She speculated that St. Patrick must have felt “the tragedy of seeing these people newly saved from damnation by baptism, and (then) taken away into slavery.”
Modern slavery is an enduring problem. In Nigeria, where St. Patrick is a patron saint, the militant Islamist group Boko Haram became infamous for the April 2014 abductions of several hundred girls from a school in the country’s northeast.
In December 2014 major religious leaders including Pope Francis signed a joint declaration at the Vatican urging the eradication of modern slavery. A 2014 report from the organization Walk Free estimated that almost 36 million people worldwide suffer some form of slavery, with 61,000 people held in slave conditions in the United States.
As for St. Patrick, his letter seeking the release of slaves was not widely circulated. It was preserved in a few places, including the Book of Armagh. Paxton said the letter played little role in Christian debates over slavery, which was taken for granted for centuries.
Slavery’s decline in Europe doesn’t owe much to Church efforts, she said. “It was more economic forces that led to its decline, I’m sad to say,” Paxton remarked, adding that Coroticus himself was probably a Christian.
St. Patrick became known for his life of sacrifice, prayer and fasting. Although he was not the first Christian missionary to Ireland, he is widely regarded as the most successful.
Paxton noted that St. Patrick’s letter and his other known work, the Confession of St. Patrick, are “steeped in the scriptures.”
“He basically writes in scriptural quotations. That’s the way Patrick thinks,” she said.
St. Patrick’s use of the Bible is rare in a medieval text because he quotes from many different sections of the Bible: the Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and numerous prophetic books.
Paxton said she found Patrick “a really fascinating figure.” In later legends he became a “wonder-working superhero” who expelled the snakes from Ireland and defeated druids in battle.
“But the real St. Patrick of his own words is really a far more moving and inspiring example for Christians of today,” she added.
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“Ireland was never the same as a result of what he did. That’s something I think we should all be impressed by, somebody who himself was very marginal, who was not a major figure in his own Church, persevered in the face of all these obstacles and achieved something really wonderful.”
This article was originally published on CNA March 17, 2015.