In the fifth century, at the age of sixteen, St. Patrick was abducted from his homeland in Great Britain only to be transported as a slave to Ireland. For six years he tirelessly worked on his master’s estate. As a slave, he naturally longed for his homeland. But Fr. Alban Butler, author of The Lives of the Saints, said, “His afflictions were to him a source of heavenly benedictions, because he carried his cross with Christ, that is, with patience, resignation, and holy joy.” In solitude, he lifted his mind up to God during the day. At night, he would interrupt his sleep to do vigils.
In the book, Confession of St. Patrick and Letter to Coroticus, John Skinner gives one of the reasons behind the Apostle of Ireland’s perseverance in his mission. It is as if he hints at an interior cathedral of beauty that the Holy Spirit builds up within the soul: “Pascal said that in difficult times you should always keep something beautiful in your heart. Patrick is able to survive these harsh and lonely territories of exile precisely because he keeps the beauty of God alive in his heart. The inner beauty of the divine intimacy transfigures outer bleakness. This inner intimacy brings his soul alive. It opens the world of divine imagination to this youth.”
St. Patrick would later allude to this interior strength and beauty in his Confessions: “I was purged by the Lord; and He made me fit so that I might be now what was once far from me that I should care and labor for the salvation of others, whereas then I did not even care about myself.” Indeed, later in life he would say that these years in servitude were the most important.
Like St. John Vianney, St. Patrick was not noted for his intellectual acumen. But what his intellect lacked, his zeal for the glory of God made up for.
Butler made an important point when wrote that priestly formation and religious education in general tends to overemphasize academic development while giving insufficient attention to spiritual devotion. “Many almost kill themselves,” he said, “with studying to compose elegant sermons…and reap very little fruit. Their hearers applaud their parts, but very few are converted. Most preachers, now-a-days, have learning, but are not sufficiently grounded in true sanctity, and a spirit of devotion.” But St. Patrick, like all saintly men called to the Sacrament of Holy Orders, saw that holiness is the greatest source of heavenly knowledge.
One night, during his enslavement in Ireland, St. Patrick had a dream through which the Lord told him to make a break for it. A boat would be waiting for him. He then managed to escape from the bonds of slavery, walked many miles and finally came upon a boat ready to set sail. However, to his dismay, the sailor refused his request. St. Patrick then turned around and proceeded to pray. He was tempted to despair but during his prayer the men had a change of heart. So the sailors took him along. The Saint said that after a long sail and many more miles of walking, all three of them were nearly half dead with hunger and fatigue. His companions asked him to pray for food and he did just that. A few moments later, they spotted swine and had a hearty meal.
St. Patrick eventually made his way back home and, as you can imagine, everyone was thrilled to see him. However, when he expressed his intention to become a Catholic priest, he was met with opposition. We might ask, “What was his attitude? Was he downcast and discouraged?”
Answer: No. He was not.
Rather, he insisted that he must do the work of God and proclaim his goodness. He said, “Hence I cannot be silent—nor, indeed, is it expedient—about the great benefits and the great grace which the lord has deigned to bestow upon me in the land of my captivity; for this we can give to God in return after having been chastened by Him, to exalt and praise His wonders before every nation that is anywhere under the heaven.”
Eventually he was ordained a priest and then consecrated as a bishop. Soon thereafter, he made a journey to Rome in order to receive an Apostolic blessing from Pope St. Celestine. With renewed courage to take the Gospel to an unbaptized world, the Lord inspired him with yet another dream. In this dream he heard the Irish calling for him to return to their island. In it, they said to him, “We ask you, boy, come and walk among us once more.”
Convinced that this was a call from God, he returned to Ireland. However, this was not the conventional practice for bishops. As such, he said that “many tried to prevent my mission; they would even talk to each other behind my back and say: 'Why does this fellow throw himself into danger among enemies who have no knowledge of God?'”
Thanks be to God, St. Patrick was not intimidated by naysayers. Risk and danger did not deter him. He knew well that Ireland was a land populated with pagan Druids. He was also aware that they offered human sacrifices and practiced sorcery as a part of their cult. After having arrived in this foreign land, a place where human degradation and slavery abounded, he said the following:
“Daily I expect murder, fraud, or captivity, or whatever it may be; but I fear none of these things because of the promises of heaven. I have cast myself into the hands of God Almighty, who rules everywhere, as the prophet says: Cast your thought upon God, and He shall sustain you.”
According to Butler, “In the first year of his mission he attempted to preach Christ in the general assembly of the kings and states of all Ireland…He afterwards converted and baptized the Kings of Dublin and Munster, and the seven sons of the King of Connaught.” "In forty years,” Butler went to say, “he restored sight to many blind, health to the sick, and raised nine dead persons to life.” Equally important was that he founded a monastery at Armagh for consecrated virgins for the religious life. That monastery produced many Saints.
From the preaching of St. Patrick- Bishop and Apostle of Ireland -souls were saved and people were civilized. He was, no doubt, a bishop par-excellence.
May his heroic mission and undaunting zeal inspire every Catholic- clergy and lay person –to weather storms and endure opposition in order to bear witness to the Gospel; this, for sole reason that Christ may be loved. As Bishop Fulton Sheen said, Christ is not known to cowards but rather to those who are willing to venture for his sake! This is precisely what St. Patrick did. He was a bishop who ventured for Christ's sake. And Ireland is forever indebted to him for it!
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.