Sunday, 17 March 2013

With the Saints in Lent (33): Saint Patrick, 17 March

A statue of Saint Patrick on the Hill of Tara (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

Although this is the Fifth Sunday in Lent and Passion Sunday, Lent is forgotten on 17 March in most parts of Ireland, and today is being celebrated as Saint Patrick’s Day.

I was interviewed on Thursday evening [14 March] in Neil Delamare’s programme on RTÉ, There’s Something about Patrick as he sought to discover the truth of Ireland’s patron saint. The interview took place in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, and I am preaching later this morning [17 March] at the Saint Patrick’s Day Festival Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedra at 10 a..m, when it may be very difficult to repeat some of the things Neil Delamare said on that programme.

Traditionally and romantically, we think in Ireland of Saint Patrick converting the entire population of the island from paganism in a very short period between 432 and 461, less than the span of one generation.

But, of course, there were Christians in Ireland before Saint Patrick’s arrival and his work as a missionary is only part of the story of the origins and growth of Christianity on this island. Christianity probably arrived in Ireland in the 4th and early 5th centuries by a slow and gradual process of unplanned infiltration, from Britain and from Continental European.

There are traditions that some Irish saints preceded Saint Patrick in date: Saint Ciaran of Seir Kieran, Co Offaly (Diocese of Ossory); Saint Ibar or Iberius of Begerin, Co Wexford (Diocese of Ferns); his nephew, Saint Abban of Adamstown, Co Wexford (Ferns); Saint Declan of Ardmore, Co Waterford; Saint Declan’s friend, Saint Ailbe of Emly, Co Tipperary; Saint Meltioc or Multose of Kinsale, Co Cork; and so on. Most of these are associated with the south and the south-east, although there is no primary evidence to support these largely unreliable traditions.

Nevertheless, the presence of British Christians in Ireland must have had an influence, direct or indirect, on the spread of Christianity in Ireland before 431, and by the time he began his mission Patrick would have found the British Christians resident in Ireland forming the nucleus for his mission and his Church.

The background to Saint Patrick’s mission includes the presence of perhaps three heresies in Ireland – Arianism, Priscillianism and Pelagianism – that probably arrived from western Europe in the late fourth and early fifth centuries.

Germanus of Auxerre was sent from Rome to Britain in 429 to combat the impact of Pelagius and Pelagianism on the Church in Roman Britain. Soon after – perhaps in 431 – Palladius was ordained by Pope Celestine, and he was sent as the “first bishop” on a mission to “the Scotti [Irish] who believe in Christ.” So, we know that from at least the third decade of the fifth century, the Irish Christians were numerically large enough to have a bishop sent from Rome, and Palladius is associated with a number of church sites in Leinster.

Palladius may have worked in the south-east of Ireland for a few years. His work in Leinster was continued, perhaps, by figures such as Secundinus, Auxilius and Iserninus. His mission activities and those of Patrick may have been confused in later writings, so that much of the work and success of Palladius was attributed wrongly to Patrick.

The late Professor Patrick Corish of Maynooth, in The Irish Catholic Experience (1985), links the mission of Palladius in Leinster with, perhaps, three churches in Co Wicklow. The circular letter known as The First Synod of Saint Patrick seems to provide evidence of a second-generation missionary Church in Leinster, and this stream of Christianity in Ireland has been associated with the Church in Kildare.

Saint Patrick … a stained glass window in Saint Edan’s Cathedral, Ferns, Co Wexford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

But who was Saint Patrick?

The young Patrick was captured in a great raid in which “many thousands of people” [Confessio 1], some of whom were lukewarm Christians, according to his own account, and some of them could also have been committed Christians, perhaps even priests.

Saint Patrick’s account of his flight from slavery as a young man at the age of 22 may be evidence of an escape network for fugitive slaves run by concerned Christians, presumably in Leinster, more than 20 years before Patrick began his own mission [Confessio 17 and 18].

However, Saint Patrick does not refer to Palladius. Although the missions of Palladius and Saint Patrick may have coincided, Saint Patrick was working in fresh territory, while Roman missionaries in Leinster were consolidating the work of Palladius and others who, by 431, had ensured that there were many people in Ireland who were Christians.

By the time Saint Patrick began his mission, the foundations had been laid for a Church in Ireland that over the centuries that followed became a vibrant missionary Church.

In his Confessio [51], Saint Patrick shows he is aware of episcopal activity in other parts of Ireland, including baptisms, confirmations and ordinations.

Saint Patrick says he travelled to places in Ireland “where no one else had ever penetrated, in order to baptise, or to ordain clergy, or to confirm the people” – suggesting there were places that had received episcopal ministry from other, earlier sources.

So, Christianity had already taken root in the island before Saint Patrick began his mission.

The traditional account of the life of Saint Patrick says he was born about 372 in Roman Britain in Bannavem Taburniae, perhaps in Cumbria or at Dumbarton in Scotland. He says his father Calpornius was a deacon and his grandfather Potitus was a priest; both were from a relatively prosperous class of Romans.

At the age of 16, he was captured and brought to Ireland and later sold as a slave. After escaping and returning to his own people, he began to have visions of the cry of the Irish pleading to him to come back – an image probably drawn from Saint Paul’s vision in Troy of a man calling him across the sea to Macedonia (see Acts 16: 9-10).

Believing he was called by God to a mission to the Irish, he entered the monastery of Saint Martin of Tours. He was subsequently ordained a bishop in Rome, and was sent to Ireland by Pope Celestine, who died in 432.

Patrick arrived from Britain in Ireland around 432, and most of the details we have of his life are from his Confessio, written in reply to the attacks on his character brought against him in England, and his Letter to Coroticus.

Saint Patrick … an image on the wall of Saint Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church in Skerries, Co Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

It is said that Saint Patrick built 365 churches and consecrated an equal number of bishops, established schools and convents, and held synods. The sites associated with him include Armagh, which became the centre of the cult of Saint Patrick, Croagh Patrick in Co Mayo and Lough Derg on the borders of Co Donegal, where he is said to have spent time in retreat, and Downpatrick, where he is said to have been buried. There is no historical reason to associate him with the site of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, or the supposed Saint Patrick’s Well at the Nassau Street side of Trinity College Dublin, or other sites such as Holmpatrick in Skerries or Saint Patrick’s Church in Donabate, both in Fingal in north Co Dublin.

There are four different dates for his death. Most traditions say he died around 460, although other authorities say he died sometime around 491 to 493.

Mediaeval sources are unanimous in describing Saint Brigid of Kildare as a contemporary of Saint Patrick.

There is a theory that there were two Patricks, although this may arise from a misreading of “the elder Patrick,” who died in457, where elder might also be read as bishop or priest.

Neither the canons attributed to him nor the Breastplate of Saint Patrick is his work. Later seventh-century documents speak of Saint Patrick as the successor of Palladius. However, the O Neill dynasty had Tireachan and Muirchu write spurious accounts of Saint Patrick’s life to establish Armagh’s claims to primacy in Ireland.

When Brian Ború became High King ca 1000 AD, he had his secretary write into the Book of Armagh a confirmation of the right of Armagh to all church revenues in Ireland. It was at least another century, however, before Armagh’s claims to primacy were recognised throughout the Irish Church.

Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Collect:

Almighty God,
in your providence you chose your servant Patrick
to be the apostle of the Irish people,
to bring those who were wandering in darkness and error
to the true light and knowledge of your Word:
Grant that walking in that light
we may come at last to the light of everlasting life;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Readings:

Tobit 13: 1b-7 or Deuteronomy 32: 1-9; Psalm 145: 1-13; II Corinthians 4: 1-12; John 4: 31-38.

Post Communion Prayer:

Hear us, most merciful God,
for that part of the Church
which through your servant Patrick you planted in our land;
that it may hold fast the faith entrusted to the saints
and in the end bear much fruit to eternal life:
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Tomorrow (18 March): Saint Cyril of Jerusalem.

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