Magonus Sucatus Patricius was born about 385 in an unknown town of Roman Britain. He was the son of a certain Calpornius and of his wife, Concessa. Patrick’s father appears to have been a decurion (a town councilor) and was thus a man of some social standing. He was probably advanced in years when he took holy orders as his father (Patrick’s grandfather) Potitus had done before. Potitus was a presbyter, and Calpornius a deacon. Both had probably joined the clergy for the same reason: to escape the increasing financial burden of municipal office in the late Roman Empire. The atmosphere of Patrick’s home and social surrounding was, as he himself attests in his Confession, anything but devout.
At the age of sixteen, Patrick was captured by Irish raiders from the family estate, which was probably situated in southwestern Britain near the sea, at a place known as Bannavem Taburniae. He was sold as a slave in Ireland. Seventh century Irish tradition holds that Patrick served the druid Miliuc maccu Boin near Slemish in what is now County Antrium.
Up to the time of captivity, Patrick had led the life of an irresponsible upper class youth. He followed worldly ways and turned a deaf ear to the admonitions of the clergy. At school he seems to have cared more for games than grammar. On one occasion he sinned gravely, and this seriously trouble his conscience in later years. Of this time he writes in his Confession, “I did not believe in the living God, nor did I so from my childhood, but lived in death and unbelief until I was severely chastised and really humiliated, by hunger and nakedness, and that daily.”
In the solitude of Slemish, tending the flocks of a “barbarian” master, Patrick found God. His discovery enabled him patiently to endure the hardships of his servitude and to lead a life of prayer and voluntary mortification. At the end of six years he heard a voice in his dreams, announcing God’s forgiveness and bidding him to go to his country and his people. A ship, the voice indicated, was waiting to take him home. He walked two hundred miles before he found the ship which the voice in his dream had promised, a ship that was carrying Irish hounds to the continent.
When and how Patrick managed to return home to Britain is unknown. He seems to have found his parents still at his old home. They urged him to stay with them, but he became more and more convinced that God was calling him to take the Gospel to his former masters. In a dream he heard the voice of the Irish calling him back, and his dream was confirmed in spiritual experiences that he describes in words taken from the Apostle Paul.
For his education and formation, Patrick went to Gaul and became attached to the church at Auxerre, under its famous bishop Germanus. Here Patrick took learning seriously, making up for the misspent school days of his youth. He came to know the Latin Bible well, but to judge from his writings in an inelegant and sometimes rustic Latin, his scholarly achievements were modest. His spiritual life was all the more intense, and in due course he was ordained to the diaconate.
During these years, Patrick never lost sight of his ultimate goal: to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the Irish. His opportunity came in 429 when Palladius, a native of Gaul and the archdeacon of Pope Celestine, recommended sending Germanus into Britain to combat the Pelagian heresy. In carrying out that mission, Germanus also considered the affairs of the small and scattered Christian communities of Ireland, who naturally looked to the Church in Britain for guidance. Under the circumstances, it seemed best to give the Irish their own bishop, and Patrick’s name was raised as a possible candidate. His superiors in Gaul had their doubts. This well-disposed but half-educated Briton was not the sort of man to be raised to such a responsible office. There seems also to have been opposition to his candidacy in Britain. Neither did Patrick consider himself worthy of the episcopate.
Palladius was nominated by a synod held in Britain under Germanus, and was sent to the Irish with papal authority in 431 as the first “bishop of the Irish who believe in Christ”. Patrick was sent from Auxerre to Ireland the following year, along with the presbyter Segitius, but before leaving Gaul, they learned that Palladius had died. On returning to Auxerre, Patrick was consecrated bishop, and he made for Ireland without delay. The Irish Annals date Patrick’s arrival to the year 432.
Our knowledge of Patrick’s missionary work among the Irish is drawn mostly from his own writings and from a circular letter which contains canons drawn up by himself together with the bishops Auxilius and Iserninus. Certain things stand out. Patrick concentrated early on the conversion of the princes, knowing that their subjects would follow their example. With the passage of years, he relied more and more on a native clergy, drawn mainly from the local nobility. In adapting the organization of the Western Church to the conditions of Ireland, where there were no cities, he made the tuatha, or local principalities or kingdoms, his dioceses; and the episcopal sees, called civitates (Latin for “cities”), were organized along quasi-monastic lines. (It is not clear that Patrick himself was a monk.) Monasticism in time became a defining characteristic of the early medieval Irish Church.
Patrick appears to have begun his mission in the north, the region he had known in his youth as a slave, where he early on established his episcopal see at Armagh, apparently because of its proximity to the most powerful king in Ireland. From the base of a small school and familia in residence at Armagh, Patrick made his missionary journeys throughout the island, to the west and the southwest. There seems to have been little or only late contact with the Palladian Christianity of the southeast. (Armagh remains the primatial see of the Irish Church, both for the Anglican Church of Ireland and for the Roman Catholic Church in Ireland, to this day.) That Patrick later exercised authority over the other bishops of the island may be seen from his censure of the bishops of Mag Ái.
Patrick’s missionary task was not easy. He met with strong opposition on the part of the druids and also of the older generation among the ruling class. He writes of twelve dangers to his life and declares that he has to face the possibility of martyrdom. He had severe critics even among his fellow Christians, in Ireland as well as in Britain and on the continent. In his native Britain feeling against him seems to have been particularly strong, and this opposition flared when he demanded the excommunication of the British prince Coroticus (Caradog), who in a reprisal raid against the Irish had killed or captured into slavery a number of Patrick’s new converts.
Patrick’s writings, his autobiographical Confession and The Letter to Coroticus, are the first literature identified with certainty from the British Church. Though he had little learning and less rhetoric, Patrick possessed sincere simplicity of life and a deep sense of pastoral care. He was concerned with abolishing paganism and idolatry, he made no distinctions of class in his preaching, and he was ready for imprisonment or death in the cause of Christ. He maintained into his old age a consciousness of his being an unlearned exile and formerly a slave and fugitive who learned to trust completely in God.
Under the year 441 the Irish Annals records Patrick’s “approval in the Catholic Faith” by the new pope, Leo the First (the Great), but nothing is known regarding the form of this act, and there is no evidence that Patrick journeyed to Rome to have received this papal approbation. According to seventh century tradition, Patrick died at Saul in Ulster on March 17, 461. He left Ireland, the country of his youthful slavery in which he came to know God’s mercy and forgiveness in Jesus Christ, a country that thirty years prior had been largely pagan, virtually a Christian land.
prepared from The Works of St. Patrick
(Ancient Christian Writers series, Paulist Press)
and The Oxford Dictionary of Saints
Almighty God, in your providence you chose your servant Patrick to be the apostle of the Irish people, to bring those who were wandering in darkness and error to the true light and knowledge of you: Grant us so to walk in that light that we may come at last to the light of everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
The icon of Saint Patrick was written by and is © Aidan Hart, and is reproduced here with his generous permission.
Burke’s Corner has posted a thoughtful reflection on “Patrick, church, and the end of Empire” at Catholicity and Covenant.