The best known passage in the Confessio , his spiritual autobiography, tells of a dream, after his return to Britain, in which one Victoricus delivered him a letter headed “The Voice of the Irish.” As he read it he seemed to hear a certain company of Irish beseeching him to walk once more among them. “Deeply moved,” he says, “I could read no more.” Nevertheless, because of the shortcomings of his education he was reluctant for a long time to respond to the call. Even on the eve of reembarkation for Ireland he was beset by doubts of his fitness for the task. Once in the field, however, his hesitations vanished. Utterly confident in the Lord, he journeyed far and wide, baptizing and confirming with untiring zeal. In diplomatic fashion he brought gifts to a kinglet here and a lawgiver there but accepted none from any. On at least one occasion he was cast into chains. On another, he addressed with lyrical pathos a last farewell to his converts who had been slain or kidnapped by the soldiers of Coroticus.
Careful to deal fairly with the heathen, he nevertheless lived in constant danger of martyrdom. The evocation of such incidents of what he called his “laborious episcopate” was his reply to a charge, to his great grief endorsed by his ecclesiastical superiors in Britain, that he had originally sought office for the sake of office. In point of fact, he was a most humble-minded man, pouring forth a continuous paean of thanks to his Maker for having chosen him as the instrument whereby multitudes who had worshipped “idols and unclean things” had become “the people of God.”
The phenomenal success of Patrick's mission is not, however, the full measure of his personality. Since his writings have come to be better understood, it is increasingly recognized that, despite their occasional incoherence, they mirror a truth and a simplicity of the rarest quality. No diarist has ever bared his inmost soul to the same degree as did the patron saint of Ireland. As D.A. Binchy, the most austerely critical of Patrician (i.e., of Patrick) scholars, has put it, “The moral and spiritual greatness of the man shines through every stumbling sentence of his ‘rustic' Latin.”
It is not
possible to say with any assurance when Patrick was born. There are, however, a
number of pointers to his missionary career having lain within the second half
of the 5th century. In the Coroticus letter, his mention of the Franks as still
heathen indicates that the letter must have been written between 451, the date
generally accepted as that of the Franks' irruption into Gaul as far as the
Somme River, and 496, when they were baptized en masse. Patrick, who speaks of
himself as having evangelized heathen Ireland, is not to be confused with
sent by Pope Celestine in 431 as “first bishop to the Irish believers in
Before the end
of the 7th century Patrick had become a legendary figure, and the legends have
continued to grow. One of these would have it that he drove the snakes of
Ireland into the sea to their destruction. Another, probably the most popular,
is that of the
shamrock , which has
him explain the concept of the Holy Trinity, three Persons in one God, to an
unbeliever by showing him the three-leaved plant with one stalk. Today Irishmen
wear shamrocks, the national flower of Ireland, in their lapels on St. Patrick's
Day, March 17.
"Patrick, Saint" Encyclopædia Britannica
from Encyclopædia Britannica Online.
[Accessed August 5, 2003].