from the Church History

St. Patrick
by Joseph A. Dunney [1945]

What bitter storms beset the Church in this, the first of the five dark ages! Heretics fought Catholics so ruthlessly it looked as if Arianism might rapidly supplant Christianity. But the papacy stood firm like a lighthouse on the rocks of time, and bad as things were from every point of view, the Church actually renewed her strength. One reason was the toleration proclaimed by Theodoric the Goth in 493; another was the conversion of Clovis and his Franks in 496. After that, the Mother of the Nations, aided by the Sons of St. Patrick and the Sons of St. Benedict proceeded magnificently and patiently to convert the broken Empire, which had become a group of barbarian kingdoms.

A dozen years before the fevered century the dim figure of Patrick appears out beyond the orbit of the Empire. This free–born son of Calpurnius moves among the sheep and swine on Slemish mountain overlooking the vales of Antrim. In his youth Patrick had been dragged from his natal villa “Enon” (was it in Gaul, Wales, Caledonia or Roman Britain?) and brought to Ireland. Nial of the Nine Hostages, chief of the Kings, still dwelt in that dark but beautiful isle. And many a fierce marauder rose at his command, crossed the seas and ravaged the mainland. A court poet of the Emperor Honorius describes these war–bent Scots plying their oars:

totam cum Scotus Ibernam Movit,
et infesto spumavit remige Tethys

In one of those bloody raids Patrick was seized and made captive. His parents slain in the siege, two of his sisters carried off in the fleet, the stalwart tad was sold as a slave and put to serve under a hard master. One wonders whether the young exile imagined that one day he would go away and come back to Ireland a conquering hero of Christ. “Was it the will of God,” Patrick would write in later years, “or according to the flesh that I came to Ireland? I was bound in the Spirit that I should never again see any one of my relations. Do I not love tender mercy, when I thus act toward that nation which of old enslaved me?” [1]

A High–Born Exile

The Antrim chief, Milcho, made him a herdsman and as the rugged slave followed his flocks up hill and down dale he found plenty of time to think and pray. The gates to the past were closed it is true, yet that fact did not down him, for even then Patrick, pious from childhood up, was given to higher things. Of his inner life at that time the saint himself has left a brief but vivid record: “On coming to Ireland,” he says in his Confessions, “I was daily tending sheep, and many times in the day I prayed, and more and more the love of God, and His fear grew in me, and the spirit was strengthened, so that in a single day I have said as many as a hundred prayers, and in the night nearly as many; so that I remained in the woods and on the mountain, and before the dawn I was summoned to prayer by the snow, the ice, and the rain, and I did not suffer from them, nor was there any sloth in me, as I see now, because then the Spirit was burning within me.” Notice the deep abiding spirit of prayer in this noble exile who walked with God all through the most trying years of his youth. There is no surprise that “the Lord deigned to grant him many favors and graces in the land of his captivity”; even so early the holy herdsman received intimations of the future in store for him. One night Milcho had a dream in which his gifted slave appeared, hair on fire, and drew so close that the burning hair almost suffocated the restless sleeper. Milcho pushed him aside, when suddenly in his dream the flame leaped upon the two daughters who lay asleep in the same bed, and the wind scattered their ashes over the land. Never was a master more startled than the Scots chief by this strange, terrifying experience. Asked the meaning of it all, Patrick frankly replied that the flame was the faith of the Holy Trinity which Milcho, sad to say, rejected but not so his daughters who would die the death of the just and become the glory of Ireland.

Six long years Patrick, clad in sheepskin, served his Antrim master well. And not unfruitfully either, for they were years when the youth, having known and loved God from the first, was nurtured by hidden graces; it was as easy for him to be true to Christ as for the Irish skies to be blue, or shamrocks green. By degrees the vigilant herdsman, brought in friendly contact with the natives, began to dream of their conversion, and a holy hope was kindled that would never die. His heart went out to the lively, passionate people on this isle, who loved the unknown Creator in their own crude way.. Yet that same great heart ached with pity when he beheld them observing black Druid rites and offering human sacrifices. The very thought of the lovable Irish, so warped in spirit, sickened him through and through. One day, he dared hope, all this would be changed, one day when God saw fit. In the year 393 Patrick made his escape to the west coast, and fled over the sea to Gaul. “After three days,” he wrote, “we reached the land and for twenty–eight days we made our way through a desert. Food and drink failed us, and hunger pressed us sorely.” Now that he had won through by the power of prayer, the freeman realized that he must spend years of study before he could return to Ireland as a missionary. But luckily for Patrick there was a monastery at Marmoutier on the banks of the Loire, ruled over by his kinsman St. Martin of Tours. Monks and missionaries from afar made it their resting place after the heat and burden of years spent in carrying the gospel to the barbarians. This abode of prayer and peace provided a veritable “heaven–haven” for the young pilgrim; its cells and caverns housed saints; its school offered the highest knowledge under the direction of seasoned instructors. “When then,” asks Sulpicius Severus, “was there a church or city which did not aspire to possess priests from the Monastery of St. Martin?”

The newcomer, though not a member of the community, spent four years at Marmoutier under the guidance of St. Martin. One may be sure they were years which revived, enlarged and deepened the pilgrim’s experience, years of study and prayer, rich in inspiration, teeming with the wisdom of “doctrine and learning.” His teachers, perceiving Patrick’s spiritual independence and originality, recognized him for what he was – a man sent of God. Had they any idea that their visitor was destined to be the most illustrious missionary of the Dark Ages? Did they dream that once Patrick left their holy retreat he would spend nearly two–score years in pilgrimage? Anyhow, he had much to learn during his stay, much to master about the ways and life of brave monks who had done yeoman service in the field afar. They could tell him about other days of derring–do in the Empire, and many facts about his kinsman, their beloved Abbot–Bishop, Martin, Apostle of Gaul. Born in Hungary in 315, the son of a pagan Roman tribune, he became a catechumen at ten, enrolled in the imperial cavalry and was baptized at twenty. Used to warfare, he now dedicated himself to lifelong service against the forces of evil; this soldier of Christ joined up with St. Hilary at Poitiers, proceeding shortly to combat the Arians in his homeland. And after many years of preaching the gospel and rooting out pagan superstitions, he was elected Bishop of Tours, where he continued to live as a simple monk, eventually founding the celebrated monastery of Marmoutier. The blessed days Patrick spend with St. Martin and his monks proved rich seed–time for the young refugee, but the hour struck when he should again follow the pilgrim path.

Hope Deferred

After four blessed years in Marmoutier, Patrick having received tonsure, bade adieu to the monks and their holy places. But alas and alack! no sooner had he departed than he fell into the hands of pirates. Another experience of waiting and tension, of difficulties and privations, the sort that test the stoutest soul. The saint writes about this episode and the revelation that followed: “And again, after some years, I was once more taken captive, and on the first night I remained with them…. On the sixtieth night the Lord delivered me from their hands. Again, after a few years I was with my relations in Brittany who received me as a son, and there in a vision of the night I saw a man named Vitricius, coming as it were from Ireland, with innumerable letters, one of which he gave to me, and in the first line I read, “The voice of the Irish,” and as I repeated the first words of the letter I seemed at the same moment to hear…. “We beseech thee, holy youth, to return and still walk among us.” That clear call from above, one of many, must have greatly strengthened Patrick’s desire to go back and convert Ireland, yet long years of trial lay ahead before he would reach the goal of holy endeavor. Gaul, in the days of his pilgrimage, appears free from barbarian inroads, guarded as it was by the Rhine and the Alps. So when the Huns were terrorizing the East, this pilgrim of God travelled from shrine to shrine, from monastery to monastery in preparation for his exalted mission. There were simply two things to be done walk with God and obey His holy Will. “A husbandman, an exile, and unlearned,” as he humbly describes himself, he carried on for three decades during which he grew in wisdom as in grace.

Think of it, thirty years! Years of hope that never faded, years of faith that never failed. Try to picture the endless stretch of travel, the encounters of peril and rebuff. He spent some time with the zealous and learned St. Vincent at Lerins, a stronghold of Christian piety and letters, garnering many spiritual treasures for his predestined apostolate. He hoped, of course, to go to Rome where Pope Innocent occupied the Chair of Peter but conditions proved anything but favor able. The Goths had invaded the Eternal City and the Church appeared to be in dire peril. Yet the fearless Innocent could say to barbarian and heretic alike – “Is it not known that the things which have been delivered to the Roman Church by Peter, the Prince of the Apostles, and preserved ever since, should be observed by all; and that nothing is to be introduced devoid of authority or borrowed elsewhere?” Patrick never saw Pope Innocent; he had no ecclesiastical credentials, so what could the poor wandering cleric do about it? But he did plow along as the years revolved, always resigned to the divine will; one might say his rule of the road read: “circumstances are God’s sealed orders.” Because Patrick had the faith of a true mystic, which can be summed up in one word, “Immediacy,” he made use of the present moment, certain by grace that the Holy Spirit was guiding him.

One day during his travels from city to city Patrick arrived in Auxerre where Bishop Amator ordained him deacon. But it was Amator’s successor, Germanus, who did so much for the wandering pilgrim. The two holy men got to know each other intimately and Patrick confided in the old bishop, telling him of the visions and “voices of children” summoning him to Ireland. The celebrated scholar and theologian was so impressed that he became Patrick’s “philosopher, guide and friend,” preparing him for ordination, giving him “the canons and all other ecclesiastical learning.” More than that, Germanus, having been appointed papal legate, brought his cherished charge to Britain as a member of his train. This was in 429, and the next year the bishop decided to send Patrick to Rome for an interview with the Vicar of Christ.