Patricius Barely three centuries have passed since English travellers in Ireland noticed the wearing of “shamroges” in “vulgar

superstitious” displays of patriotism on the 17th of March. These, along with “excess in liquor,” and other inducements to debauchery, are recorded with finely jaundiced Protestant sobriety. The notion that the saint had used a trefoil grass (there is some dispute over the sprigs of which clover species) to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity, is apparently more recent than that. The accretion of folk customs and beliefs about the 5th-century Saint Patrick began, it seems, within a century of his death, with the marvel-laden hagiography of Muirchu; by now he appears a creature of legend. The Disney touch was added in America. However, we have two documents from Patrick’s own hand, that stand up to any reasonable critical inquiry as contemporary with him. And they ring in a voice that is unmistakeably that of a real man. The first is his Confession, rather in the spirit of Augustine’s though very much shorter; the second his Letter of exhortation “to the soldiers of Coroticus,” evidently a Pictish or Scottish warlord with fallen Christians in his train. What breathes throughout these two documents is precisely the Catholicism that has been taught down to this day, infused with scriptural and creedal references that any Catholic should recognize. “Patrick the sinner, verily, unlearned: and I am a bishop, appointed by God through His Church, in Ireland. I most certainly deem that I have received what I am from God. And so do I live, here, among the barbarians, a stranger and an exile, for the love of God. He shall be witness that this is so. It is not that I want to speak so harshly and so roughly, but I am compelled. …” So the Letter begins, of this late Roman from Britannia, called to become one of the three major patrons of Ireland (along with Saint Brigid of Kildare, and Saint Columba the Abbot), among the many Irish apostles. Through his own words we may form a picture of his tasks, and a glimpse of his real accomplishment in the conversion of thousands, on an island now distant in time. But his words are vivid, and that island draws close: that Ireland which becomes a nursery of saints and missionaries for the conversion of western Europe. It was done through men and women, utterly convinced of the truth in what they carried, and prepared to witness that truth to death. The spirit of parading nationalism and chauvinism is as alien to the character of Patrick, as our times are alien to his. The world was nevertheless the world, and the ruthless play of power was as much in vogue. The distinction between a king and a pirate was a subtle one, as the distinction between a citizen and a slave. It is so today, though we are more blinded to it by our material comforts. The task of Patrick was to free the inhabitants of that island from the ancient despotic rule of heathenism: to show them whose sons they were. He did this through his own person: the person quoted, above. He was a true bishop, whether or not the first in the succession of Armagh. I think our task for this day should be to forget Ireland, and remember Saint Patrick.

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