Among the many millions who celebrate Irishness every March 17, scarcely any wonder for a second whether there is any historical substance to the figure of St. Patrick, any more than to a host of other medieval wonderworkers. Treating such a tale as serious history, they assume, makes about as much sense as writing a critical biography of the Easter Bunny.
Sadly, such indifference means that moderns are missing a story that is not just rock-solid history, but is one of the most moving in early Christianity.
Normally, reconstructing the life of an early saint means picking through wildly exaggerated tales written centuries after the events occurred, and Patrick's later followers certainly concocted such accounts. Alongside the hagiography, though, we also have Patrick's very own writings. Let me repeat that: we have two documents actually written by the man himself, during a whole century when virtually no other contemporary text survives from the whole British Isles.
Patricius was born in Britain around the year 390, from a respectable Roman family, the son and grandson of Christian clergy. As an adolescent, he was kidnapped by Irish slavers. After some years, he escaped and returned to his native land, but he was persuaded to go back to Ireland to build the cause of Christianity. Though his mission achieved much, he was criticized for what looked like questionable financial dealings. This controversy drove Patrick to produce a remarkable Confession, which begins with the stark words Ego, Patricius -- I, Patrick.
It's a confession, not an autobiography, as Patrick defends his mission. Reading it today makes us think of emerging churches in the global South, where conversions are common, but where established churches and agencies worry about shady evangelists or revival crusades, about self-proclaimed bishops. Patrick, too, disturbed the bishops of Gaul and Britain, who had a poor sense of the very different conditions prevailing in the mission field. They had heard rumors about all the presents he was giving: was he trying to buy people's faith? How could he really expect to win genuine conversions? By what right did he call himself a bishop?
With all the patience at his command -- which was not immense -- Patrick told his critics about his extraordinary labors in a frightening and often dangerous pagan society, while they were living comfortably. He also stressed the practical realities of operating in this very different kind of emerging Christian society, where gift-giving was a standard part of life. Had he made gifts to influential leaders? He certainly had, and would do so again. I may be ignorant and unlearned, he says, but in winning this country, never doubt that I am doing God's will.
The defensive tone of the Confession is utterly lacking in Patrick's other surviving text, his Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. After years of struggle, Patrick had won many Irish for Christ -- not the overnight conversion of popular mythology, but more than enough to be proud of. Suddenly, though, the ruthless soldiers of the British king Coroticus attacked these Christian settlements, and right after a mass baptism ceremony. Patrick's fury is easy enough to understand, all the more so when we recall his own history. He knew at first hand what it was like to see your homeland devastated by soldiers, and to be carried off into slavery. Everywhere he looked in Ireland, he saw enslaved Christian women who had been seized from their British homes. But these latest horrors were the work of men who claimed to be Roman and Christian.
Patrick wrote to Coroticus himself, excommunicating him in vitriolic language that would have the prophet Jeremiah blanch. He urged those who read the letter to declare it publicly, even to Coroticus personally.
Even the letter's title proclaims Patrick's rage and contempt. He should have written to his "fellow Romans", but instead, "Notice I don't call you 'my fellow Romans' -- No, your crimes have made you citizens of Hell. You live like the worst barbarians, including your Pictish friends...Your hands drip with the blood of the innocent Christians you have murdered -- the very Christians I nourished and brought to God." (I'm using Philip Freeman's translation). Calling someone a "barbarian" today is less than polite; in the British Isles in 450, it meant reading someone out of the human race.
Summoning the other worst insults he could find in Roman custom, he denounced Coroticus's "Christians" as parricides, fratricides, bandits, apostates, murderers. He calls them sceleratissimi, which implies an ultimate degree of wickedness: translating it as "monsters of evil" comes close. Elsewhere in the world, he writes, other Christians try to ransom slaves, but you, Coroticus, enslave innocent people and sell them far from their homes, giving away young girls as prizes.
Patrick had probably never heard of St. Augustine, who lived a generation before his time, but the questions he was asking would have been familiar to the African saint. How could a state or a king boast of Christianity, if their every action betrayed the faith, if they showed neither mercy nor charity, even to fellow believers? If Coroticus did not live according to the church and its laws, then he was worse than a pagan, worse than a savage. His was not the City of God but the City of Hell. Christian kingship -- Roman kingship -- was a title that had to be earned. Christians? No, they were "rebels against Christ."
As for the murdered Irish Christians, they would dwell in Paradise, and "rule over wicked kings."
This March 17, then, forget the snakes and the green beer. Think of the prophetic Christian leader who demanded that rulers live up to the faith they professed, and who had no hesitation in damning violent oppressors to Hell.