St. Patrick’s Day: The life and times, from slave to saint, of Patricius
SAN JOSE: When St. Patrick’s Day celebrations roll around each year, those hearty souls who enjoy the “wearing of the green,” or becoming Irish for the day, often are too caught up in zany activities to consider much about the Christian saint they are celebrating. Unfortunately, a majority could care less about St. Patrick and this day is not about honoring a man of God. It is more a day of celebration for celebration’s sake than anything genuinely related to the man whose name they celebrate.
Happy celebrants are usually content with mere fragments of mythology regarding their patron saint of celebrations.
The truth about St. Patrick is far more impressive than what shamrocks or green-beer represent. Many wanna-be-Irish celebrants would be surprised to learn that St. Patrick was not Irish.
He was most likely born in what is present-day Scotland. However, that would not make him a Scot. Yet it may be even harder to grasp that as a boy St. Patrick was taken as a slave to Ireland. Moreover, despite his escape from enslavement, he willingly returned to the Emerald Isle. Returning to the people who enslaved him to share with them the consciousness of a Christian.
Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day, few acknowledge the man within the saint. Nevertheless, St. Patrick’s true-life story is quite amazing. However, reviewing his conversion from a slave to a follower of Christ, we learn that he was not extraordinary before he became a slave. He was even less special as a slave.
Additionally, Patricius was not forced into his search for God. No one forced him to form a relationship with God – no priest, no church, no religion. Patricius, Patrick, found God through prayer. It was his earnest prayers while a lowly slave that led him to develop a genuine love relationship with God.
For those who struggle with the reality of God, the story of St. Patrick is inspirational.
St. Patrick – Born and raised a privileged Roman citizen
St. Patrick’s story begins with his birth as a Roman citizen of privilege. His parents, Calpurnius and Conchessa, were both members of the Roman nobility. Their baby, Patricius, which means “noble, of the patrician class,” was born on the outermost frontier of the Roman Empire. Speculation is that St. Patrick was born on the western coast of present-day Scotland near Hadrian’s Wall.
The patrician class refers to the Roman upper class who were Rome’s rulers since the days of the early Republic. As Romans ruling over foreign lands, they were wealthy.
Calpurnius held numerous position of importance. He was a tax collector for Rome, a landowner with slaves, and may have been a cavalry officer. They would have owned slaves on their estate. `
Patricius kidnapped to become a slave
Patricius, as a youth of 15 or 16, was kidnapped by Irish slave traders. Bands of marauders would raid the western coast of Roman-controlled Britannia regularly and captured slaves and free Romans. Slavery was the norm in the days of St. Patrick. Celtic raiders stormed the family’s coastal villa while his parents were in the nearby village. The raiders captured Patricius, along with others from his family’s estate.
There is irony in that the son of a Roman slave owner was brutally kidnapped and enslaved. But it was the way of that world.
It is likely that upon Patricius’ abductIon, his parents gave him up for dead. In the ancient days, Irish slave raiders could not take too many slaves in their longboats. This lead to the killing of the elderly that would slow them down. Or youths who might plot resistance.
Patricius’ parents had no way of truly knowing the fate of their son. But his abduction was not the end of his story.
Patricius’ life as a slave
The captives were taken across the Irish Sea, likely to the area along the northeastern coast of Ireland. Patricius became a slave to a Druid and the world of Patricius was upended. For six years, he was the property of the Irish Druid Chieftain, Milchu. In this day, slaves in Ireland would tend to the animals, including shepherding the livestock in the fields. Milchu forced Patricius to tend the chieftain’s flocks of sheep.
As St. Patrick explains, he accepted his enslavement as he believed he had committed a grave sin. So, for most of his slavery, Patricius nurtured no desire to escape. However, he did start praying while tending the sheep. Patricius spent much time in prayer, repairing and redeveloping his relationship with God. He declared in his “Confession” 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…”
As Patricius grew, he continued to pray. He later testified that he began to develop a genuine relationship with God. Tending the sheep is a lonely task, giving the youth plenty of time to pray. Eventually, St. Patrick confessed, he heard God’s voice telling him that he no longer needed to remain in captivity.
God said to Patrick that he would soon be leaving Ireland for home. When he first heard the voice, Patricius dismissed it, as it was difficult to believe God had spoken to him. However, when Patricius heard the voice again, he moved beyond his denial, later writing that the voice was quite clear: “Behold, your ship is ready.”
The voice also instructed him that he would have to walk across Ireland to find the ship.
After six years as a captive, Patricius made his escape
Once captured, escaped slaves were taken to the local king and brutally disciplined. Once returned to their masters, they were often punished again. It took God’s instructions for Patrick to overcome the fear of being punished if caught as a run-away.
Once he was able to escape his captor, Patricius was unable speak. His fears were that if his Briton accent was herad, he would be recaptured as a slave. He conquered his fears, as he later explained because he received permission from God to walk away from slavery.
After the 200-mile trek, he found the crew of the ship God had declared would take him.
Young Patrick was able to sail away from his emerald prison, eventually making it back to his home.
The transformation of Patricius
Young Patrick’s relationship with God ultimately transformed his life, not just from a boy to a man, but from a boy to a man of God.
St. Patrick’s testimony later in his life reveals how much during this time 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.
Patrick’s relationship with God empowered him to challenge death to escape to freedom willingly. This relationship led him to follow in the footsteps of his grandfather, as he made a new start. Six years as a slave had changed him forever. His relationship of love with God led him to go back to the land of his slavery, to offer the rest of his life in helping the Irish find God in their lives.
Perspective on the universal and historical reality of slavery
Present day Americans may find difficulty in grasping the existence of slavery beyond the United States. Slavery has existed all across the world and probably has existed since human beings learned to dominate one another with brute force.
Slavery existed in the Roman Empire in the time of St. Patrick. Slavery was common in Ireland, as Patrucius testifies to us.
In St. Patricks’ time, the Roman Empire would enslave the people of the lands they conquered. Slavery was much more prevalent than freedom. Moreover, freedom was relative, if not rare.
North American Native Americans would enslave conquered tribes. Tribal enslavement was common in Africa before the founding of the US.
Upon landing in the Caribbean, Columbus found that the Carib Indians enslaved the Taino people.
The fact that Irish slave traders raided the western coast regularly, reenslaving runaways is a fairly dismal reality. The fact that Irish slave traders stole a Roman military officer’s son may have never been known if his son had not survived, finding life purpose through God.
Looking back upon his six-years of slavery, St. Patrick would explain that he accepted his enslavement because he believed he had committed a grave sin. Patrick’s writings also reveal that his grandfather, Potitus, was a Catholic priest. So, grandpa must have maintained some persuasion over the family in matters of faith.
Too much truth? St. Patrick’s real-life story is amazing.
However, this part was just the beginning. A more in-depth consideration of Patrick’s experience could serve as a new beginning for anyone struggling to develop a relationship with God.
It seems that young Patricius took Jesus seriously. His prayers gave him the strength to not only survive enslavement but to continue to tend to his flocks of Christians.
It was Jesus who said that the greatest of all the Commandments were those which directed people to love God with all our heart and soul and being, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. It seems that young Patricius took Jesus seriously, and look where it led.
What an incredible world it could be if everyone would follow such a simple example.
Happy True Saint Patrick’s Day!