St. Patrick’s Day is a festive, mainly secular event in the US, where millions celebrate the patron saint of Ireland by going out on the town and quaffing pints of beer. It’s a nice ethnic tradition, in which cities with large Irish populations put on parades with marching bands and the like. Americans of all backgrounds participate, but most of them (including Irish Americans), know little about the man the day commemorates.
St. Patrick was a Briton, born in the late 4th century, during the last years of the Roman Empire. Rome abandoned Britain in his lifetime, and he lived in the uncertain time between Roman authority and Saxon invasion. When he was 16, Patrick was seized from Wales by Irish pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland, where he worked as a herdsman. After six years in bondage, he escaped and sailed home to Britain, where he had a vision calling him to return to Ireland as a missionary.
In his mission, Patrick converted thousands, from humble slaves to the sons and wives of kings. Amazingly, he stood alone, unprotected by any strongman, relying only on his faith to guard him in the brutal, warlike land of pagan Ireland. Unlike in some later missionary efforts, Patrick came not with the sword, but only a bent staff and a passion for justice that spoke to the nobler instincts of the heathen Irish.
However, he had a temper, which he revealed when he wrote a scathing letter to King Ceretic Guletic (Coroticus), a British warrior who murdered and enslaved a number of Patrick’s converts, then sold them off to Pictish pagans. The letter shows us what must have motivated Patrick in the first place: a deeply humanitarian regard for the less fortunate, and a hatred for slavery and exploitation.
Below are a few passages:
I am Patrick, yes a sinner and indeed untaught; yet I am established here in Ireland where I profess myself bishop. I am certain in my heart that “all that I am,” I have received from God. So I live among barbarous tribes, a stranger and exile for the love of God. He himself testifies that this is so. I never would have wanted these harsh words to spill from my mouth; I am not in the habit of speaking so sharply. Yet now I am driven by the zeal of God, Christ’s truth has aroused me. I speak out too for love of my neighbors who are my only sons; for them I gave up my home country, my parents and even pushing my own life to the brink of death. If I have any worth, it is to live my life for God so as to teach these peoples; even though some of them still look down on me. I Cor. 15:10 Phil. 2:30
I myself have composed and written these words with my own hand, so that they can be given and handed over, then sent swiftly to the soldiers of Coroticus. I am not addressing my own people, nor my fellow citizens of the holy Romans, but those who are now become citizens of demons by reason of their evil works. They have chosen, by their hostile deeds, to live in death; comrades of the Scotti and Picts and of all who behave like apostates, bloody men who have steeped themselves in the blood of innocent Christians. The very same people I have begotten for God; their number beyond count, I myself confirmed them in Christ.
The very next day after my new converts, dressed all in white, were anointed with chrism, even as it was still gleaming upon their foreheads, they were cruelly cut down and killed by the swords of these same devilish men. At once I sent a good priest with a letter. I could trust him, for I had taught him from his boyhood. He went, accompanied by other priests, to see if we might claw something back from all the looting, most important, the baptized captives whom they had seized. Yet all they did was to laugh in our faces at the mere mention of their prisoners.
Because of all this, I am at a loss to know whether to weep more for those they killed or those that are captured: or indeed for these men themselves whom the devil has taken fast for his slaves. In truth, they will bind themselves alongside him in the pains of the everlasting pit: for “he who sins is a slave already” and is to be called “son of the devil.” Jn. 8:34, 44 (O.L.)
“The Almighty turns away from the gifts of wicked men.” “He who offers sacrifice from the goods of the poor, is like a man who sacrifices a son in the sight of his own father.” “Those riches,” it is written, “which he has gathered in unjustly will be vomited out of his belly.” “And now the angel of death comes to drag him away. He will be mauled by angry dragons, killed by the serpent’s tongue. Moreover, everlasting fire is consuming him.” So, “Woe to those who feast themselves on things that are not their own.” Or, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and suffers the loss of his own soul?” Ecclus. 34:19-20 Job 20.15-16, 26 Hab. 2:6 Matt. 16.-26
They are jealous of me. What am I to do, Lord? How bitterly they despise me! just see how your sheep are torn apart and despoiled, and by those gangsters I have named, bound to the last man by the inimical mind of Coroticus. Far away from the love of God is the man who betrays my Christians into the hands of the Scotti and Picts. “Ravenous wolves” have gulped down the Lord’s own flock, which was flourishing in Ireland and tended with utmost care. Now I have lost count how many sons and daughters of the kings of the Scotti have become monks and virgins of Christ. For which reason, “may these injuries done to the just not find favor in your sight,” even “to the lowest depths of hell may you not be pleased.”
Roman Christians in Gaul behave quite differently: it is their custom to send holy, capable men to the Franks and other nations with several thousand soldiers so as to redeem Christian prisioners, yet YOU would rather kill or sell them on to a far-off tribe who know nothing of the true God. You might as well consign Christ’s own members to a whorehouse. What kind of hope can you have left in God? Can you still trust someone who says he agrees with you? Do you listen still to all those flatterers who surround you? God alone will judge. For it is written, “Not only those who do evil, but also all those who agree with them, are to be
For myself, I do not know “what I shall say,” or how “I may speak anymore” of those who are dead of these children of God-whom the sword has struck down so harshly, beyond all belief. For it Is written, “Weep with those that weep, and again “If one member grieves, then all members should grieve together.” Because of this, the whole Church “cries out and for its sons and daughters” who so far have not been killed by the sword. For they have been taken far away and abandoned in a land where sin abounds, openly, wickedly, impudently; there freeborn men are sold, Christians are reduced to slavery, and worst of all among the most worthless and vilest apostates, the Picts. Jn. 12:49 Rom. 12:15 1 Cor. 12:26 Matt. 2:18,- Jer. 31:15
Simply writing this letter to the king could have cost Patrick his life, but such was his passion for justice and freedom that he was willing to take a dangerous stand against a gang of violent thugs.
What would Patrick think, today, of innocent fathers being torn from their children and consigned to a life of penury to serve whores and adulterers? What would he think of the courts, and the feminists who laugh at the misfortune of men trampled under the boot heels of injustice?
As we celebrate St. Patrick’s day, we should remember that were Patrick to return in our time, he would be deeply disappointed – perhaps even enraged – by the exploitation of families that has become so commonplace in our society.