Rev. Stewart is a Protestant Reformed minister, presently working in Northern Ireland.
Leading twentieth century Patrician scholars reckon that he was born between c. 389 and c. 415 and that his death was between c. 460 and c. 493. They estimate Patrick lived between seventy and seventy-eight years. Many reckon that he was buried in or near Downpatrick, Co. Down. His mission in Ireland occurred between 430 at the earliest and 490 at the latest, and lasted at least thirty years. Augustine of Hippo’s dates are 354-430, and the Roman Empire fell in 476. If we think of Patrick laboring in Ireland from the death of Augustine to the fall of Rome and perhaps beyond, we shall not be far wrong. Thus he stands at or near the fall of the old world and the beginning of the dark ages. But it is doubtful how much he knew of Augustine or of Odoacer’s conquest of Rome, for he was on the very periphery of the then-known world.1
What of his family? Patrick was born into a family with ecclesiastical connections. His father, Calpornius, was a deacon, and his paternal grandfather, Potitus, was a presbyter or elder (Conf 1). Hanson writes,
We should not be surprised that both Patrick’s father and grandfather were clergy; clerical marriage was countenanced in one form or another well into the Middle Ages, indeed as late as the eleventh century, and in Patrick’s day carried no particular stigma.2
Patrick’s father was a member of the local town council responsible for raising taxes to finance local government under the administrative system of the Roman Empire. He also owned an estate. Thus he was a member of one of the higher stratas of Roman British society. In keeping with his relatively high station in life, Patrick speaks of “the men and women servants of my father’s house” and refers to his own “worldly position” and “aristocratic status” (Letter 10).
Patrick did not live in one of the major population centers but in “the village of Bannavem Taber-niae” (Conf 1). We are unsure of its location but it seems safest to conclude that it was on or near the west coast of Britain, either in Scotland, Wales, or England. This was the most accessible region to Irish pirates, and it was through one of their plunderous raids that the sixteen-year-old Patrick, “almost a beardless boy,” found himself a slave on Irish soil (Conf 1, 10).
Patrick, the young Briton, was sold as a slave by his captors and, like many other men used in the gathering and preservation of the church, was employed for a time as a shepherd (Conf 16). This must have been quite a change for Patrick. Hanson opines that Patrick was “perhaps spoiled” and “certainly waited on by servants.”3 Now he was a servant not a master. He experienced many long nights “in the woods or on the mountain … in snow and frost and rain” (Conf 16). He was also a stranger in a strange land, for Ireland was to him “an outlandish nation” (Letter 10).
It is at this point that we gain an insight into Patrick’s spiritual condition. Although he was brought up in a covenant home, he had not yet believed in the God of his fathers. Patrick speaks of the days before his Irish captivity: “I was not a believer in the living God, and had not been since my infancy, but I lay in death and disbelief…. Then I used to take no thought even for my own [salvation]” (Conf 27-28). At the time of his kidnapping he confesses, “I did not then know the true God” (Conf 1). He was converted to God when a slave in Ireland (Conf 2). As an old man looking back on his life, he understood that his Irish captivity was God’s chastening him on account of his sins (Conf 1-3).
Patrick, however, was able to escape. Following the guidance of a dream, he journeyed some 200 miles (Conf 17) to a coastal town, where he managed to board a ship. A few years later in Britain, Patrick received another dream.
I saw in a vision of the night a man coming apparently from Ireland whose name was Victoricus, with an unaccountable number of letters, and he gave me one of them and I read the heading of the letter which ran, “The Cry of the Irish [Vox Hiberionacum],” and while I was reading aloud the heading of the letter I was imagining that at that very moment I heard the voice of those who were by the wood of Voclut which is near the Western Sea, and this is what they cried with one voice, “Holy boy, we are asking you to come and walk among us again,” and I was deeply struck to the heart and I was not able to read any further and at that I woke up (Conf 23).4
Patrick became a deacon (Conf 27) and then a missionary bishop in Ireland.
Roman Catholic scholars have been especially interested in arguing that Patrick received his theological training in Lerins in southern France. This would make it easier for them to unite him to the Roman pontiff. However, Christine Mohrmann, in her 1961 lectures at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, pointed out, “There is nothing in [Patrick’s] language which supports the tradition of a prolonged personal contact with Lerins or with any form of Continental monasticism.” She notes that the key traits of Continental monastic writings, such as special monastic terms and very frequent reference to the Psalms and demonology, are missing from Patrick’s writings.5
Patrick did, however, visit France (Conf 43; cf. 32); that much is clear. But he was a British bishop sent by the church of mainland Britain to Ireland. Hanson’s conclusion bears repeating:
The internal evidence from Patrick’s own writing compels us to realize that he was educated for the ministry in Britain, spent his ministry between ordination and the mission to Ireland in Britain, was in fact wholly the product of the British Church, and that later tradition, which sends him with such imaginative abandon to Lerins or to Auxerre or to Rome or to an island in the Tyrrhenian sea, must be discounted.6
His thirty years or more of labor in Ireland saw much fruit. Paganism was dealt a mighty blow. Human sacrifice was all but finished. “Within [Patrick’s] lifetime or soon after his death,” writes Thomas Cahill, “the Irish slave trade came to a halt, and other forms of violence, such as murder and intertribal warfare, decreased.”7 Paganism was not, however, completely vanquished. One merely has to think of the abiding place of fairies and leprechauns in Irish thought.
Patrick writes of “large numbers” and “so many thousands” of converts (Letter 2; Conf 14, 50), with not a few from amongst the ruling classes. Patrick even takes the time to tell us of the baptism of “one blessed Irish woman, an aristocrat of noble race very beautiful and of full age” (Conf 42).8 At his death the church in Ireland had been well established in many parts of the island and was served by the many officebearers he and others had ordained. Some form of monastic life had also taken root. The church of Jesus Christ in Ireland, in whose formation Patrick was instrumental, was to play a vital role in the evangelization of many parts of Europe in the dark ages after the fall of the Roman Empire. Next time we shall consider the gospel that Patrick preached, D.V.
1.Patrick’s Confession, though having a title very similar to Augustine’s Confessions, gives no evidence of inspiration from the African church father. Cahill writes, “Patrick himself probably never heard of Augustine … and if he did hear of him he undoubtedly never read him” (op. cit., p. 114).
2.Hanson, op. cit., p. 77.
3.Hanson, op. cit., p. 36.
4.It would appear that the Wood of Voclut was the region where Patrick labored as a shepherd. Its location depends on whether the Western Sea is to be understood as west with respect to Ireland (the Atlantic Ocean) or west with respect to Britain (the Irish Sea).
5.Christine Mohrmann, The Latin of Saint Patrick (Dublin: Dublin University Press, 1961), pp. 45-46.
6.Hanson, op. cit., p. 31.
7.Cahill, op. cit., p. 110.
8.This reference to the attractive appearance of a female baptismal candidate is not the sort of thing one finds often in the writings of the Ante-Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers.