As you enjoy your Irish soda bread and coffee this AM (and if you are drinking Irish coffee for breakfast, don’t make important decisions until noon) it is worthy that we salute St. Patrick. He is certainly one of history’s great missionaries and catechists; he is less remembered for his contributions to the Church’s legal tradition or what we call today Canon Law, in part because he didn’t seem to worry about it very much.
For the last dozen years or so I have been a presenter at the annual NCEA Conventions. Up until this year I submitted proposals under my state licensure and gave presentations on mental health and staff development, and the vetting was very smooth. Last summer I decided to change direction, and I submitted a proposal under the religious education department of the same organization. I was pleased to see that my topic, Resurrection Catechesis, was accepted. But I found it very amusing that the vetting process was entirely different. I had crossed into a new kingdom, the land of dogma, where the guards, shall we say, are a bit skittish. Official paperwork for testimonials of my orthodoxy, sacramental participation, and good name soon followed.
This was not Patrick’s world. Kevin Madigan’s Medieval Christianity (2015) provides us with the most recent scholarship of early Irish Christianity. The first thing that must be admitted is the near impossibility of accessing any solid historical sources. This shouldn’t be too surprising given that we really don’t know who had President Kennedy killed, or what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, or how UCLA made the March Madness 64 on Sunday, for that matter.
Madigan, putting together the best sources, confirms that Patrick was probably of aristocratic stock; his father was a Roman official in Britain. Seized by pirates, Patrick served six years as a shepherd in County Mayo until he escaped back to Britain. He appears to have had a conversion experience of some kind, for on his return home he studied a primitive catechism and, apparently, St. Jerome’s new Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible. Madigan believes he trained under British priests and was himself ordained. He is reported to have had visions calling him to return to Ireland, despite the understandable protestations of his parents.
Patrick set off for a land the Romans had never tried to colonize. Most readers are probably familiar with early Ireland’s demographics, a tribal land with no cities. Thus, unlike Europe, Ireland’s bishops would be itinerant, without city-based dioceses, and soon Patrick himself was an itinerant bishop. One of history’s more intriguing questions is exactly who laid hands upon him for Episcopal ordination. According to Madigan, no one did, neither British nor Irish. In what may be an actual letter of Patrick to one Coroticus, Patrick states that he simply declared himself to be bishop, having received his Episcopal ordination and jurisdiction directly from God. Patrick’s earliest biographers attempted to gloss over this little detail by asserting that Patrick was sent to Ireland (with authority) by Pope Celestine. The problem with this explanation is that Celestine had already appointed Palladius, who had Christianized much of the south of Ireland.
Patrick, therefore, worked the northeast, west, and central portions of Ireland. He addressed himself to the leaders of clans; if the chieftains accepted Christianity, the entire tribe would follow. He often paid money or presented gifts to chieftains to gain a hearing. While generally successful, the mass conversions triggered anger among other tribes, and group massacres and martyrdom were not uncommon. Patrick anguished over the particularly harsh plight of the female victims. He himself was imprisoned and expected to be killed. Madigan indicates that Patrick did not enjoy support of other churchmen, such as there were at the time. His sinful youth was held against him as making him unfit for Orders; I suspect that his independence, style, and determination (and success?) may have alienated other clerics as well.
Madigan assesses Patrick’s missionary career as, in the long run, “effective.” By the time of his death Ireland was at the least nominally Christian, and the seeds were sown for the next great wave of Christian formation, the establishment of monasteries, which would give Ireland its reputation as the land of “Saints and Scholars.” You have to wonder if the monks of a later day, who embedded the Irish Church with order of mind and soul, appreciated the irony of completing the work of a man of impulsivity, imagination, and unfettered mysticism. There is something consoling in the fact that among our great saints are a few who routinely “missed the spittoon” so to speak and worried not a wit.