In the nave of my parish church, amongst the walls of glittering glass that are as windows unto the Word of God itself, there is an image of St. Patrick. When the morning light filters inward through its translucent shape, every feature of that great saint becomes sharp and distinct. His figure looms there suddenly, precisely as I have always imagined him—a man full-bearded and full-bodied, like a hero of old, always watchful and utterly unafraid. This patron of the Emerald Isle, before whom the serpent flees in terror, could almost be described as fearsome in his towering posture, if were not for the abundant love of Christ etched upon every inch of his brow. But on this March 17, the Church’s traditional feast day for St. Patrick, I find myself pondering the example of the man who inspired this glorious window, and in whom I find a model of strength for the missionary zeal of the Church Militant.
Many histories and hagiographies have been written for St. Patrick, and though some of the precise details of his life and ministry remain uncertain, there are points upon which we can speak with great confidence. It is known, for example, that he was born in the late fourth century in the borderlands of northern England, therefore making the greatest apostle in Irish history in fact a scion of Roman Britain. But more importantly, St. Patrick’s story is recorded as one of chastisement and redemption. At the age of sixteen he was taken from his ancestral home in a raid by the pagan Irish, only to escape from his bonds of servitude after a period of years and return again to baptize his captors into the faith of Christ. In the words of his Confessio—a rather beautiful autobiographical fragment which is widely relied upon by scholars—St. Patrick tells how he was given as bishop to the people of Ireland: “that those who never had a knowledge of God, but until now always worshipped idols and things impure, have now been made a people of the Lord.”
To learn of the many missionaries and martyrs of the Church who have gone abroad throughout hostile nations is to be moved by the hardships unceasingly endured, and the intensity of heroic virtue constantly displayed, to accomplish the work of God. Even so, I cannot help but esteem the labors of St. Patrick as among the greatest of those who have traveled far and wide for the discipleship of Christ. Indeed, I try to imagine the drama of his return to the land of those very people who had made him a slave—a land of phantoms and dreads, where pagan kings and Druid priests ruled the verdant hills.
I am particularly fond of that version of events given by C.P.S. Clarke in his Book of Saints. It says that upon his arrival in Ireland, St. Patrick set about to celebrate his first Easter in the precincts of Tara, the citadel of Druid sorcery and superstition. Contrary to the dictates of the heathen votaries, St. Patrick dared to kindle a paschal fire for the Vigil of the Easter Mass—a violation of the pagan rites which was to be punished with the penalty of death. But when the Irish wizards found themselves powerless to disarm St. Patrick’s courage, they appealed to the region’s overlord who sent soldiers and war wagons to seize the Christian bishop. Accordingly, when confronted by the threat of brute force, St. Patrick exclaimed in defiance: “Some put their trust in chariots and some in horses; but we in the Lord our God.” Unscathed by the encounter, the saint proceeded in his mission, and Ireland was won for Christ.
Some laugh at such stories, and find no example or virtue in their telling; but I submit that the lessons they teach are not so distant yet. Moral strength is an excellent and uncommon thing; and it comes not simply from certitude of belief, but from the wisdom of believing what is true. In every corner of the world, in every age and epoch of history, there have been forces at work in opposition to the saving mission of the Church. Sometimes we see the contemporary struggle manifested in subtle forms: in a case at law, or in the teaching at a school, or in the preservation or denial of life in a hospital room. But at other times, as in St. Patrick’s experience, the oppression is forceful and overt; whole powers of state and violence are issued against people of faith. But in every instance, the worldly and overconfident will be found to be mistaken, if they are challenged on the one point which they distinctly lack: Jesus Christ, who is “the Way, and the Truth, and the Life” (John 14:6).
On this day, we look to find the strength of St. Patrick in ourselves—that is, in our bishops and priests, in our religious and laity—to articulate the challenge of faith in the midst of difficult, even impossible, odds. In this age of ours, who would dare to go before senators and judges, declaring in the likeness of the saint: “Some put their trust in nations and some in avarice for every earthly thing; but we in the Lord our God”? Whether berated with the din of laughter, or caught in the clamor of scorn, it is our special task to give to the world this expression of the serenity and hope of Christian fortitude: a power that is never irrational, never violent, but also never afraid. And if it is thought by some to have diminished, or even gone wholly out of the Church, I stridently assert that in some persons its example remains unbroken. It was assuredly present in the quiet and gentle magnificence of Pope Benedict XVI; it will faithfully grow in the brazen and relentless piety of every successor of St. Peter.
There is an old and altogether majestic prayer which has long been ascribed to Ireland’s patron saint, called the Lorica of St. Patrick. The word lorica, as you might know, is the Latin term for the breastplate or armor which Roman soldiers wore in battle. As a sort of appeal and petition to God to defend the Christian soul, the first part of St. Patrick’s Lorica reads:
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through a belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
Of the Creator of creation.
The Lorica then proceeds to express certain marks of the intensely Christian life, and is very much worth reading in its entire poetic extent. But I never cease to marvel at the perfection of that first worthy expression with which it opens: “I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity.” Mindful of St. Francis de Sales’ exhortation to offer countless little prayers to God each day, perhaps this brief phrase would be of comfort and recourse to some in the recurring struggles of modern life. For when we think of the many terrible adversities and sufferings St. Patrick once conquered, it is well to remember that he prevailed only with the words of the Trinity on his lips.
Although it is undoubtedly true that each and every one of the Church’s saints display a faith and virtue which is for all the ages of the world, I would especially believe that St. Patrick—though he lived some sixteen centuries past—is truly a saint for our times.