St Patrick is often described as our ‘national saint’, and as our nation becomes secularised, so does our national saint. St Patrick’s Day parades do still show Patrick wearing something approaching episcopal vestments, and some of the more fabulous elements of the hagiography are still re-enacted, but there remains little gratitude for St Patrick’s work in this country as a Christian missionary. St Patrick’s Day events have become more about celebrating our ‘Irishness’ (whatever that means) or even, with enormous irony, our pre-Christian Celtic inheritance.
The Church seems powerless to counter this trend, to re-establish an understanding of Patrick as missionary bishop, but it possesses one little-used resource which can help: St Patrick’s own writings.
Many of the writings about St Patrick were composed centuries after his death, but we are blessed to have some authentic writing of his own, composed in Latin in the 5th century. The Confession is a short text, and the Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus even shorter, but both express a vivid, Christ-centred, scriptural, orthodox, attractive faith. Patrick reveals himself to be aware of his weaknesses – the Confession begins with the phrase, ‘I am Patrick, a sinner, the most rustic and least of all the faithful’ – but driven to preach the Gospel by the experience of God’s mercy:
Before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in the deep mud. Then he who is mighty came and in his mercy he not only pulled me out but lifted me up and placed me at the very top of the wall. I must, therefore, speak publicly in order to repay the Lord for such wonderful gifts, gifts for the present and for eternity which the human mind cannot measure.
While the Confession is Patrick’s personal account (and defence?) of his conversion and mission, the Letter is written in anger, against the slave-trader Coroticus and his men, nominal Christians who had committed atrocities against Patrick’s new flock. Yet even in this letter of excommunication, Patrick’s deep spirituality shines through: he has come to Ireland as ‘a stranger and exile for the love of God’, and while anger does not come naturally to him, love for his ‘neighbours and children, for whom [he has] given up homeland and family’ arouses his righteous anger.
St Patrick’s writings deserve to be read by 21st-century Christians. The edition of Joseph Duffy, which includes the Latin text as well as Irish and English translations, and commentary on the text, is particularly accessible and useful. If you are a teacher, or a member of a prayer group, or parish pastoral council, or a Christian book club, why not get a copy of St Patrick’s writings and allow him to teach you to be a missionary, compelled by the love of God.
(Patrick In His Own Words, edited by Joseph Duffy, is published by Veritas)