Monday, March 17, 2008


No matter one’s faith persuasion or choosing not to have one at all, I suspect that we all live by stories. Even though I am neither Irish nor Roman Catholic, I think this is a story worth remembering. Today is St. Patrick’s Day. I would like to think that all those lining the parade routes in South Boston, New York City, Dublin and hundreds of other cities are doing so because they admire the way St. Patrick lived and want to imitate him, but I'm not sure that will be the case. I sometimes wish that it was St. Patrick that I see on Wheaties cereal boxes or in the Nike ads, but perhaps its OK that he never has been and never will be. It may be that my children will only know about St. Patrick if I tell them.

Patricius was born around 389 on the western edge of the Roman Empire in a place in Britannia we now call Scotland. Patricius spent his early years in comfort in a family of Roman citizens. His parents were nominally Christian, like many of the hundreds of thousands who had become Christian because it was the fashionable thing to do. Their casual indifference to genuine faith would not sustain the boy when he was sixteen years old and kidnapped, taken to Ireland and sold as a slave. Across the sea to the west Ireland was just beyond the westernmost boundary of the Roman Empire. Patricius was sold to a tribal chief who sent him to the mountains to care for his sheep, a place where he was so alone that his only constant companions were nakedness and hunger. Without any other faith resources, the youth began to pray the only prayer he knew, "Our Father, who art in heaven…" Over and over he prayed it, day after day, night after night, until the time came that God became close and real to him.

After six years as a slave, Patricius was led in a vision to escape. He walked over 200 miles to find a boat that took him back to the safety of his family. Although his family wanted nothing more than for him to stay at home and pursue a career there, Patricius had another vision that called him back to Ireland, the place where he had been a slave. After he was trained as a priest and became a bishop, he returned to Ireland to serve for the next thirty years, where he became St. Patrick, apostle to the Irish nation. As the Roman Empire was crumbling, Ireland was moving from chaos to peace. And it was because of Patrick.

There are many legends about Patrick that may or may not be true. He didn't really run the snakes out of Ireland. He may or may not have used a three-leaf clover as a symbol for the Trinity. But what he did is far more remarkable than any of the legends about him. I want to mention three of them.

First, Patrick led the people of Ireland, the whole nation, to Christianity. Most of the other nations in Europe and the Middle East had become "Christian" because it was the "Roman" thing to do. Ireland is the first nation to become Christian because they chose it, not because of any social status it offered.

In fact, the Christianity established in Ireland by Patrick was distinctly un-Roman. Not connected with the papal system or the Roman hierarchy, Celtic Christianity developed around individual leaders and monasteries, and the Irish monks were leaders in spreading and preserving the Christian faith. In the monasteries a woman could have authority over men and women alike – an irregularity which would have offended Roman sensibilities. And it may very well be that one of Patrick’s converts, Brigid of Kildare, was the first woman ever to be consecrated a bishop.

Second, under Patrick’s leadership the previously illiterate people of Ireland became literate. The Irish were learning to read and write as the people of the Roman Empire were sinking rapidly into illiteracy. As the libraries and precious manuscripts were being destroyed throughout the old empire, the Irish became the scribes who copied and preserved the books. Where once they had prided themselves by carrying the heads of their enemies tied to their waists, now they carried books. That so many early Christian documents and scriptures, as well as the classics of Greek and Roman culture, survived the “Dark Ages” is largely due to Irish Christians, hence Thomas Cahill’s conclusion stated in the title of his book,
How the Irish Saved Civilization.

Third, led back to serve in the country of his enslavement, Patrick became the first person in recorded world history to speak out unequivocally against the institution of slavery. Within his lifetime or shortly thereafter in the fifth century, the slave trade ended in Ireland. No voice would be heard like his on this issue again until the seventeenth century -- thirteen hundred years later! It would not end in England until the 18th century, and in America it would not end until the 19th century.

Don’t you think this a story worth remembering? Happy St. Paddy’s Day!

- Milo

[1] Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe (New York: Anchor Books, 1995) p. 173.

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