The available body of evidence does not allow the dates of Patrick's life to be fixed with certainty, but it appears that he was active as a missionary in Ireland during the second half of the fifth century. Two letters from him survive, along with later hagiographies from the seventh century onwards. Many of these works cannot be taken as authentic traditions. Uncritical acceptance of the Annals of Ulster (see below) would imply that he lived from 340 to 460, and ministered in what is modern day northern Ireland from 428 onwards.
Slemish, County Antrim, where Patrick is said to have worked as a herdsman while a slave.
Two Latin letters survive which are generally accepted to have been written by Patrick. These are the Declaration (Latin: Confessio) and the Letter to the soldiers of Coroticus (Latin: Epistola). The Declaration is the more important of the two. In it Patrick gives a short account of his life and his mission.
Patrick was born at Banna Venta Berniae. Calpornius, his father was a deacon, his grandfather Potitus a priest. When he was about sixteen, he was captured and carried off as a slave to Ireland. Patrick worked as a herdsman, remaining a captive for six years. He writes that his faith grew in captivity, and that he prayed daily. After six years he heard a voice telling him that he would soon go home, and then that his ship was ready. Fleeing his master, he travelled to a port, two hundred miles away he says, where he found a ship and, after various adventures, returned home to his family, now in his early twenties.
Patrick recounts that he had a vision a few years after returning home:
I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: "The Voice of the Irish". As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: "We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.
Much of the Declaration concerns charges made against Patrick by his fellow Christians at a trial. What these charges were, he does not say explicitly, but he writes that he returned the gifts which wealthy women gave him, did not accept payment for baptisms, nor for ordaining priests, and indeed paid for many gifts to kings and judges, and paid for the sons of chiefs to accompany him. It is concluded, therefore, that he was accused of some sort of financial impropriety, and perhaps of having obtained his bishopric in Ireland with personal gain in mind.
From this same evidence, something can be seen of Patrick's mission. He writes that he "baptised thousands of people". He ordained priests to lead the new Christian communities. He converted wealthy women, some of whom became nuns in the face of family opposition. He also dealt with the sons of kings, converting them too.
Patrick's position as a foreigner in Ireland was not an easy one. His refusal to accept gifts from kings placed him outside the normal ties of kinship, fosterage and affinity. Legally he was without protection, and he says that he was on one occasion beaten, robbed of all he had, and put in chains, perhaps awaiting execution.
Murchiú's life of Saint Patrick contains a supposed prophecy by the druids which gives an impression of how Patrick and other Christian missionaries were seen by those hostile to them:
Across the sea will come Adze-head, crazed in the head,
his cloak with hole for the head, his stick bent in the head.
He will chant impieties from a table in the front of his house;
all his people will answer: "so be it, so be it."
The second piece of evidence which comes from Patrick's life is the Letter to Coroticus or Letter to the Soldiers of Coroticus. In this, Patrick writes an open letter announcing that he has excommunicated certain Brythonic warriors of Coroticus who have raided in Ireland, along with Picts and Irishmen, taking some of Patrick's converts into slavery. Coroticus, based largely on an 8th century gloss, is taken to be King Ceretic of Alt Clut. It has been suggested that it was the sending of this letter which provoked the trial which Patrick mentions in the Confession.
According to the latest reconstruction of the old Irish annals, Patrick died in AD 461, a date accepted by some modern historians.Prior to the 1940s it was believed without doubt that he died in 420 and thus had lived in the first half of the 5th century. A lecture entitled "The Two Patricks", published in 1942 by T. F. O'Rahilly, caused enormous controversy by proposing that there had been two "Patricks", Palladius and Patrick, and that what we now know of St. Patrick was in fact in part a conscious effort to meld the two into one hagiographic personality. Decades of contention eventually ended with most historians now asserting that Patrick was indeed most likely to have been active in the mid-to-late 5th century.
While Patrick's own writings contain no dates, they do contain information which can be used to date them. Patrick's quotations from the Acts of the Apostles follow the Vulgate, strongly suggesting that his ecclesiastical conversion did not take place before the early fifth century. Patrick also refers to the Franks as being pagan. Their conversion is dated to the period 496–508.
The compiler of the Annals of Ulster stated that in the year 553:
I have found this in the Book of Cuanu: The relics of Patrick were placed sixty years after his death in a shrine by Colum Cille. Three splendid halidoms were found in the burial-place: his goblet, the Angel's Gospel, and the Bell of the Testament. This is how the angel distributed the halidoms: the goblet to Dún, the Bell of the Testament to Ard Macha, and the Angel's Gospel to Colum Cille himself. The reason it is called the Angel's Gospel is that Colum Cille received it from the hand of the angel.
The reputed burial place of St. Patrick in Downpatrick
The placing of this event in the year 553 would certainly seem to place Patrick's death in 493, or at least in the early years of that decade, and indeed the Annals of Ulster report in 493:
Patrick, arch-apostle, or archbishop and apostle of the Irish, rested on the 16th of the Kalends of April in the 120th year of his age, in the 60th year after he had come to Ireland to baptize the Irish.
There is also the additional evidence of his disciple, Mochta, who died in 535.
St. Patrick is said to be buried at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down, alongside St. Brigid and St. Columba, although this has never been proven. The Battle for the Body of St. Patrick demonstrates the importance of both him as a spiritual leader, and of his body as an object of veneration, in early Christian Ireland. Saint Patrick Visitor Centre is a modern exhibition complex located in Downjohn and is a permanent interpretative exhibition centre featuring interactive displays on the life and story of Saint Patrick. It provides the only permanent exhibition centre in the world devoted to Saint Patrick.
Patrick in legend
Pious legend credits Patrick with banishing snakes from the island, though all evidence suggests that post-glacial Ireland never had snakes; one suggestion is that snakes referred to the serpent symbolism of the Druids of that time and place, as shown for instance on coins minted in Gaul (see Carnutes), or that it could have referred to beliefs such as Pelagianism, symbolized as “serpents”.
belief of 'three divine persons in the one God' (as opposed to the Arian belief that was popular in Patrick's time). (see The Wearing of the green (shamrock) )
Some Irish legends involve the Oilliphéist, the Caoránach, and the Copóg Phádraig. During his evangelising journey back to Ireland from his parent's home at Birdoswald, he is understood to have carried with him an ash wood walking stick or staff. He thrust this stick into the ground wherever he was evangelising and at the place now known as Aspatria (ash of Patrick) the message of the dogma took so long to get through to the people there that the stick had taken root by the time he was ready to move on. The 12th century work Acallam na Senórach tells of Patrick being met by two ancient warriors, Caílte mac Rónáin and Oisín, during his evangelical travels. The two were once members of Fionn mac Cumhaill's warrior band the Fianna, and somehow survived to Patrick's time. They traveled with the saint and told him their stories.
As one of the earliest Christian missionaries traveling abroad to spread the Christian faith, Saint Patrick is important because he serves as a testament to the overall missionary legacy of the Church. His example afforded later Christian missionaries the opportunity to assess the best methods to employ when confronting pagan groups abroad. Perhaps the most significant aspect of Saint Patrick’s missionary efforts in Ireland was that he transcended the boundary between Church hierarchy and prominent Church Fathers in terms of the viability of missionary pursuits. Saint Patrick proved that any Christian could live out the Scriptural commandment to spread the word of God while “exalting and confessing his wonders before all the nations that are under the heavens.” Patrick’s example would inspire later missionaries to undertake great missions to evangelize abroad in later years.
Methods for Conversion
Surely Saint Patrick openly preached the gospel message while among the Picts and Irish peoples, but that method does not alone account for conversions to Christianity. In terms of numbers, Patrick himself suggested that he baptized and converted “many thousands,” to the faith. It is true that Patrick had some success converting the sons and daughters of Irish Kings to Christianity, but actual figures of the numbers of converts among the entirety of the Irish population remain unknown. There is no solid mention of him teaching the catechism of the Church to new believers, so there is little evidence to suggest that the new converts maintained the Christian faith without a foundation in doctrinal teachings. It was quite possible that converts reverted back to their traditional pagan beliefs, especially without any clear support from Church leaders on the European mainland.
One way for Saint Patrick to ensure success for evangelizing opportunities while among the Irish was to live in solidarity with those whom he was trying to convert. Approaching the Irish as an equal while showing no pretense of superiority allowed the Irish to become more receptive of Christian teachings. In fact, Patrick himself avowed in his Confession that he “sold this nobility of [his],” to enhance the commonality between himself and his Irish audience.
Although he may not have been as well versed in the teachings of the Church as other missionaries, Saint Patrick did understand the basic tenets of the Christian faith. Yet, Saint Patrick seemed to be haunted by his lack of education, and claimed that evangelizing among the Irish “revealed his lack of learning,” according to his own Confession. Limited education would prove to be an obstacle for Patrick, and considering that “every word [he] spoke had to be translated into a foreign tongue,” communicating with the pagans in Ireland became a daunting task.
A complete lack of adequate translators hindered Saint Patrick’s attempts to explain the Gospel message and herald his message of the dogma of Jesus Christ. In fact, later Christian missionaries aware of the challenges faced by Patrick would ensure that a sufficient knowledge of foreign languages was known before embarking on missions abroad. Jesuit missionaries in later years would pay particular attention to the details of languages while traveling in Asia and North America.
Saint Patrick was able to preach and lead significantly by example, so when Bishops in Europe accused Patrick of various unknown charges, his reputation inevitably suffered among the Picts and Irish people. As a result it can be assumed that progress being made in gaining favor among the people would have diminished considering Saint Patrick’s authority as Bishop in Ireland became challenged. Overall, his mission to Ireland cannot be determined as successful or not in the missionary sense due to the limited knowledge we have concerning his life there. It can be assumed that the immensity of the challenges facing Saint Patrick would have made any significant change to the religious landscape of Ireland difficult.
Sainthood and remembrance
March 17, popularly known as St. Patrick's Day, is believed to be his death date and is the date celebrated as his feast day. The day became a feast day in the universal church due to the influence of the Waterford-born Franciscan scholar Luke Wadding, as a member of the commission for the reform of the Breviary in the early part of the 17th century.
For most of Christianity's first thousand years, canonisations were done on the diocesan or regional level. Relatively soon after the death of people considered to be very holy people, the local Church affirmed that they could be liturgically celebrated as saints. As a result, St. Patrick has never been formally canonised by a Pope; nevertheless, various Christian churches declare that he is a Saint in Heaven (he is in the List of Saints). He is still widely venerated in Ireland and elsewhere today.
St. Patrick is also venerated in the Orthodox Church, especially among English-speaking Orthodox Christians living in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland and in North America. There are Orthodox icons dedicated to him.
On March 17, 1776, the day that British forces under General Sir William Howe evacuated Boston during the American Revolutionary War, the password of the day at General George Washington's Continental Army encampment was "Saint Patrick". -wikipedia
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