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Kathleen Deignan

Kathleen Deignan

Posted: March 17, 2010 12:49 PM

St. Patrick, One of Christianity's Earliest Liberation Theologians

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In the wake of St. Patrick's Day, I am left wondering about the man who "baptized" my lineage. Not long after our arrival in New York, my mother took me to my first parade: a rite of passage.  I was awed, not for the saint, but all those horses! In a fit of glee I said, "Mammy!  Look at the donkeys!" -- to which the Irish cop minding the crowd replied: "No little girl: those are the horses; the donkeys are riding on top." I can still hear my mother roaring in delight: the music that sounded my introduction to St. Patrick, whom I would come to know as one of Christianity's earliest liberation theologians. 

The Irish didn't always love St. Patrick, and he didn't always love the Irish.  In fact the young Welshman, Maewyn Succat, first met the Irish in their most flagrant cruelty, as slave raiders, or one could say "human traffickers." Torn by mercenary greed from his people and his place, the young Maweyn was sold into slavery perhaps in Antrim or Mayo, herding sheep on the rough and rugged mystical mountains of Eire. Anyone who has ever climbed Croagh Patrick knows "the terrible beauty" of a landscape that makes an encounter with mystery inescapable; there is just nowhere to hide. One is encompassed by a palpable and pervasive "presence" on every side, whose name is researched in the inexhaustible litany of its various incarnations: rock, wind, nettle, rain, calf, crow, cloud, snow, sun, sea, gorse.  Silence.

In this solitude and sequestration, Maewyn had his spiritual opening, and a stroke of luck.  He managed to escape back home to Britain, and then, as if summoned, he moved on to France. In one of the Christian communes inspired by St. Martin of Tours, he labored to make sacred sense of his abduction and exile, his sojourn with the Janus tribe, the Irish.  Unexpectedly "the voice of the Irish" sounded within him like a siren or an angel, calling him to return. So, fresh from his monastic training and priestly ordination, the slave returned voluntarily now, an immigrant with a mission to transform his own trauma by healing his abusers, a free man offering a gospel of liberation that proclaimed the deeper worth of a human person.

What happened next is the stuff of heroic legend, in true Celtic fashion: his shape-shifting into a stag to avoid the wrath of the chieftains on his evangelizing tours; baptizing their children in the hundreds; facing down the  flames of Tara's Druids with his own Easter fire on the Hill of Slane. Though the seeds of Christianity were sown long before Patrick's return, in the several decades of his mission he managed to cultivate Eire as a monastic island populated with spiritual centers for training the wild energies of the Irish, harnessing them for the work of spiritual evolution.  

But more than these tall tales of evangelical triumph, Patrick's true grit is spelled out in his fierce Letter to Coroticus, in which he excoriates a Welsh chieftain for his butchery and theft of young Irish women for the slave trade -- the first anti-trafficking manifesto.  What has become more precious to me as my "concientization" as a Celtic Christian deepens, is knowing the seed of my own faith was sown by a trafficked person whose own trauma -- its wounding and healing -- became a source of inexplicable grace for any of us gathered into Christ by the shepherd Patrick.

A few years ago, the Leadership Conference of Women Religious of the United States, in concert with religious around the world, made a corporate pledge to work as one global sisterhood to end human trafficking.  Yes, it is an outrageous intention, but we are at it, in big ways and small: subsidizing safe-houses, staffing them, lobbying for political and legal action, developing non-governmental organizations to end the human slave trade, teaching and preaching about trafficking, and praying.  As the voice of his Irish traffickers haunted Patrick, the voice of the trafficked haunt us. With Patrick ,we weave a spiritual breast-plate around their anguish, and in his words, in their name, offer a protection mantle to every trafficked man, woman and child:


I bind unto myself today
    the power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
    His ear to harken to my need;
    His hand to guide, His shield to ward;
    His heavenly host to be my guard.
Against the demonic snares of sin,
    the vice that gives temptation force,
the natural lusts that war within,
    the hostile ones that mar my course;
of few or many, far or nigh,
    in every place, and in all hours
against their fierce hostility,
    I bind to me these holy powers.