St. Patrick

St. Patrick (died ca. 460) was a British missionary bishop to Ireland, possibly the first to evangelize that country. He is the patron saint of Ireland.

Although Patrick was the subject of a number of ancient biographies, none of them dates from earlier than the last half of the 7th century. A great deal of legendary information, often contradictory, gathered around his name. Of the various works ascribed to Patrick, the authorship of only two is certain, the Confession, written in his later years, and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, written at some point during his career as bishop. These two works provide the only certain knowledge of Patrick's life.

Patrick was born in a village that he identified as Bannavem Taberniae, probably near the sea in southwestern Britain. Evidence does not allow a more exact date for his birth than sometime between 388 and 408. His father, Calpornius, was both a deacon and a civic official; his grandfather, Pontius, was a priest. Patrick's family seems to have been one of some social standing, but, in spite of the clergy in it, he did not grow up in a particularly religious or intellectual environment.

At the age of 16 Patrick was abducted by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland, where he tended sheep and prayed for 6 years. In his words, "The love of God and His fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened." In this religious fervor a voice came to Patrick, promising him a return to his own country.

Patrick was given passage on a ship by its sailors. The details of his voyage home are unclear; some believe that Patrick returned from Ireland to Britain by way of Gaul. This seems unlikely. Again, little is known of this period in his life. It may be that he resumed his education, although he was never learned. Indeed, he wrote at the beginning of the Confession, "I blush and fear exceedingly to reveal my lack of education; for I am unable to tell my story to those versed in the art of concise writing."

Elected a bishop, Patrick was sent by the Church in Britain to evangelize Ireland. His friends tried to dissuade him from "throwing himself into danger among enemies who have no knowledge of God." But Patrick believed that he had a divine call. One purpose of the Confession is to set forth his confidence in that calling and to witness the divine help that enabled him to fulfill it.

As a missionary bishop in Ireland, Patrick was a typical 5th-century bishop. He recorded that he baptized many thousands of people. He celebrated the Eucharist, instituted nuns and monks, and ordained clergy. No record shows that he consecrated other bishops or indeed that other bishops existed in Ireland.

The Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus gives the details of one event in his career. In reprisal for an Irish raid on the southwestern coast of Britain, Coroticus attacked the Irish coast, indiscriminately slaughtering its inhabitants. The Letter reports that one band of Coroticus's soldiers killed a group of newly baptized persons and took more captive. Patrick excommunicated Coroticus and called upon him to repent his crime and to free his prisoners.

Criticism of Patrick's work came to him from Britain; his seniors, he records, "brought up sins against my laborious episcopate." The basis for such charges is unknown; they did include his betrayal by a friend to whom Patrick had much earlier confessed a sin that he had committed at the age of 13. The Confession appears to be in part Patrick's defense of and justification of his episcopate to his superiors in Britain.

Although Patrick probably made his headquarters at Armagh, as a missionary he traveled around the island a great deal. It is not certain where he died; local traditions give various locations. It is also impossible to date his death more precisely than approximately 460. Patrick himself wrote a suitable epitaph in his Letter: "I, Patrick, a sinner, unlearned, resident in Ireland, declare myself to be a bishop."

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Further Reading on St. Patrick

Two compilations of St. Patrick's writings are St. Patrick: His Writings and Life, translated by Newport J. D. White (1920), and The Works of St. Patrick, translated and annotated by Ludwig Bieler (1953). The best and most recent study of Patrick is Richard P. C. Hanson, Saint Patrick: His Origins and Career (1968), a careful analysis of all the sources, which presents convincing arguments for accepting only the Confession and Letter as factual. John B. Bury, The Life of St. Patrick and His Place in History (1905), is a reconstruction of events based upon the ancient chronicles and legends. Thomas F. O'Rahilly, The Two Patricks (1942), asserts that another bishop sent to Ireland was called Patrick. See also Paul Gallico, The Steadfast Man: A Biography of St. Patrick (1958).