In just a few days time we will celebrate the feast of St Patrick. For many he is still a saint who is greatly loved all over the world, especially by Irish people or people who have Irish roots. He is seen as a key figure that brought the Christian faith to their land, to their peoples and, through them, to many people thereafter throughout the world.
When we get down to it there is a actually very little that we know about St Patrick. We certainly know that he lived in the 5th century but we are not exactly sure exactly of when he was born or when he died. Although the story of how he came to Ireland as a slave is probably true we don’t know where he lived or was brought up; there are conflicting claims from northern England, Wales and Scotland.
We only have 2 things that are acknowledged as having been written by his own hand, something that is called the Confessio (the words of the hymn which we sung at the beginning of Mass are taken from the Confession) and a letter written to Croaticus, a slave owner. In these writings we have scan detect elements of his life and some elements of things he believed. We can tell from these his strong belief in the Trinity, the importance of penance in his preaching, some details about his life.
Much of what we have come to know about him are later legends written in the following centuries, and perhaps contain a sense of his presence among them the power of his preaching, they dwell on the miraculous, and tell us of his strong and persuasive nature.
Here some things that he never did. He never drove the snakes out of Ireland because there were none In Ireland. He never converted Ireland single handed because there were missionaries there before him and after him. He probably never had anything to do with shamrocks either. These are all figments of people’s imaginations.
Infact, the truth of things is even greater than the fiction that we have grown up with. The 5th century, in which few books were written anywhere, in which little is recorded about anyone, there is a memory of a man named Patrick who lived and taught the Christian faith. A man who was most probably a slave, as the stories tell us, who returned to the country of his captivity and who returned to Ireland after a conversion to carry on the work of sowing seeds of the Christian faith that was begin by others and would be continued by others..
The fragments of his life that have come down to us we can detect a sense of the power of the man in his action and his words that set alight a generation and generations that came after. He is a flawed man with a fiery temper and who is super sensitive, reading behind what is written about him, he is also a man who bears grudges and who is far from diplomatic in his words or actions. He is into penance in a big way, big penances and public penances; he is not some soft mark. He is not averse to borrowing things from pagan religions and Christianizing them, their feasts, their blessings, their prayers, their holy places, their wells.
Despite his prickly nature, fiery temper and quarrelsome ways he is a chosen instrument, not a single instrument, but one of many who would set in motion the conversion if Irish people, that would touch many in that land and beyond.
Patrick has similarities between himself and Abraham in the first reading. He too, like Abraham, is the man of faith; he is the man who sets out in a journey, like Abraham, to where he doesn’t know. Abraham is sent to the wilderness and the dry lands, Patrick is sent to the wilds of Ireland, a pointless journey it seems, a life of privation and danger awaits him there. But there is something that burns in both the heart of Abraham and the heart of Patrick, they have come to know. It seems that God has whispered in their ears ad spoken in their hearts. This is a fire that won’t be put out and can’t be put out. Like Peter and James and John (in the Gospel), Patrick and Abraham have seen something, they have heard something, which they cannot forget, that will take them to places where he wants them to go, will carry them to lands, which they don’t know.
St Patrick’s can be a day which associated with the most ridiculous things. Green leprauchorns, orange wigs, drinking to excess, Irish music that makes people cry into their Guinness. But it is a day that cannot be without Patrick. The unforgettable, the irrepressible, Patrick. The boy carried off as a slave, the man who returns with a burning torch. The boy who was miserable and the man who is filled with irrepressible zeal. The man who joins with others and sets in motion events that have touched our lives in our land, in our homes and families.