Saint Patrick, Apostle of Ireland


Nowadays St Patrick has become more national symbol than saint. With some irreverence, many of our young folk refer casually to “Paddy’s Day” and scarcely spare a thought for the hero who did such good for Ireland. One must dig beneath a mountain of patriotic sentiment to uncover the real person – the man of faith, of prayer and extraordinary commitment. His “Confession” is worth reading and remembering, today.


{For the full text of today’s readings, scroll to the end of this file}.

Jer 1:4-9. Jeremiah’s reluctance towards his prophetic vocation (“Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak”) prefigures Patrick’s modesty about his own abilities.

Acts 13:46-49. Like Paul and Barnabas, St. Patrick was sent bring salvation to the ends of the earth. Ireland, at Europe’s western edge, must have seemed just that.

Lk 10:1-12, 17-20. Like the seventy disciples in Jesus’ day, the early Christian missionaries were sent out as laborers to reap God’s harvest in Ireland.

Bidding Prayers

– that we may always remain faithful to the Gospel faith brought to us by St Patrick.

– that with St Patrick as model we will cultivate the habit of prayer and the awareness of God.

– that through his intercession the island of Ireland will be blessed with peace, honesty and fairness.

– that at this time of national economic crisis, the people of Ireland may bring out their best qualities, and help each other to live in a just and caring society.

Qualities of Our Saint (Patrick Rogers)

The challenge in the homily on St. Patrick’s Day is to present the saint as a man relevant to our own times; to show him engaging in a mission and a journey that are still to be faced and travelled, if Christian faith is to stay alive, let alone blossom, in Ireland. It is a good idea to weave passages from St. Patrick’s Confession into the homily. Padraig McCarthy’s translation of the Confession, in revised form, can be found at . An excellent volume by Ciaran Needham, on what is known about the saint, is at

Among the qualities of our national apostle that might be developed in the homily are these: “PATRICK, PRAYERFUL MAN: “And again I saw Him praying in me, and I seemed to be within my body, and I heard Him above me, that is, over my inward self, and there He prayed with great emotion. And all the time I was astonished, and wondered, and thought with myself who it could be that prayed in me. But at the end of the prayer He spoke, saying that He was the Spirit; and so I woke up, and remembered the Apostle saying: The Spirit helps the infirmities of our prayer.” Patrick’s prayer life, learned in the hardship of his slavery in Ireland, while herding pigs on Slemish mountain, was the source of his courage and the mainstay of his mission.

PATRICK, CONVERTED SINNER: “I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many … But the Lord opened my unbelieving heart 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, and watched over me before I knew Him… comforted me as would a father his son. So I cannot be silent – nor should I be – about the great benefits and the great grace which the Lord has deigned to bestow upon me in the land of my captivity.” All through the Confession, he shows a deep sense of gratitude for the work of grace within him.

PATRICK, MAN OF THE BIBLE: He shows real familiarity with the most recently available translation of the Bible (St Jerome’s Vulgate) and often quotes or alludes to the text of Scripture. This reverence for the Bible marked the Irish church in the following centuries, and resulted in important early Irish commentaries, as well as lovely manuscript copies of the Gospel, like the Book of Kells.

PATRICK, AS INSPIRATIONAL PASTOR: “For I am much God’s debtor, who gave me such grace that many people were reborn in God through me and afterwards confirmed, and that clerics were ordained for them everywhere, for a people just coming to the faith, whom the Lord took from the utmost parts of the earth.” … “When I baptised so many thousands of people, did I perhaps expect from any of them as much as half a crown? Tell me, and I will restore it to you. Or when the Lord ordained clerics everywhere through my unworthy person and I conferred the ministry upon them free, if I asked any of them as much as the price of my shoes, speak against me and I will return it to you.” He mentions many conversions, yet stresses his resolve not to accept donations that might obscure the spiritual motive for his pastoral activities.

RESOLVED TO REMAIN WITH THE IRISH, UNTIL HIS DEATH. “Even if I wished to leave them 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 that I much desired it! But I am bound by the Spirit, who witnesses against me that if I do this, I shall be guilty. And I am afraid of losing the labour which I have begun – no, 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, and will guard me from every evil way that I may not sin before Him.” At the cost of considerable sacrifice, Patrick was willing to leave behind the comforts of Roman Britain and fulfil his mission as a wandering preacher in Ireland. He learned the Irish language and the local customs, respected their religious ideals and gave new meaning to their traditional high-places (like Croagh Patrick) and holy wells. In modern mission practice, this sort of radical inculturation is seen as essential to gaining the heart of a people for Christ.

BRAVE IN THE FACE OF OPPOSITION AND DANGER: “But the more am I sorry for my soul-friend, that we had to hear what he said. To him I had confided my soul! And I was told by some of the brethren before that defence – at which I was not present, nor was I in Britain, nor was it suggested by me – that he would support for me in my absence. He had even said to me in person: “Look, you should be raised to the rank of bishop!” – of which I was not worthy. But how did it happen afterwards that he let me down before all, good and evil, and publicly, in a matter in which he had favoured me before spontaneously and gladly.”

“I came to the people of Ireland to preach the Gospel, and to suffer insult from the unbelievers, hearing the reproach of my going abroad, and many persecutions even to chains, and to hand over 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 sees fit to grant it to me.”

Pastoral Theologian (Feidhlimidh T. Magennis)

It pains me to see so many people take Patrick’s statement about his ignorance at face value. To describe himself as a mere unlettered sinner was just to set up a foil to highlight the glorious workings of God’s grace. A reading of his Confessio clearly reveals that Patrick was no ignorant man. He was a skilled writer and stands full square in the traditions of the Church Fathers and of late Roman literature. Patrick’s Confessio is too often treated in isolation. It should be read alongside the larger Confessions of his near-contemporary, Augustine. Both men were pastoral theologians of great insight, deeply aware of the presence of Christ in their lives. The recent book by the late Daniel Conneely, The Letters of Saint Patrick, should be required reading in preparation for any homily on this feast day.

Patrick’s theology grew out of his personal experience of Christ, of his mission to Ireland of the needs of the newly evangelized. Yet it is in continuity with the great theme of Patristic theology. Faith is not a knowledge but a life with Christ. Faith is not simply a matter of ‘knowing’ Christ, his teachings and the teachings of the Church. Faith is a ‘sensing of the presence of Christ and a response to that presence. This is an aspect of Patrick which we could do with retrieving. Patrick grew to realize that the faith into which he was baptized as a child was more that a series of statements about God, a belief system which filled the head. It was a relationship with God, an awareness of the presence of the person of Christ sharing his life at every moment. Starved of reliance on family and friends, the boy Patrick on Slemish discovered he was not alone. He had supreme value and worth in the eyes of the Father who loved him. He was accompanied by the Son who walked with him; and he was supported by the Spirit who prayed in him. This sensing of the presence and love of God shaped his life and became the foundation of all that he did. faith is the life of a person with Christ. It is this awareness of the presence of Christ and of his own worth as loved by God which runs through the writings of Patrick. As a slave Patrick discovered and never forgot that each one of us is an individual cherished by God. This love of God is not for Patrick alone. Nor was his an isolated or rare example. God’ love is for all people, each person created in the divine image. God loves all individually in a unique way. Patrick’s task, the task of every evangelist, was to bring as many people to that awareness as he could.

Today, Patrick’s task continues. Even in our normally Christian world, there are many who are denied or deprived of their human worth. Their identity as a child of God is ignored. Our society tolerates and often rationalizes the dehumanization of individuals and whole groups. In Patrick’s writings we are provided with the Christian vision of human worth. Patrick’s task of making the Good News known met opposition from those who considered the Irish as barbarian and so not quite human. He opposed such discrimination in the name of the Gospel. His task is still an urgent one. Throughout the world human lives look on or debate He pragmatism of action or inaction. Even in our liberal society, Christian consciences are asked to accept society’s ability to put a measure on the quality of a individual human life. The excuse of limited resources is used to hide the unequal provision of health care, education and employment. Our society in Ireland has been coarsened by the frequent murder of ‘our own’ by ‘them’. It is not yet too late to revive Patrick’s vision of the individual worth of each person, even those who hate and attack us.

In his Letter to Coroticus, Patrick reveals the audacity and power of the Christian message. The heart of that message is the Cross: that Jesus seeks to save and transform everyone. Even those who persecuted him to death are the object of his love. No one is not without individual value to Christ, not even the persecutor Coroticus whose deeds cry out for justice. The spirit of Patrick is needed in our land today. It is only when each person can sense the presence of Christ and be transformed that peace will come. And Christ comes to each through the loving and forgiving presence of Christians. Our task if we are to follow Patrick is to imitate his ability to reach out across the divide and to cherish the enemy as one loved by Christ.

Irish Roots (Brian Joyce)

I read recently that the major export of Ireland is no longer its own people but our primary Export is computer software, while our next largest Export is Viagra. Perhaps you didn’t know that’s where it was invented, at the Pfizer plant in Cork? The chief exports have changed, maybe not for the better. In the past, the real export of Ireland, with the deepest roots, spread by its people like missionaries, is its Celtic spirituality, a spirituality that stands for perseverance and also for deep, deep reflection. You can see it as you travel through Ireland, the perseverance in the face of persecution, when you see chapels dotting the land that go back a hundred or two hundred years, and really go back to the times just after it was completely illegal for Catholics to vote, to own any land, or to get an education. And in those days, the Mass was celebrated in hidden places. Education was carried on by scholars and by priests behind the hedges where no one could see that they were doing that rebellious thing of teaching reading and writing. In those days “Our chalices were made of wood. But our priests were made of gold.”

But, if you go back even further, to the 6th century, you find the ruins of hermitages and monasteries all over Ireland because Ireland was the “Land of Saints and Scholars.” A best seller came out a couple years ago, “How the Irish Saved Civilization,” which sounds exaggerated, until you read the book. But they really did! In the dark ages of Europe, they took the libraries and the learning and the literature and the gospel and they treasured it and reflected on it, and then they sent their sons and daughters out to share it with the world.

I grew up hearing about a lot of saints in Germany, in France, in northern Italy. And, as I got older, I found out many of them were from Ireland. I found out St. Virgilius of Germany was actually St. Fergus of Limerick. (There were) St. Gall, who established monasteries in France and Germany, and St. Columban, who established monasteries, centers of learning and education, in France and Germany and Northern Italy, where he is buried. Like my own Irish pastor from my home town in Montana, Monsignor Ryan, who is buried there and never went back home to Ireland, these missionaries ended up buried in distant lands, where they brought civilization, learning and reflection, and above all, I think, brought a spirituality that we call Celtic that is unique but at the same time deeply Christian, a sense that, first of all, it is nature that reveals God.

Think of St. Patrick out there, a slave boy, looking at nature and having no church, and yet, meeting his God. Maybe it’s the Cliffs of Moher. Maybe it’s the great Dun Angus in the Aran Islands. Maybe it’s the Lakes of Killarney. But whatever it was about the land and scenery of Ireland, it produced a people who were great mystics and realized the number one sacrament of the presence of God was nature. And also, the sacredness of the individual. Maybe it was the barren land, or the awesome beauty, or the famine, or the persecution. But they learned to treasure each and every individual, and realize that, both in solitude, which they treasured, and community, which they built, that God was near.

They celebrated with prayers that we still have today like the Celtic prayer:God to enfold me, God to surround me, God in my speaking, God in my thinking, God in my sleeping, God in my waking, God in my watching, God in my hoping, God in my life, God in my lips, God in my soul, God in my heart, God in my sufficing, God in my slumber, God in my ever-living soul, God in my eternity.

May you recognize in your life the presence, power and light of your soul. May you realize that you are never alone,That your soul, in its brightness and belonging,Connects you intimately with the rhythm of the universe. May you have respect for your own individuality and difference. May you realize that the shape of your soul is unique,That you have a special destiny here,That, behind the facade of your life, there is something beautiful, good and eternal happening.

May you learn to see yourself with the same delight, pride, and expectation with which God sees you in every moment. And may the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, And the rain fall soft upon your fields. And, until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Light To Our Nation (John Walsh)

“I have made you a light for the nations, so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.” (Is 49:6) This solemn promise was first made by God to the Suffering Servant of the Lord. We find St Paul and St Barnabas using it to justify their mission to the gentiles, and our own national apostle, St Patrick, quotes it in his Confession as the reason he came to preach the gospel of Christ among the Irish, and that despite having undergone at their hands six years of harsh captivity as a slave. Out of suffering and evil God can bring good, and Patrick never ceased thanking God for the way his ordeals reshaped his character and gave him a new purpose in life. It was the Holy Spirit especially who enabled him to survive those six years without bitterness or feeling of revenge towards his captors. “There I sought him,” he wrote, “and there I found him. I am convinced that he kept me from all evil, because of his Spirit who lives in me and works in me to this day.” This conviction led to a far deeper reverene and love for God, which manifested itself especially in his prayer-life.

In the course of a day he would say as many as a hundred prayers, and almost as many at night; and whether there was snow, frost or rain he would rise before dawn to commune with God. This in turn led to mystical experiences, a number of which are recalled in the Confession. For example he received messages in his sleep from God, telling him that he would shortly return to his own country, and later again he was urged to set off because a ship was ready to bring him there. Then there is the well documented account of how he heard in the night the voices of people in Ireland calling out to him, and beseeching him to “come and walk once more among them.” There was especially an extraordinary experience of his where he, as it were, saw a person praying within him. “I was, as it seemed, inside my own body,” he wrote, “and I heard him over me, that is over the inner man. There he was, praying with great fervour. All the while I was in a state of wonder as to who could possibly be praying inside me. He spoke, howevr, when his prayer had ended, telling me he was the Spirit.”

The only explanation Patrick could think of, for this supernatural experience, came from his recollection of St Paul’s words (Rom 8:26), “The Spirit also helps us in our weakness. For when we are unable to pray as we ought, the Spirit himself pleads for us in a way that could never be put into words.” The courage displayed by Patrick in returning to Ireland, where he would face many difficulties, persecutions, insults, even contrived opposition to his appointment as bishop, was mainly due to the influential role in his life played by the Holy Spirit. Particularly disturbing was the action of a once dear friend of his who tried to discredit him by circulating a defamatory document setting out details of a boyhood misdemeanour confided to him by Patrick, who at the time was barely fifteen years old. What it was we do not know, but the whole thing was blown up out of all proportion, in order to bring disgrace on Patrick, then an old man.

God, however, did not abandon him, but reassured him in a vision saying, “We have seen with disapproval the face of the chosen one deprived of his good name.” True to character, Patrick did not yield to bitterness towards his accusers, but rather had deep-felt sorrow for the man to whom, in his own words, he had confided his soul, a man he continued to describe as his dearest friend. Although he could not condone his treachery, pardon him he did. Today, we the spiritual offspring of St Patrick are confronted with various problems in our own era. For there is a marked drift away from a religious understanding of life, and towards a purely materialistic concept of what our earthly goals should be, something which accompanied the collapse of many a great civilisation in history.

With growing problems of alcohol and drug abuse, violence – in particular against the defenceless and elderly – increased suicide among young men, the enforced subservience, akin to slavery, of so many to crime bosses, the collapse of marriage and family ties, it is hardly any wonder that there is talk of a near breakdown of society in many quarters, especially among the underprivileged. To counter such we could well copy St Patrick’s belief in the power of prayer, a belief that brought him such inner freedom, dedication to the call of God, and such trust in the active presence of the Holy Spirit. For by these he once opened a door before us which no one can ever close.

Symbol Or Saint (Liam Swords)

A master of one-upmanship. With great ease and sharp wit he demolished his English and Scottish counterpart. He wins in the witty tales what he loses in the rat-race of daily life. Perhaps the creation of an inferiority-complex, of a conquered race. He has all the qualities attributed to the Irish Paddies themselves. A sharp wit, a quick tongue, a fertile imagination, a pride in physical strength and alcoholic capacity. A rough living, hard drinking, devil tearing, gregarious bull of a man. On his back were built the roads and railroads of half the world. A friendly son of St Patrick!

There were other builders too who carried his name. The sons and daughters of institutions. The later generations of the Irish diaspora. More respectable, more respectful but still brash and boastful. They built cathedrals and parish churches, hospitals and schools. And they called their institutions and their children after him. There was a lot of nostalgia for the “oul sod” in them and a lot of “look what we have achieved” in their monuments. And by their efforts St Patrick became middle class – a gentleman, no less!

But all this trafficking of Patrick at home and abroad has exacted a price. And this is not surprising in a country where religion is nationalistic and nationalism a religion. Patrick has become a national symbol and the man who, single-handed, converted the Irish has been well and truly buried beneath fifteen hundred years of national pride. “It’s a great day for the Irish,” we sing on St Patrick’s day. A national holiday.

Our ambassadors present heads of State with sprigs of shamrock. Our exiles paint the traffic lines on Fifth Avenue green. And upon all this celebration we expect the saint to “bestow a sweet smile.” It is the Irish we are honouring, not St Patrick.

Scholars argue interminably over the Patrician question. But the real Patrician question is concerned with separating the man from the myth, the saint from the symbol. Whoever it was converted the Irish virtually single-handed, from the bottom rather than from the top, in the teeth of a highly established Druidic religion, and all that without a single drop of martyr’s blood being shed, which produced such an extraordinary harvest of saintly monasticism and which survived fifteen hundred years, centuries of which were of violent and systematic persecution – whoever it was, must have been a man of outstanding human qualities, and singular sanctity. A man worth remembering, a saint worth honouring.

Courageous he must undoubtedly have been and energetic too. A man of great faith and strong feet. But in an age, which prefers action to adoration and protest to prayer, it might be worth remembering that Patrick was above all a man of prayer. And that the last great non-violent revolution in this country was the work of a man who wrote of himself: “The love of God and the fear of him increased more and more and my faith grew and my spirit was stirred up, so that in a single day I prayed as often as a hundred times and by night almost as frequently, even while I was in the woods or on the mountain.”

The real Patrician question is concerned with separating the man from the myth, the saint from the symbol. Whoever it was converted the Irish virtually single-handed, from the bottom rather than from the top, in the teeth of a highly-established Druidic religion, and all that without a single drop of martyr’s blood being shed, which produced such an extraordinary harvest of saintly monasticism and which survived fifteen hundred years, centuries of which were of violent and systematic persecution – whoever it was, must have been a man of outstanding human qualities, and singular sanctity. A man worth remembering, a saint worth honouring.

Courageous he must undoubtedly have been and energetic too. A man of great faith and strong feet. But in an age which prefers action to adoration and protest to prayer, it might be worth remembering that Patrick was above all a man of prayer. And that the last great non-violent revolution in this country was the work of a man who wrote of himself: “The love of God and the fear of him increased more and more and my faith grew and my spirit was stirred up, so that in a single day I prayed as often as a hundred times and by night almost as frequently, even while I was in the woods or on the mountain.”

First Reading: Jer 1:4-9

Now the word of the Lord came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the Lord.”

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the Lord said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth.

Second Reading: Acts 13:46-49

Paul and Barnabas spoke out boldly, saying, “It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us, saying, ‘I have set you to be a light for the Geniles, so that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.’”

When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers. Thus the word of the Lord spread throughout the region.

Gospel: Lk 10:1-12, 17-20

After this the Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road.

Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’

But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, on that day it will be more tolerable for Sodom than for that town.

The seventy returned with joy, saying, “Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!” He said to them, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning. See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”

One Comment

  1. i found these here passages a delight to read and a true reminder of the great man himself, Saint Patrick of Ireland.

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