Who Was St. Patrick?

03/16/2013 07:40 am ET | Updated May 16, 2013

So, who is St. Patrick, anyway, and why do we like him so much?

Well, first, who he is not: he is not the benign figure wearing a green bishop's miter holding a shamrock and casting the snakes from the shores of his homeland, the Emerald Isle, even as he brought the saving message of Christianity to Irish pagans.

The saint we know as Patrick lived, most probably, in the mid fifth century Anno Domini, at a time before Roman Catholic bishops wore miters. Although he preached the Christian doctrine of the Trinity (that God is manifest in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit), using a shamrock to illustrate the teaching is a later attribution to him. There were no snakes in Ireland, as testified by Roman writers well before Patrick's time. And Ireland was not his native land; rather, Patrick was a Roman Briton who first came to Ireland as a slave, then returned as a missionary, yes to convert the heathens on the wild island, but also to organize the Christians who were already there into a coherent church structure.

In fact, Patrick was an angry son of a gun, uneducated despite his noble lineage, totally insecure, with few friends and legions of enemies within the British church that dispatched him to Hibernia in the first place (after much lobbying by him)--and accused of malfeasance by those same enemies who moved to have him removed from his ministry and position of authority. He was, for all that, a remarkable communicator (think Billy Graham for a modern comparison), brave in the face of very real dangers, indefatigable, stubborn in his embrace of the true faith, generous to a fault, a mystic and a man of deep humility and constant prayer.

Whew! But that's not all. Not quite. For the man we call Patrick (which was almost certainly not his given name, but rather a title: Patricius--either in recognition of his leadership status among the Irish Christians or a nod to his birth into a well-to-do, landed family) wrote down his thoughts and tribulations, creating the only documents from that particular time and that particular place, which survive to this day.

Almost miraculously, the power of his words echoes through 16 centuries with clarity and emotion. In his Confession, written as a defense against accusations hurled at him by fellow bishops of the Church of Britain, the man who called himself Patrick bares his soul and describes his mission among the Irish--and provides a sort of truncated autobiography that gives us clues as to the time and circumstances of his life.

At age 15, he was kidnapped from the shore of his native Britain (where exactly we do not know) and taken into captivity by Irish raiders. He wound up as a slave somewhere on that mysterious island, separated from his family, isolated, working as a herder in the misty hills. Having been born Christian but turned away from his faith as a rebellious youth, the enslaved Patrick turns to prayer--constantly, day and night--as a balm to his troubled soul.

Miraculously, led by a mysterious voice which he attributed to an angel, Patrick escaped captivity after several years and made his way back to his homeland, after a series of adventures. He was probably never reunited with his family but pursued a vocation as a priest and eventually became a bishop. Again he heard voices, these calling him back to Ireland, which became his dream. Somehow he managed to be assigned his dream job, missionary to Ireland.

But his education had been interrupted during those teenage years, and he considered himself "rustic and uneducated" and thought that others despised him. Apparently someone did, because he faced accusations of being unprepared for his episcopal status, abusing his authority and filching money from the collection plate, and even behaving inappropriately with at least one woman whom he encountered in his ministry.

Meanwhile, at one point during his mission, he had occasion to condemn a local warlord named Coroticus, the subject of the second document he left behind. He addresses the soldiers who, under Coroticus, murdered newly baptized and confirmed Christians in their white robes, young men and women. The vitriol in Patrick's language is remarkable. He also adds a few new biographical details missing from the other, longer document--but still leaves tantalizing gaps.

He survived attempts on his life by pagan enemies of the new religion as well as physical hardships in the harsh climate of his adopted land. He had prayed in the rain as a youth, and, as an adult, he was known to pray at all hours of day and night and in all weather, including snow and lashing storms.

The Confession gives indications that it was written near the end of Patrick's life and ministry, as a sort of final testament. We cannot know for certain. Nor do we know when he died or where he was buried, though legends immediately grew up around his memory and Patrick was acclaimed as a saint by the people among whom he had lived as a slave and as a teacher and bishop.

He did not convert the Irish to Christianity--because there were Christian communities there before he came to evangelize them--but he laid the foundation for a truly Irish church that lasted for more than a millennium and a half, until the sharp decline and disaffection within the Irish Catholic Church that we have witnessed just within the past generation.

Of course, there is yet another twist to the Patrick story--there almost had to be, didn't there? That is the dispute among scholars of the past century and a half as to the existence of the man, or the possibility that there were really two Patricks, i.e., two Catholic clerics who held the same name or title--or even three Patricks--who were conflated into one uber-Patrick responsible for the Christianizing of one of the most Christian of all countries on earth (at least until recent decades). I call this phenomenon the "Patrick Wars." Piecing together evidence in his own writings and from outside sources, including papal chronicles, one can follow the maze and collect the clues that may--or may not--"prove" there was only one Patrick, or that the larger than life saint was really a conflation of two or more prelates who lived through the fifth century.

Books have been written documenting the claims and counter claims, the evidence on either or all sides of the tantalizing but ultimately unknowable true story.

In the end, it doesn't matter. There is a voice in the Confession and the letter to the soldiers of Coroticus that belongs to a man--almost undoubtedly the same man--who lived and died for one purpose, to bring the Irish to Christ, and in one and only one place, Ireland.

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