SAN JOSÉ, Calif., March 17, 2017— St. Patrick’s Day celebrations seldom consider the reality of the true man who stands behind the mythology. Most people who celebrate the saint on March 17 observe his holiday for celebration’s sake. However, the man the world knows as Saint Patrick did live an incredible life, throughout which he made a notably significant contribution to the Christian world with with the Irish Catholic church he established.
What is not well known, however, is that individuals within the elite leadership of the Roman Catholic Church in Roman Britain opposed this servant of the Irish people.
Patricius, a young, highborn British Roman, was captured by marauders at the age of 16 and brought across the Irish Sea to serve as a slave to an Irish landowner. He later escaped and returned to his homeland where he eventually became a priest. Ironically, it was not long after that a missionary opportunity arose for him, resulting in his return to Ireland to teach and convert the people there to the Roman Catholic faith. He chose that opportunity, and once again traveled to to the land where he had suffered and endured several years of enslavement.
He represented the Roman Catholic Church as a bishop and would have received this position through the authority of Pope Celestine. However, Patrick was not the first bishop of Ireland. A very influential churchman named Palladius had been elevated from deacon to bishop by Pope Celestine, and was subsequently sent as a bishop to Ireland at the request of the Irish people themselves.
It is said that Palladius found his assignment very difficult. Some stories indicate that the still-powerful Druids threatened to kill him if he stayed in Ireland.
Historians estimate that Palladius attempted to fulfill his appointment to the mission in the Emerald Isle for nearly a year. Determined at that point to return to Rome to consult with Celestine, Palladius suddenly died. Speculation is that Patricius was possibly a priest who had accompanied Palladius in his ministry to the Irish.
Supposedly regarded at this point as the best choice to replace the first bishop in Ireland, Patrick (Patricius) was elevated as bishop and appointed by Celestine to serve as bishop to Ireland in 432, although it is said that but his rapid promotion may have ruffled some feathers of those bishops already working in Britain.
In any case, by several accounts, Patrick arrived in Ireland in 432, and worked tirelessly thereafter to bring the still largely pagan Irish people to God.
Unfortunately, there seemed to be a widening rift between Patrick’ and some of the church leaders in Roman Britain. Some of these clerics felt that he had not been well-enough educated, as he had been enslaved during the time when other teenagers his age would have received their formal education. For that reason, these better-educated church leaders held Patrick’s history against him, as if he were not truly qualified for the position of bishop.
In addition, the local church hierarchy may have had little reason to believe the Irish were even worth converting to Christianity, as they were regarded in Roman Britain as barbaric. However, the future saint persisted against his own fellow clergymen, Irish kings, entrenched Druids, and their stubborn followers and triumphantly established Christianity in Ireland despite the daunting obstacles arrayed against him.
Yet, by Patrick’s later years, as his success in conversions to the faith increased, he increasingly identified with his growing flock. After having baptized a group of extended families from a tribe of Celtic folk, Patrick received the terrible news that these newly baptized Christians had been the target of a deadly attack as they headed to their homes. Most of the men were killed, and many of the women had been taken away.
Worse, this raid had come in the spring, when Irish Christians were busily preparing for the celebration of Easter. Patrick also learned that the attack had been led by a British warlord known as Coroticus. Incensed, he wrote a letter of rebuke in defense of his flock.
Patrick’s own enslavement on the Emerald Isle had been the result of a similar raid against his home town in Britain. Now Patrick found it difficult to witness people from his home country turning the tables and killing and enslaving Irish Christians.
It was simply too much for Patrick to bear, and in what is known as Patrick’s Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, he labeled the raiders and their leader as “citizens of Hell,” although the missive was primarily leveled against the military leader, whom Patrick excommunicated from his Irish Church.
Patrick’s letter to Coroticus—which appears to have been a desperate attempt to obtain the release of those Irish Christians taken as slaves before they could be sold—introduces readers to the fiery side of the saint. The letter was at once a heartfelt appeal for the safe return of the victims and a powerful prayer to God for justice.
Patrick also sent his letter to officials in Roman Britain that would have had some influence over the military leaders and soldiers responsible for carrying out the pre-Easter raid. Copies were also sent to leaders in the British Church, which led to that Church’s angry reaction to Patrick and his letter.
The unofficial Church rule at that time was that one bishop should not interfere in another bishop’s domain even under such tragic and deadly circumstances as those laid out by Patrick. His letter served to offend British officials and members of the clergy hierarchy who believed Patrick should mind his own business and not meddle in the affairs of the British Church.
By this time in the history of the Roman Catholic Church’s evolution, it appears that primacy of authority was becoming a major concern. British church leaders were more concerned about their personal or political turf than than they were over the murder and enslavement of human beings in other jurisdictions, temporal or spiritual. n the process of venting his wrath in writing against those who committed the attack against Ireland’s newly converted Christians, Patrick had circumvented the politically correct procedures of church politics at the time, thus incurring the wrath of British church leaders.
Complicating matters further, during this period in its history, the Catholic Church was also battling various doctrinal heresies, and Church leaders were challenged to establish and enforce adherence to establish Church doctrine generally as it was handed down from Rome. It was becoming clear that the pursuit of religious and temporal politics had also become essential in the development of the Church.
For these reasons, Saint Patrick’s motives in this extended incident were questioned, and he became the object of an attack upon his character and upon his methods for converting the Irish people to Christianity. But this also put Patrick in a position to provide for his own defense.
During these turbulent times, men with weapons who were willing to wield their swords indiscriminately could not always be controlled by men with Bibles. Men of the church learned to use legal systems of authority instead as a means of dealing with warriors and marauders as well as undisciplined or rogue elements within the Church itself.
While Patrick witnessed the ongoing murder and enslavement of fellow Christians and viewed this problem with great religious clairty, however, the Catholic Church in Roman Britain had become complicated. As one result, the British church hierarchy had begun to rely for protection upon such warlords as Coroticus.
In time, the British bishops rebuked the Irish bishop, upset at what they considered his overreach into the internal affairs of the Roman Catholic Church in Britannia. They soon demanded that Patrick return to Britain for trial.
Although now forced to defend himself, instead of returning to Britain as demanded by Church officials there, Patrick wrote a letter in his defense the British bishops inarws. In one of the few examples we have of the saint’s written work, Patrick’s “Confessio,” or “Confession,” serves to explain his personal background and reason for becoming a priest to begin with. But this document also contains his defense of his work in Ireland as a bishop, and a defense as well for his particular way of conducting the affairs of the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland.
Absent such a detailed letter, scholars and individuals today would not know very much about Saint Patrick. His “Confession” is an incredible letter, addressed to the elite of the Catholic Church in Britain, and effectively serving as his alternative to the demand he return, undoubtedly to face what very well could have been a type of “kangaroo court,” designed to remove him from his position.
Patrick may very well have recognized the British hierarchy’s demand as potential trap meant to strip him of his authority and replace him with a more complicit and more easily controlled churchman. Patrick’s independence and his desire for the freedom of the Irish from such clever political maneuvering may very have preserved his unique brand of Roman Catholicism in Ireland.
Saint Patrick found God in Ireland, sowed the seeds of the Christian faith in Ireland, and his efforts could arguably be summed up as a divinely-inspired response to the way the young Patricius first came to God as a slave in Ireland. It was probably that simple for Patrick.
Not a highly trained academic Church theologian, Patrick was instead primarily an evangelist, and a highly effective one. Far from being an aloof and legalistic intellectual, he was a worker who labored among his flock. He had come to view his own unusual conversion and faith journey as a gift from God. As a result, he was moved to help the Irish people—nobles as well as slaves—to receive this very same gift.
Unfortunately, as we can see, at times the cumbersome bureaucracy of the Roman Catholic Church intervened in Patrick’s mission when it chose to needlessly consume the time and the efforts this enlightened spirit dedicated to freely offering God’s gift of love to the Irish faithful without all of the additional baggage.
St. Patrick’s real life story is actually stronger than any of the myths surrounding his life and times. If one digs carefully, pulling apart the cobwebs of history, one can clearly see the emerging portrait of one man—a Roman citizen by birth and a Briton by geography—who was enslaved by the heathen Druid-led people of Ireland; but was then moved by God to return to the place where he had suffered to help these same men and women receive the precious gift he had first embraced in their country.