Today is the Feast of Saint Patrick, the saint for whom my parents named me. To many, this day calls to mind raucous celebrations and drinking. And certainly a good amount of such revelry takes place. However, in our home, as in most Irish homes, it is a holy day celebrated by attending Mass and saying prayers of thanksgiving for the life of a man whose faithful dedication to Christ led him to return to the pagan land in which he had been enslaved to proclaim the Gospel.
St. Patrick was born in Britain, the son of a Roman official. He was kidnapped by Irish pirates and taken to Ireland where he was held as a slave. After six years of servitude in Ireland, he was awakened by a dream. He heard a voice in his sleep. "Your hungers are rewarded: You are going home," God told him. "Look, your ship is ready." He stole off into the night and over the next several days and nights walked the 200 miles to the coast where a ship awaited him to return him to England.
There he had a second vision -- one that called him back to Ireland. Victoricus, a man Patrick knew in Ireland, appeared to him in this dream, holding countless letters, one of which he handed to Patrick. The letter was entitled "The Voice of the Irish." Upon reading just the title, he heard a multitude of voices crying out to him: "Holy boy, we beg you to come and walk among us once more." He was so moved by this that he was unable to read further and woke up.
But the dream recurred again and again. Eventually Patrick submitted to God's call, and told his dismayed family of his plans to return to evangelize Ireland. He undertook studies for the priesthood, and was ordained. He asked permission from his superiors to take the Gospel to Ireland, but was refused permission. In the 400 years since Christ had lived, all evangelization (even Paul's) had been within the confines of the Roman Empire. Patrick proposed to take the Good News to a barbarian people unconquered by Rome, to people who still performed human sacrifices.
After repeated supplications, his superiors relented and he was allowed to go. He was appointed a bishop, the first in the history of the Church without any territory under his authority. Instead he was sent as bishop to a mission field. He returned to Ireland and converted the entire pagan people to Christ.
Had he never been kidnapped, it would probably have been centuries before Ireland was converted. It certainly would not have been in a position to "save civilization," as Thomas Cahill says, when the Roman Empire crumbled and all the written works of Western civilization, including the Bible, were lost -- except those in the Irish monasteries planted by Patrick and his successors. It was in those lonely outposts of Christianity that those books were painstakingly reproduced. And when the tide of barbarianism receded, the Irish monks set out with those books on their belts to spread The Word across Europe and Asia Minor.
Linked here is the Lorica, a prayer that was emblazoned on St. Patrick's breastplate. He wore armor because his proclamation of the Gospel threatened the power of the pagan chieftains. They tried many times to kill him. When he speaks of poisoning, burning, drowning and wounding, it is because those are the very real things he endured for the sake of Christ.
As you will see from this prayer, St. Patrick turned to Christ for protection in every aspect of his life. Today when an Irishman lifts a toast to "St. Patrick, the glorious apostle of Ireland," I hope you will join in saying a prayer of thanksgiving that this brave evangelist carried the light of Christ to the people of Ireland.