Patrick’s Bequest: St. Patrick’s Day Reflections on the Impact of the Life of “Holy Patrick”

After the death of Patrick in the 460s total silence reigns about him in the Irish Christian tradition until the 630s, when he is mentioned by Cummian, abbot of Durrow. In a letter to Segene, abbot of Iona, Cummian describes Patrick as the “holy Patrick, our father.” But this shroud of silence should not be taken to mean that Patrick was forgotten. His works, the Confession and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus, were obviously cherished, copied and transmitted. Moreover, his missionary labours firmly planted the Christian faith in Irish soil, and left a deep imprint on the Celtic Church that would grow up from this soil. Patrick speaks of “thousands” converted through his ministry,[1] including sons and daughters of Irish kings.[2] They were converted, he tells us, from the worship of “idols and filthy things.”[3] It is noteworthy that he here speaks of the worship practices of Celtic paganism with “scorn and dislike.”[4] In order to increase the range of his influence he ordained “clergy everywhere.”[5] Patrick never lost sight of the fact, though, that it was God’s grace that lay behind each and every success of his mission. “For I am very much God’s debtor,” he joyfully confessed, “who gave me such great grace that many people were reborn in God through me.”[6] Yet, his missionary labours were not without strong opposition, presumably from pagan forces in Ireland. In one section of his Confession he says: “daily I expect murder, fraud, or captivity.”[7] He mentions two distinct occasions of captivity, one for two months and the other for a fortnight.[8] He also relates that he was in peril of death “twelve” times, though he gives no details of these lest he bore the reader![9] Patrick’s response to these dangers reveals the true mettle of the man.

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 thy thought upon God, and he shall sustain thee.”[10]

There was not only external opposition, though. Many of Patrick’s Christian contemporaries in the Western Roman Empire appear to have given little thought to evangelizing their barbarian neighbours. As Máire B. de Paor notes: “there was seemingly no organised, concerted effort made to go out and convert pagans, beyond the confines of the Western Roman Empire” during the twilight years of Roman rule in the West.[11] Whatever the reasons for this lack of missionary effort, Patrick’s mission to Ireland stands in splendid isolation. As Thompson notes, what we find in the Confession is paragraph after paragraph on this issue, bespeaking Patrick’s uniqueness in his day.[12]Thus, when Patrick announced his intention in Britain to undertake a mission to the Irish there were those who strongly opposed him.

Many tried to prevent this 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?”[13]

Patrick, though, was assured of the rightness of his missionary activity in Ireland. He knew himself called to evangelize Ireland.[14] He had a deep sense of gratitude to God for what God had done for him. “I cannot be silent,” he declared, “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.”[15]

The Celtic Church would inherit Patrick’s missionary zeal. His spiritual descendants, men like Columba (c.521-597), Columbanus (c.543-615), and Aidan (died 651), drank deeply from the well of Patrick’s missionary fervour, so that the Celtic Church became, in the words of James Carney, “a reservoir of spiritual vigour, which would… fructify the parched lands of western Europe.”[16] As Diarmuid Ó Laoghaire notes, it is surely no coincidence that what was prominent in Patrick’s life was reproduced in the lives of his heirs.[17] Patrick’s Celtic Christian heirs also inherited his rich Trinitarian spirituality, which, unlike his missionary passion, was central to Latin Christianity in late antiquity. Near the very beginning of the Confession Patrick sets out in summary form the essence of his faith in God.

There is no other God, nor ever was, nor will be, than God the Father unbegotten, without beginning, from whom is all beginning, the Lord of the universe, as we have been taught; and his son Jesus Christ, whom we declare to have always been with the Father, spiritually and ineffably begotten by the Father before the beginning of the world, before all beginning; and by him are made all things visible and invisible. He was made man, and, having defeated death, was received into heaven by the Father; “and he hath given him all power over all names in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue shall, confess to him that Jesus Christ is Lord and God,”[18] in whom we believe, and whose advent we expect soon to be, “judge of the living and of the dead,”[19] who will render to every man according to his deeds; and “he has poured forth upon you abundantly the Holy Spirit,”[20] “the gift” and “pledge”[21] of immortality, who makes those who believe and obey “sons of God…and joint heirs with Christ”[22]; and him do we confess and adore, one God in the Trinity of the Holy Name.[23]

The Old Irish prayer, The Breastplate of Patrick, though most likely written in the century following Patrick’s death, is an excellent example of the way in which Patrick’s Trinitarian faith was transmitted. In its opening and closing refrain, it declares:

I rise today with a mighty power, calling on the Trinity,with a belief in the threeness,with a faith in the oneness, of the Creator of creation.[24]

The credal statement cited above is the only place in the Confession where we can be sure that Patrick is referring to another work besides his Latin Bible. The Latin of the first half of this creed has the “balance and cadences of what passed for polished style in late antiquity” and is clearly not of Patrick’s own composition. And although the second half of the creed is filled with biblical quotation or allusion, it too has regular cadences.[25] It is most likely that Patrick is reproducing here a rule of faith used in the British Church to instruct new believers about the essentials of the Christian faith.[26]

R. P. C. Hanson, though, has probed further into the source of Patrick’s creed and has cogently argued that it essentially stems from one found in the writings of Victorinus of Pettau (d.304), who died as a martyr in the Diocletianic persecution. Certain additions have been made to Victorinus’ creed in light of the Trinitarian controversies of the fourth century.[27] The mention above of Patrick’s bibliocentrism brings us to a final aspect of Patrick’s bequest to Celtic Ireland. His Christianity is “very much a religion of the book,” namely the Latin Bible.[28] Given the central place that the Bible held in his thinking, it is not surprising that the success of Patrick’s mission helped initiate an impetus among the Irish towards literacy. In fact, so profound was this impetus that by the seventh century the Irish had become major participants in one of the key aspects of the Christian romanitas of late antiquity: “bibliocentric literacy.”[29]

Such are some of the key aspects of the long-range legacy of the mission of Patrick, who had simply come to Ireland to pass on his faith in the “One God in the Trinity of the Holy Name” to the Irish. As he wrote in Confession 14, tying faith in the Trinity and his mission together:

In the light, therefore, of our faith in the Trinity I must make this choice, regardless of danger I must make known the gift of God and everlasting consolation, without fear and frankly I must spread everywhere the name of God so that after my decease I may leave a bequest to my brethren and sons whom I have baptised in the Lord—so many thousands of people.[30]

[1] Confession 14, 50; see also Confession 38; Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus 2.

[2] Confession 41-42.

[3] Confession 41.

[4] R.P.C. Hanson, The Life and Writings of the Historical Saint Patrick (New York: The Seabury Press, 1983), 111.

[5] Confession 38, 40, 50.

[6] Confession 38 [trans. Ludwig Bieler, The Works of St. Patrick, St. Secundinus: Hymn on St. Patrick (1953 ed.; repr. New York/Ramsey, New Jersey: Paulist Press, n.d., 32].

[7] Confession 55 (trans. Bieler, Works of St. Patrick, 38).

[8] Confession 21, 52.

[9] Confession 35.

[10] Confession 55 (trans. Bieler, Works of St. Patrick, 38).

[11] Máire B. de Paor, Patrick: The Pilgrim Apostle of Ireland (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 23-24.

[12] E.A. Thompson, Who Was Saint Patrick? (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1985), 82-83.

[13] Confession 46 (trans. Bieler, Works of St. Patrick, 36).

[14] See Confession 23.

[15] Confession 3 (trans. Bieler, Works of St. Patrick, 21-22).

[16] “Sedulius Scottus” in Robert McNally, ed., Old Ireland (New York: Fordham University Press 1965), 230.

[17] “Old Ireland and Her Spirituality” in McNally, ed., Old Ireland, 33.

[18] Philippians 2:9-11.

[19] Acts 10:42.

[20] Titus 3:5.

[21] Cp. Acts 2:38; Ephesians 1:14.

[22] Romans 8:16-17.

[23] Confession 4 (trans. Bieler, Works of St. Patrick, 22).

[24] Trans. Philip Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland. A Biography (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004), 161, 164.

[25] D. R. Bradley, “The Doctrinal Formula of Patrick”, The Journal of Theological Studies, N.S., 33 (1982), 124-133.

[26] Hanson, Historical Saint Patrick, 79, 81; Bradley, “Doctrinal Formula of Patrick”, 133.

[27] “Witness for St. Patrick to the Creed of 381”, Analecta Bollandiana, 101: 297-299.

[28] Joseph F. T. Kelly, “Christianity and the Latin Tradition in Early Mediaeval Ireland”, Bulletin of The John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 68, No.2 (Spring 1986), 411; Hanson, Historical Saint Patrick, 44-47.

[29] Kelly, “Christianity and the Latin Tradition”, 417.

[30]Confession 14 (trans. Bieler, Works of St. Patrick, 24).