.” As he took the letter he “heard the voice of those who lived beside the wood Foclut near the Western sea.” Responding to the call to “come over and help us” he returned to Ireland, having been consecrated a bishop by Germanus. The year was 432 and by his leadership there began the growth and development of the Celtic church. An early covert was the chieftain, Dichu, who gave him a site at Saul, Co. Down, where his first church, “Patrick’s Barn” was built. From that beginning there were churches to follow in several places as Patrick and his Christians converted people from paganism. And these Celtic Christians were to take the faith to Britain and Europe with incredible results in the spread of Christianity. Whatever historians say about Patrick and Celtic Christianity his writings are Bible-based – the scriptures are quoted extensively – and his preaching and teaching was Christ centred and people orientated.
The legacy of St. Patrick is a Christianity free from the disunities and distresses that have adversely affected it in Ireland for many centuries. A cure for the ills, divisions and disturbances of today would be in return to the emphases of St. Patrick – the fundamentals of Christian belief and the primary purpose of the churches and Christians to bring people to faith in Christ to enjoy the benefits of the Gospel.
Denominational claims on Patrick mean little when what is important is that the man be seen for what he was – a pattern Christian whose life and work should be a persuasion on Christians everywhere to be as he was in his commitment and witness to Christ and in his service for people. If that thought is not lost in the festivities of St. Patrick’s Day there is gain for those who participate in them.