(Seriously. What did you think I was going to write about? Saints are, like, my one schtick, especially those affiliated with Britain.)
This is one saint needs no introduction: we know Patrick, or at least think we do. Most of what we know, though, is drawn from the more flamboyant sort of medieval legendry, which is of dubious historical merit at best. A case in point is Patrick chasing the snakes out of Ireland. As the regular St. Patrick’s Day news stories are wont to remind us, there probably weren’t any snakes around on the island at the time anyway. What we miss–and what the mosaic to the right shows us symbolically–is that the legend of Patrick and the snakes is a parable about the coming of Christ’s kingdom into Ireland, so long a stronghold of idolatry: the devilish serpents of Ireland are crushed beneath the heel of Christ, though that heel is also Patrick’s. “How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace”–but those sandalled feet on a muddy Irish road were heard by the Enemy as the thundering march of a legion: a heavenly invasion.
With what manner of man or woman does our Lord invade the territory of His foe? In the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, such apostle saints are revered, and certainly Patrick is no exception: as early as the early 600s, Patrick was called by Irish Christians papa noster, “our father,” but also with the resonances of “our pope.” As an Evangelical sort of Protestant, I can attest to a similarly high view of missionaries in our wing of Christendom, especially missionaries to unevangelized peoples and resistant cultures. Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant, our traditions unite in admiration for the trailblazers of the Kingdom, without whom we would not have known the Gospel of Christ’s reign. We respect them, and sometimes (I confess) idolize them, and in doing so, set them apart from ourselves: theirs is a special breed and calling, and they are not such stuff as we laymen are.
Regarding this error, Patrick speaks to us–not through an object lesson in his story, but with his own words. Unlike so many saints of his error, Patrick left a paper trail: at least two texts that generally accepted as authentic works of the apostle to the Irish himself. Both are interesting, but Patrick’s Confessio is the more important of the two, for in it he tells of his life and defends his ministry.
(Dear reader, please take the time to read it all: it’s not very long, and this is what Patrick wanted us to know of him. Though he is gone from us, he stands in our Lord’s presence, and is bound to us by one faith, one Spirit, and one baptism. He is our brother, and we should do him this courtesy.)
And what does Patrick say of himself? How does he wish us to regard him? Certainly not as some sort of high and holy superior being. No, what Patrick wants us to see in him is the immensity of grace:
I am, then, first of all, countryfied, an exile, evidently unlearned, one who is not able to see into the future, but I know for certain, that before I was humbled I was like a stone lying in deep mire, and he that is mighty came and in his mercy raised me up and, indeed, lifted me high up and placed me on top of the wall. And from there I ought to shout out in gratitude to the Lord for his great favours in this world and for ever, that the mind of man cannot measure. (12)
Thus I give untiring thanks to God who kept me faithful in the day of my temptation, so that today I may confidently offer my soul as a living sacrifice for Christ my Lord; who am I, Lord? or, rather, what is my calling? that you appeared to me in so great a divine quality, so that today among the barbarians I might constantly exalt and magnify your name in whatever place I should be, and not only in good fortune, but even in affliction? So that whatever befalls me, be it good or bad, I should accept it equally, and give thanks always to God who revealed to me that I might trust in him, implicitly and forever, and who will encourage me so that, ignorant, and in the last days, I may dare to undertake so devout and so wonderful a work; so that I might imitate one of those whom, once, long ago, the Lord already preordained to be heralds of his Gospel to witness to all peoples to the ends of the earth. So are we seeing, and so it is fulfilled; behold, we are witnesses because the Gospel has been preached as far as the places beyond which no man lives. (34)
I am greatly God’s debtor, because he granted me so much grace, that through me many people would be reborn in God, and soon after confirmed, and that clergy would be ordained everywhere for them, the masses lately come to belief, whom the Lord drew from the ends of the earth, just as he once promised through his prophets: ‘To you shall the nations come from the ends of the earth, and shall say, “Our fathers have inherited naught but lies, worthless things in which there is no profit.”’ And again: ‘I have set you to be a light for the Gentiles that you may bring salvation to the uttermost ends of the earth.’ (38)
What can I say, that Patrick has not already said better? And this is truly what the saint wants us to hear, though it might be difficult to discern his quiet fervency through the din of parades. I cannot but imagine that Patrick would blush at the notion of parades in his honor, much less rivers running green. If you would honor Patrick, honor his God, for that is what he most desired:
But I entreat those who believe in and fear God, whoever deigns to examine or receive this document composed by the obviously unlearned sinner Patrick in Ireland, that nobody shall ever ascribe to my ignorance any trivial thing that I achieved or may have expounded that was pleasing to God, but accept and truly believe that it would have been the gift of God. And this is my confession before I die. (62)