EMINENT CHRISTIANS: 6. PATRICK OF IRELAND
The fall of the Western Roman Empire—its impact on Britain
When Patrick was born, the Romans had been in Britain for roughly 350 years. South of Hadrian’s Wall they had crisscrossed the land with a network of Roman roads. Urban centres of importance, such as York, Gloucester and London had been developed and dotting the countryside lavish villas had been built by upper class Romanized Britons. Among these wealthy Britons there grew to be an appreciation of and desire for Roman culture, and consequently they sought to ensure that their children received a proper Roman education.
At the close of the fourth century, however, the comfortable world of the Romanized British upper class was about to be shattered, never to be restored. During the last quarter of that century the Empire had suffered a number of severe body blows which would precipitate the total collapse of imperial rule in the West in the following century. Those momentous events were naturally not without impact on Roman Britain.
In the summer of 407 Constantine III, a usurper who had been elevated to imperial power by the legions in Britain, crossed the Channel, ostensibly to repel the barbarians. The legions would never return. In the years that followed, the British sought to organize their own defence against Saxon raiders from the east and hit-and-run attacks by Irish pirates from the west. But with the departure of the legions, economic and cultural decay started to set in. In the words of R. P. C. Hanson: “Towns began to be deserted, villas abandoned. No more coins were minted… The Roman system of education probably collapsed.” [The Life and Writings of the Historical Saint Patrick (New York: The Seabury Press, 1983), 7].
But what did not collapse or leave with the Roman legions was the Christian witness on the island.
The British Church
While Patrick’s writings constitute some of the earliest literary evidence from an actual member of the British Church, there is written testimony going back to the second century regarding the presence of Christianity in the British Isles. The second-century Christian authors, Tertullian and Origen, both mention the existence of Christians in Britain, thus testifying to the fact that Christianity in Britain “was sufficiently well-founded and its membership sufficiently large that Christians in North Africa and Alexandria would know of its existence.” [Joseph F. Kelly, “The Origins of Christianity in Britain: The Literary Evidence” (Unpublished paper, May, 1983), 4-5].
How Christianity first came to the shores of Britain is impossible to determine. W.H.C. Frend has plausibly suggested that it was brought thither by merchants or by soldiers garrisoned in Britain. [“Romano-British Christianity and the West: Comparison and Contrast” in Susan M. Pearce, ed., The Early Church in Western Britain and Ireland (Oxford: B.A.R., 1982), 6].
When we turn to material evidence we find that archaeological excavations have brought to light villas that contain distinctly Christian mosaics. Archaeologists have uncovered Christian places of worship from the 4th and 5th centuries. The most interesting of these is perhaps at Lullingstone in Kent. There a villa was found that had been built towards the end of the 1st century A.D. and substantially expanded near end of the 2nd century by a man of some distinction and wealth. Near the end of the 2nd century the villa was suddenly deserted. The owner appears to have left in a hurry. “After lying derelict for over 50 years, it was reoccupied by a new family in the last quarter of the third century. …Then, about 360-70, the owner became a Christian, and part of the villa was converted to Christian use.” It was destroyed by fire in the early 5th century [Roger J.A. Wilson, A Guide to the Roman Remains in Britain (London: Constable and Company Ltd., 1975), 52-53].
The early life of Patrick
Such is the context into which the life and career of Patrick must be placed, if it is to be properly appreciated. Now, the dates of Patrick’s birth and death have been, and still are, the subject of much debate. Hanson has put forward a fairly convincing argument in favour of placing Patrick’s birth c.389 and his death some 70 years later c.461, but he admits that these dates possess no finality. [R.P.C. Hanson and Cecile Blanc, Saint Patrick: Confession et Lettre à Coroticus (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1978), 18-21]. For other perspectives on Patrick’s dates, see E.A. Thompson, Who Was Saint Patrick? (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1985), 166-175. For a strong argument in favour of a later dating, see David N. Dumville, Saint Patrick, A.D. 493-1993 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1993), 29-33].
What is certain is that Patrick is a product of Britain in the late fourth century and his missionary activity in Ireland falls mostly within the first half of the fifth century.
The broad outline of Patrick’s career is fairly plain. At the beginning of his Confession he tells us of his family background and how his life at home was traumatically interrupted—Confession 1:“I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many. My father was Calpornius, a deacon, son of Potitus, a presbyter, of the village Bannavem Taburniae; he had a country seat [villulam] nearby, and there I was taken captive. I was then about sixteen years of age. I did not know the true God. I was taken into captivity to Ireland with many thousands of people—and deservedly so, because we turned away from God, and did not keep his commandments, and did not obey our bishops, who used to remind us of our salvation. And the Lord “brought over us the wrath of his anger” [Isaiah 42:25] and “scattered us among many nations,” [Jeremiah 9:16] even “unto the utmost part of the earth” [Acts 13:47] where now my littleness is placed among strangers.” [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.), 21, altered].
This text gives some indication of the general whereabouts of Patrick’s home: the village Bannavem Taburniae, or, as Máire B. de Paor spells it, Bannaventa Berniae. [Máire B. de Paor, Patrick: The Pilgrim Apostle of Ireland (New York: HarperCollins, 1998), 25-26]. Unfortunately this village has not been identified. Nevertheless, it is probable that this village was near the western or southwestern coast of Britain, where it would be within easy striking distance of Irish raiders. More importantly, the mention of his father’s villa (villulam) which was near this village provides solid evidence that Patrick was born into the upper crust of Romano-British society, and was accustomed to wealth and comfort.
Finally, Patrick’s description of himself as “most unlearned” (rusticissimus) is significant. A number of times in his Confession Patrick bemoans the fact that his education was deficient. For instance, in Confession 9 he admits:
“I have not studied like the others, who thoroughly imbibed law and Sacred Scripture, and never had to change from the language of their childhood days, but were able to make it still more perfect. In our case, what I had to say had to be translated into a tongue foreign to me, as can be easily proved from the savour of my writing, which betrays how little instruction and training I have had in the art of words.” (Trans. Bieler, Works of St. Patrick, 23. See also Confession 10, 12, 13, 46, 62).
While Patrick’s contemporaries were becoming progressively skilful in their use of Latin as a literary tool, he was a slave in Ireland, having to speak the language of his captors, Primitive Irish. His education in Latin had been severely curtailed and when, much later in life, he came to write the Confession, he often struggled to express himself clearly.
So, at the age of sixteen Patrick found himself violently torn away from all that was familiar to him and transported as a slave to the west coast of Ireland. As a result of this intensely traumatic experience, Patrick turned to God—Confession 2:
“And there [in Ireland] the Lord opened the sense of my unbelief that I might at last remember my sins and be converted with all my heart to the Lord my God, who had regard for my abjection and mercy on my youth and ignorance.” (Trans. Bieler, Works of St. Patrick, 21).
No longer a rebel, indifferent to the claims of God upon his life, Patrick sought to live a life in daily communion with God—Confession 16:
“After I came to Ireland—every day I had to tend sheep, and many times a day I prayed—the love of God and his fear came to me more and more, and my faith was strengthened. And my spirit was moved so that in a single day I would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many in the night, and this even when I was staying in the woods and on the mountain; and I used to get up for prayer before daylight, through snow, through frost, through rain, and I felt no harm, and there was no sloth in me—as I now see, because the Spirit within me was then fervent.” (Trans. Bieler, Works of St. Patrick, 25).
After six years in this state of captivity, Patrick managed to escape and eventually find his way back to his family in Britain. The period that elapsed between his return to Britain and his going back to Ireland as a missionary is quite obscure. We do know that in this period Patrick had a striking dream in which he sensed a call to return to Ireland to work among the people who had enslaved him (Confession 23-24).
It was also during this time that Patrick may have received some formal theological training in preparation for ordination as a deacon. In the course of this preparation, he became thoroughly familiar with the Latin Bible, so much so that he has on occasion been described as “a man unius libri” (“a man of one book”). [Christine Mohrmann, The Latin of Saint Patrick (Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, 1961), 8].
“Bound by the Spirit”
At the end of this period, that is, around 432, he departed for the part of Ireland where he had been held captive. He would never return to Britain. As he wrote in his Confession 43:
“Wherefore, then, even if I wished to leave…and go to Britain—and how I would have loved to go to my country and my parents, and also to Gaul in order to visit the brethren and to see the face of the saints of my Lord! God knows it that I much desired it; but I am bound by the Spirit [cp. Acts 20:22] who gives evidence against me if I do this, telling me that I shall be guilty; and I am afraid of losing the labour which I have begun—nay, not I, but Christ the Lord who bade me come here and stay with them for the rest of my life, if the Lord will.” (Trans. Bieler, Works of St. Patrick, 35).
And in another text from this same work he could state—Confession 37: “I came to the people of Ireland to preach the Gospel, and to suffer insult from the unbelievers, bearing the reproach of my going abroad and many persecutions even unto bonds, and to give my free birth for the benefit of others; and, should I be worthy, I am prepared to give even my life without hesitation and most gladly for his name, and it is there that I wish to spend it until I die, if the Lord would grant it to me.” (Trans. Bieler, Works of St. Patrick, 32).
These texts reveal a man who has a deep certainty of the will of God for his life: to live out his days in Ireland so that the Irish might come to know God as he had done. In the first text he says that he must do this because he is “bound by the Spirit.” This phrase, “bound by the Spirit” is drawn directly from Acts 20:22, where the Apostle Paul tells the Ephesian elders that he is “bound by the Spirit” to go to Jerusalem, despite the probability that he would experience much suffering there. The Apostle is committed to doing what he perceives as God’s will, no matter the cost. The clear implication in Patrick’s use of this term is that he shares the Apostle Paul’s depth of commitment to Jesus Christ and the extension of his Kingdom.
The course of his travels in Ireland is not at all clear from his Confession, but it was probably restricted to the north. His ministry in Ireland was extremely successful, though he certainly had not evangelized the whole of Ireland by the time of his death, which cannot have been long after he wrote his Confession. Patrick speaks of thousands converted through his ministry (Confession 14, 38, 50), including sons and daughters of Irish kings (Confession 41-42). They were converted, he tells us, from the worship of “idols and filthy things.” (Confession 41). It is noteworthy that he speaks of the worship practices of Irish paganism with “scorn and dislike” (Hanson, Historical Saint Patrick, 111).
Yet, his missionary labours were not without strong opposition, presumably from the Celtic Druids in Ireland. In one section of his Confession he says: “daily I expect murder, fraud, or captivity.” [Confession 55 (trans. Bieler, Works of St. Patrick, 38)].
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’.” [Confession 55 (trans. Bieler, Works of St. Patrick, 38)].
The Celtic Church inherited Patrick’s missionary zeal. His spiritual descendants, men like Columba (c.521-597), Columbanus (c.543-615), and Aidan (died 651), partook of this 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.” [“Sedulius Scottus” in Robert McNally, ed., Old Ireland (New York: Fordham University Press 1965), 230].