PATRICK (c. 390–c. 460), called the "apostle of the Irish," was a Christian Briton sent by his church as a missionary bishop to Ireland. During thirty years of evangelistic and pastoral work, Patrick laid foundations for the Roman church in Ireland and for the wide influence it later came to have in Europe.
Apart from numerous traditions and legends about Patrick, historians are dependent on two documents, his Confession and Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. Scholars agree that these are authentic but have differed as to their implications. Patrick was evidently born and raised in Roman Britain. His father, Calpornius, a Roman citizen, a well-to-do landholder, and a member of a district council, was responsible for collecting taxes in his area. From childhood Patrick spoke two languages, British (a Celtic language) and a commercial, unscholarly form of Latin. Behind him were at least two generations of Christians: His paternal grandfather was a presbyter, or priest, and his father was a deacon. Yet, during his childhood, Patrick's own faith seems to have been only nominal.
During the fourth century the invading Anglo-Saxons had pushed the Britons into the western part of England and into Wales. For generations the Irish tribes had raided the west coast of Britain for slaves. With Roman protection growing weaker toward the end of the fourth century, these raids became more frequent. About 406, when Patrick was sixteen years old, the raiders descended on the estate of Patrick's father. Along with hundreds of others, Patrick was carried off to the west coast of Ireland to work as a herdsman. For one accustomed to the culture of Roman civilization and the privileges of rural aristocracy, the hardship of enslavement by an uncouth people was a traumatic experience. Yet it kindled Patrick's faith such that it grew into a warm piety with a vivid awareness of the presence and friendship of God. He wrote, "In a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many at night." After six years of captivity, when he was about twenty-two, Patrick fled his captors and made his way back to his family in Britain. The next years were probably spent in one of the monasteries of Britain. Some scholars have held that these years, or part of them, were spent in France, but from his ideas and practices and the quality of his Latin, recent scholarship has concluded that Patrick was a thoroughgoing representative of British Christianity. If he spent any time in Gaul, it was probably brief.
Sometime in the 420s Patrick dreamed that his former Irish captors were calling him back: "We ask thee, boy, come and walk among us once more" (Confession 23). During his slave days he had learned the Irish language (a Celtic language akin to British) and now felt drawn by God to return. His monastic years had provided him neither higher education nor fluency in Latin, but there was much evidence of his Christian dedication and ability as a leader. The British church had already sent at least one mission to a neighboring territory (led by Ninian). So they concurred with Patrick's call, appointed him bishop, and around 431 sent him and some assistants to Ireland. He was then about forty years old. He traveled to the northeast of Ireland, was welcomed by the regional king, and probably made his headquarters at Armagh, near the king's estate.
Other Christians had preceded Patrick to Ireland. The slave raids, the Irish settlers returned from Britain, and commerce with Christian tribes had brought Christian influence to the country. But the Christian presence was scattered. A year or so before Patrick's trip, Rome had sent a bishop, Palladius, to southern Ireland. His work may have overlapped that of Patrick; in any event, it was cut short by his early death. Patrick was thus the pioneer missionary in the area.
Amid the traditional religion of the druids and among the unlettered Irish, Patrick's work was typical of a fifth-century missionary bishop. He made friends, preached, baptized, confirmed, celebrated the Eucharist, encouraged the formation of monasteries, and prepared and ordained clergy. This meant that he developed a written language and taught his ordinands to read and write. He excommunicated where he felt it necessary and assumed that a bishop's authority was paramount in the church (later influence on the Celtic church shifted authority to the monasteries and the abbots). Patrick distributed relief goods supplied by the British church. He was not an academic theologian but an activist bishop.
Inevitably opposition arose from the druids and at times from within the Irish and British churches. In later years Patrick wrote his Confession to explain his activities. Some of his personality and message are reflected in his two writings. One finds a disarming honesty and modesty, a deep pastoral concern, frequent quotations from the Bible, a sense of unworthiness, and gratitude toward a merciful and sovereign God, who cares for people and wants their responding faith and a behavior that is just and merciful. His theology was orthodox trinitarian and evangelical. He saw himself as an evangelist, a "fisher of men." He was a vigorous defender of his flock. He once wrote to "the Soldiers of Coroticus," a group of his own British people, Christians and Roman citizens, to rebuke them for raiding an Irish settlement and carrying away newly baptized youths. His ministry in Ireland seems to have lasted about thirty years, until his death, around 460. Details of Patrick's travels and work in Ireland are not available, but legends about him attest to the love and respect he must have received. Later the Irish church that he helped found contributed substantially to the evangelization of Scotland, northern England, and western Europe.
The best of the older biographies is John B. Bury's The Life of Saint Patrick and His Place in History (New York, 1905). A useful translation of Patrick's writings is in Ludwig Bieler's The Works of Saint Patrick by Saint Secundinus (Westminster, Md., 1953). The scholarly debates, with a convincing contribution on the dates, places, and movements in the life of Patrick, are in Richard P. C. Hanson's Saint Patrick: His Origins and Career (Oxford, 1968). An attractive collection of maps, photographs, and drawings with a very readable text is Tom Corfe's Saint Patrick and Irish Christianity (Cambridge, 1973).
H. McKennie Goodpasture (1987)
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