SAN JOSE, Calif., March 17, 2016— St. Patrick’s Day celebrations are primarily centered upon dressing in green and being Irish for a day of enjoyment focused on fun and zaniness. It is basically celebrating for celebration’s sake, as there is not much of substance regarding the actual St. Patrick. Chances are most merrymakers would not know who St. Patrick was if they were asked, although some random Catholics may.
The real St. Patrick was not born in Ireland. Many historians speculate he was born along the western coast of Britannia somewhere between the border of present-day Scotland and Hadrian’s Wall, which was built by the Romans to keep ancient Picts away from the “civilized” domain. As far as some historians can ascertain, Patrick was born near an area known today as Dunbarton, Scotland. However, St. Patrick cannot be considered Scottish since Scotland did not exist in those days.
This special child was actually born into the Roman Empire to parents who, as officials of Britannia, held status and wealth.
The child was born on the outermost frontier of the Roman Empire to Roman citizens, Calpurnius and Conchessa, and this made baby Patrick a citizen of Rome. This Roman noble couple gave their child the appropriate Roman name of “Patricius,” which means “noble of the patrician class,” referring to the class that had ruled Rome since the early Republic. Calpurnius was a decurion, or a cavalry officer in command of Roman soldiers, who were originally deployed to the northern area of Britannia to keep order on the outskirts of an Empire in decay. The decurion’s troops would have had to deal with the Picts of Caledonia and the Celts in Ireland, who were never conquered by the Romans.
Calpurnius also held the position of a tax collector for the Roman government, but amazingly, he also served as a deacon in the Catholic Church. St. Patrick related in his writings that his grandfather, Potitus, was a Catholic priest and must have maintained some persuasion over his family in religious matters. At this period in the development of the Roman Catholic Church, priests were not expected to remain celibate and could raise a family; so young Patrick was raised a Christian. However, his later testimony reveals that he cared little for his family’s religion while still a youth.
When he was about 16, Patrick’s life changed forever.
One ominous day, while his parents were in the nearby village, Patrick was home at the family’s country villa near the western coast when Irish pirates stormed the villa, and captured the young man and a number of other potential slaves. The captives were put in irons, and marched to boats that took them across the Irish Sea to Ireland.
Young Patrick was bound to a Druid chieftain, Milchu, who enslaved him and forced him to tend his flocks of sheep on land in the northeast of Ireland. Although historians differ on this point, the area where Patrick may have served as a slave for six years is believed to be near Slemish Mountain, which is known today as County Antrim, near Belfast.
During this period, as Patrick tended the flocks in this area, he spent much time in prayer. As Patrick began to grow up, he continued to pray, and he testified that he began to develop a relationship with God that would fundamentally transform his life. Eventually he explained that he heard God’s voice telling him that he would soon be going home and leaving Ireland.
Initially, Patrick resisted the voice, but when he heard it again, he moved past his disbelief and resistance. Patrick would write, the voice was clear: “Behold, your ship is ready.” This voice instructed Patrick how to also find the ship, but he would have to walk 200 miles to get to it.
Looking back upon this time, St. Patrick later declared in his “Confessio,” his pride in the fact that he prayed every day, several times a day:
… and the faith grew in me, and the spirit was roused, so that, in a single day, I have said as many as a hundred prayers, and in the night nearly the same, so that whilst in the woods and on the mountain, even before the dawn, I was roused to prayer and felt no hurt from it, whether there was snow or ice or rain; nor was there any slothfulness in me, such as I see now, because the spirit was then fervent within me.
Eventually he made plans to escape. The hardest part was not the journey, for he was a healthy young man who had endured all kinds of weather while tending the flocks. The fear was that when caught, fugitive slaves were taken to the local magistrate, or local king, punished and returned to masters who punished them again.
Patrick realized that he could not ask for help for fear he would be exposed. He also later explained that he felt he had received permission to walk away from slavery, but he had not received any permission to break the Ten Commandments and lie or steal food from others. Having fasted quite often while in captivity, the young slave was used to going without food, so Patrick took what food he would require for a normal daily allotment (to not arouse suspicion), stuffed it in his pockets and made off in the middle of the night.
The 200-mile trek from the north of Ireland to the south was not much of a problem for the young man, and amazingly, Patrick found the ship as the voice had directed him.
The most difficult portion of his journey was when Patrick had to reveal himself to the ship’s crew and to the captain. They could have easily betrayed the hungry young man with a foreign accent to a local authority, or take him aboard with the intent to sell him as a slave for personal profit. He would be at their mercy.
From a distance in a hiding place, Patrick observed the crew load the ship, and he recognized the captain as the one giving orders. Patrick waited patiently until he felt that the ship was almost ready to leave, eliminating the possibility of time necessary to report him to authorities. Then, he went right up to the captain and asked to join the crew. The ship’s captain denied him permission to board his ship. At this point, one can imagine Patrick’s real devastation; he had trusted God’s guidance, only to fail after such a long journey.
If the story ended there, people would not be celebrating St. Patrick’s Day today. But, as Patrick trudged away from the sailors, he continued praying, and as he did, one of the crew called out and asked him to return. Amazingly, he faced the captain again, and was offered a position with the crew. Patrick sailed away from the “Emerald Isle,” which had been his prison for six years, and eventually made it to his home in Britannia.
The six years as a shepherd had changed him forever, as he had formed a relationship with God.
St. Patrick’s testimony later in his life reveals how much he transformed:
God used the time to shape and mold me into something better. He made me into what I am now – someone very different from what I once was, someone who can care about others and work to help them. Before I was a slave, I didn’t even care about myself.
On the ship sailing back home, he did have other adventures, as he had many later in his life; but leaving Ireland, he had a vision of the children calling out to him to come back to teach them. It was on the ship that he confronted the reality of offering his life as a slave to God’s will.
When he eventually made it back to his family, he informed his shocked yet grateful parents that he intended to study Christianity. Patrick eventually recounts that after a few years of being at home, he received a vision:
I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “TheVoice of the Irish.” As I began the letter… and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”
He went on to study for the priesthood and eventually became a priest, and his yearning to go back to Ireland was eventually rewarded. The first bishop sent to work in Ireland, Palladius, failed in dealing with the Druids, who threatened to kill him. Pope Celestine commissioned Patrick as a bishop and sent him back to the land where he had been enslaved.
Patrick went back to Ireland as a bishop of the Church and proved to be the best choice to replace Palladius since he had learned the Celtic language while a slave; more important, he had learned the teachings and “magic” of the Druids. He had no fear of their religious beliefs or of their intolerance of other religions or of the violent and barbaric methods of intimidation. Perhaps most important was the fact that in his youth, he had fallen in love with God upon the Emerald Isle and had fallen in love with the people.
Many often mistake March 17 as St. Patrick’s birthday. Actually, it is not clear exactly when he was born. Much speculation leads to the year of A.D. 387, during the reign of Roman Emperor Theodosius I (r. 379 to 395), who converted the entire empire to Christianity in 380. However, although no one knows the true date when Patrick was born, March 17 is the date when he died in old age. It would be a shame to let his memory die in our time.
Happy St. Patrick’s Day!